Inside the DOJ’s China Initiative with the MIT Technology Review

Foreign Affairs

The Department of Justice launched the "China Initiative" two years ago to counter perceived "national security threats." This week, Sinica talks to the investigative reporters who published a scathing indictment of the China Initiative in the MIT Technology Review.

Kaiser Kuo: Welcome to the Sinica Podcast, a weekly discussion of current affairs in China, produced in partnership with SupChina. Subscribe to SupChina’s daily Access newsletter to keep on top of all the latest news from China from hundreds of different news sources. Or check out all the original writing on our site, at SupChina.com. We’ve got reported stories, we’ve got editorials, regular columns, and a growing library, of course, of podcasts. We cover everything from China’s fraught foreign relations to its ingenious entrepreneurs, from the ongoing repression of Uyghurs and other Muslim people in China’s Xinjiang region to the tectonic shifts underway as China rolls out what we are calling the “Red New Deal.” It’s a feast of business, political, and cultural news about a nation that is reshaping the world. We cover China with neither fear nor favor.

I’m Kaiser Kuo, coming to you from Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

The China Initiative is something we’ve talked about quite a bit on this program. In a nutshell, it was a Department of Justice initiative launched in November 2018 during the tenure of Jeff Sessions, who was, of course, Trump’s first attorney general. Ostensibly, it was meant to target industrial espionage, theft of commercial IP with a nexus to China, individuals who are, in some way, connected to China. But the program came under fire from many civil society groups from administrators at research universities and institutes, from academics, from legal professionals, as well as from many others who were concerned with the FBI’s overreach, and especially with racial or ethnic profiling.

If you are interested in reviewing the basics of the China Initiative, I suggest you go back and listen to a show we put out in March, on March 21st, where I spoke to Margaret Lewis, Maggie Lewis, of Seton Hall University, a China-focused professor of law who’s been at the forefront of the fight against this deeply problematic program. But I’m sure many of our listeners are aware of the cases of MIT professor, Chen Gang, for example, or of Anming Hu, the University of Texas-Knoxville professor who was the first academic defendant charged in the China Initiative to actually have gone to trial. We all saw how that went, the first trial ended in a mistrial. When he was tried again, he was acquitted and the prosecution’s case was pilloried, including by the judge in the trial, for its reliance on false evidence, for warrantless seizures of documents and more.

Today on Sinica, I am delighted to be joined by two members of a three-person team of investigative reporters, who published a scathing indictment of the China Initiative in the MIT Technology Review. They drew on DOJ’s own published announcements on cases, on extensive court records, and on numerous interviews, including with individuals still involved in or formerly involved with the China Initiative. Eileen Guo, Jess Aloe, and Karen Hao wrote the report. Though Karen is traveling currently in Latin America and unable to join, I am very pleased to welcome the other two reporters, Eileen Guo and Jess Aloe. Very warm welcome to both of you.

Jess: Thank you for having me.

Eileen: Thank you so much for having me here.

Kaiser: Fantastic. Let’s start with the genesis of the report. Maybe you could tell me what it was that made you decide that you needed to write this and needed to look into what was happening? What kicked it off for you?

Eileen: Yeah, absolutely. So, I’ve been following some of the prosecutions and investigations that haven’t turned into prosecutions for about three years now, since 2019, when the NIH cases first came to light in Houston. So, these were cancer researchers at MD Anderson that were being investigated, and in a couple of cases, terminated, and a couple of cases, resigned. They were being accused of all sorts of things, from sharing research that was meant to be peer-reviewed with folks in China, to not disclosing their ties to China. And as the years went on and these investigations went on, and then they turned into criminal cases, there was just such a lack of information that was being put out by the Department of Justice and by the FBI, and at the same time, this growing fear about what exactly was happening. Lots of concerns, as you’ve mentioned, about racial profiling in particular. So, we wanted to take a look at this initiative and look at it from a data-based perspective, which to date had not yet been done. We wanted, also, to do it by really looking at what the Department of Justice itself is saying about the China Initiative. That was something that we felt was pretty important, because it seems at times, the two sides — people that are really interested and concerned about civil rights abuses, about overreach of and by the government, and on the other side, the Department of Justice, which is making these big announcements about why they need the initiative — it seemed at times like they were kind of talking, they have been kind of talking, past each other. So we wanted to really look at this initiative using the Department of Justice’s own words and claims.

Kaiser: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. So, with these team investigative reports, there’s always kind of a heist movie ensemble you have to put together, the safe cracker and the explosives expert and the getaway driver, the tech genius. What was the division of labor here? Jess, I think you were the data expert, right?

Jess: Yeah. I kind of came in because I’ve had experience looking through DOJ and legal documents and trying to build comprehensive narratives. So, I was the one who went through every single statement the DOJ made and tried to create an actual database, and that was where we started to see some of the nebulousness really play out in a really concrete way.

Kaiser: Let’s talk about what that data is that you looked at. So, you talked about court cases and its statements. There were also the things that they publicly put on their website about the cases, right.

Jess: Right. So, we started with, the DOJ had a site, website, on their homepage called the China Initiative, information about the China Initiative. They had linked to quite a few dozens of press releases. Some of these press releases were about sentencing, some of them were about someone being arrested, and some of them were about the indictments. Sometimes, there were multiple press releases about the same person, sometimes there was just one press release about one person in a case that had multiple co-defendants being sentenced. From there, we went through and pulled out, here’s what each of these cases they’re actually referring to and then went to PACER which is the online repository for federal court information, and then found the actual court documents and matched what they were saying in the court documents against what they were saying in the press releases, which sometimes did not really match as well as it seemed. That was sort of the foundation for how we built the outline of the database, was going through those press releases, finding the people who were mentioned there, and then finding those cases. We also, then, fleshed that out by looking at cases that had been kind of why they were reported and what they acknowledged as a China Initiative case, such as Gang Chen’s case, that actually weren’t on the site.

Kaiser: Oh, that one wasn’t actually on the site, that’s-

Jess: No.

Kaiser: … interesting.

Jess: Or, that had been removed. That was the second level of where the cases were that we know were missing. We knew that in some cases, it wasn’t necessarily a complete accounting, because as we said, Gang Chen’s case was not there. Then, there was a case of a Cleveland Clinic researcher named Qing Wang, I believe, who had been there at one point, and then had been removed after they dropped the charges.

Kaiser: Yeah, I mean, that was one of the things that really jumped out in your report, was the removal of some of these cases. We’ll get to that in just a second. Let’s talk first about both the strengths and the weaknesses of the data that you had access to. What were the strengths of it and where do you wish that you could have had, maybe, a more fulsome set? Where did you think there were things that were conspicuously missing?

Jess: Well, I think that’s an interesting question. I think the strength of it was that we were using the DOJ’s own statements, and so it was hard for… even though later, they may have said, oh, this isn’t actually a China Initiative case, they had once called it a China Initiative case. So, it’s hard for them to refute that. I think that was one of the biggest strengths of it. The weakness was that sometimes, these cases are really sprawling, complicated cases and questions of, is this case against this one person, is that considered China Initiative? If there’s kind of a related case that’s not mentioned, do we consider that a China Initiative case? So, there were some questions we had to talk about. Then, the fact is that we knew it wasn’t comprehensive. So, when you’re trying to get insights from it, we had to really grapple with the fact that this was not a comprehensive database, that there had been cases that had been left out, and that there may be cases that we didn’t know about at that time that we had to account for that.

Kaiser: This points to a problem, not with you guys and your methodology, but with the way that these cases were defined or not defined in the first place. That’s one of the things that is right up top in your report, which I thought was just absolutely fascinating, is that the China Initiative, the Department of Justice does not define what the China Initiative actually is. When you’ve tried to pin them down on it, they haven’t been able to really give you a good answer. I think that seems to be… you can hardly be faulted for that, I mean, if they are going to be so ambiguous about it. How do people at Justice conceptualize it? Or, how do they talk about it? Why does it remain so undefined, Eileen?

Eileen: That’s a really great question, and we got very different answers from various folks that we spoke to. The answer that we seemed to get as we were reporting this out is that it’s really changed over time. When the Department of Justice first launched this initiative in November, 2018, they came out with an announcement by Jeff Sessions, they presented 10 priority areas of the China Initiative. It was economic espionage, it was foreign influence, it was… the thing that was actually interesting about academic cases and research security was, it wasn’t even necessarily that they were supposed to go after research security. It was that they were supposed to come up with a plan to go after it. So, when we’re saying, what does the DOJ think about the China Initiative, there’s that initial priorities that they set out, and then there’s how it’s really shifted during the three years that it’s been in place. It’s how people are talking about now is quite different, I think, because of both the criticism that different parties have brought forth, including us, through this story, but also, their own knowledge, perhaps, and awareness of what it is and is not doing and how it is and is not achieving the original goals, which was, at its core, supposed to be about American intellectual property and protecting against national security threats.

Kaiser: Right. Jess, you guys note that only about a quarter of people and institutions that were charged under the China Initiative actually have been convicted, which is in very short contrast to the percentage of convictions from ’97 to 2016, I looked this up, which was 91% in the case of espionage and just as high for federal white collar crime cases. About 90%, according to this piece in the LA Times. What does this tell you? I mean, why the low rate of conviction?

Jess: This was something that we found, actually, very interesting when we started to look through the data, was how few cases actually had ended in conviction. Some of this is because some of these cases are ongoing, but a big percentage of the ongoing cases actually have never really proceeded. They get indicted, they get unsealed, and then they just never move on from that. That’s mostly because these defendants are not in the United States or are somehow, not available for prosecution. In the American courtroom, you have to actually come in and be arraigned, you can’t be tried in absentia, except in some very rare circumstances. So, that was something that, there’s discussion among experts about what does it actually mean to indict someone who you really have very little expectation of prosecuting, that this was really ending in very few convictions, even in some pretty significant cases. I mean, they talked about hacking and Chinese state-sponsored hacking, which is probably one of the clearest examples of cases that do fall under the DOJ’s…

Kaiser: Remit.

Jess: Remit. Yeah. No one is saying that the DOJ should not be looking at the people who are behind the Equifax data breach, for example, which is one of the cases.

Kaiser: Right.

Jess: But it’s very unlikely they’ll ever be prosecuted, they’ll ever see the inside of an American courtroom.

Kaiser: Right. Right.

Eileen: The other thing that I want to add there though is, we spoke to Andrew Lelling, who was the former prosecutor in the District of Massachusetts. We spoke to him after our first story published, and his overall view is still that the research integrity cases are successful for the government, which is really interesting, right? So, again, this kind of goes to the different sides that disagree about whether or not these cases are successful. We’re kind of talking in different terms. For him, he’s saying that these are still successful even if they don’t win in trial, but when someone pleads guilty, which is happening a lot in research integrity cases, so academics that maybe were first being investigated for passing information along to the Chinese government or Chinese entities or however it’s being defined, end up pleading guilty to tax fraud or to false statements. For him, that is still a win, so I think that’s something worth mentioning.

Jess: There are quite a few professors who have pleaded guilty, but I think the majority of these cases are… I don’t want to say majority, but a good chunk of the most high-profile cases are still pending, and so we’ll see what will happen. Charles Lieber, the Harvard professor, who’s probably one of the most high-profile cases, is set to go to trial this week.

Kaiser: This week, yeah. Yeah. We’ll all be watching that. Just to back up a little bit, this is one of the big findings of your report is that the DOJ has really markedly shifted its emphasis. I think it’s fair to say that it’s watered it down from a focus initially on these commercial espionage cases to these research integrity cases. The failure to disclose sources of funding, allegations of double dipping, affiliation with Thousand Talents or other Chinese state-led initiatives for recruiting talent, that sort of thing. I’ve heard enough people trying to defend the China Initiative who always ask that: “What’s wrong with the DOJ going after these research integrity issues?” I feel, personally, like that’s kind of using a sledgehammer to go after a fly. These are maybe things that are better handled at the university administration level. But, hey, what do I know? So what does the DOJ say to that as you doubtless have brought that idea up with them?

Eileen: Yeah. I was going to say they say a lot of different things but I think, ultimately, what it comes down to in the various things that they’ve told me, it seems to be about this issue of nontraditional collectors.

Kaiser: Right.

Eileen: This term that they use, and they define that in the China Initiative, the launch documents and statements and all of that. It’s one of the few things they do define. They define it as researchers, academics, contractors working for defense contractors, academic institutions, et cetera, that are potentially being weaponized by the Chinese state to bring over small pieces of information that on its own may not be significant, but when you add it all together is giving the Chinese state, the PRC, some kind of advantage or inside knowledge that is putting the American economy and innovation at harm.

Kaiser: Right. Right. Right. We talked about the number of cases that had actually ended in a conviction. But I’m wondering if you have a statistic like this, and I don’t know that you would, but I’m curious, what is the percentage of those who were investigated who ended up being charged? The problem seems to be that we just don’t know how many investigations were opened. At one point they were boasting about opening a new investigation every 10 hours. I think that was in the summer of 2020 that they were saying that. But is anybody — you talked to people like at organizations like AAAJ, Asian Americans Advancing Justice or Jeremy Wu at APA Justice. Do they collect these statistics? Is anyone putting together a comprehensive list of the institutions and individuals about whom the DOJ has opened investigations? I can say with confidence that the ones we know about that have just moved far along enough to be placed on any kind of a website or anything publicly, those are just the tip of the iceberg. There are just lots and lots that have been investigated, and that can ruin lives. Just the investigation. What do we know about that?

Jess: It’s really, really hard to know how many investigations are open. A lot of times these never become public. We do have some inclinations that there are far more cases that have been investigated than have led to criminal court charges. The National Institutes of Health has said that they’ve reached out to institutions regarding 226 scientists as of October.

Kaiser: That’s just NIH funded scientists.

Jess: That’s just NIH. Obviously the NIH is one of the biggest grant funding organizations in the country, but the National Science Foundation is also doing these cases too.

Kaiser: Right. It’s all life sciences after all, right?

Jess: Right. So, we do and who knows really … It is hard to know how many cases are being opened or how many scientists are being looked at as someone of potential concern.

Kaiser: Right. Right. What do you guys know about the deletions? This is, I think, one of the really interesting things. The fact that your request for comment seems to have … I’m not sure we can say with confidence that it has … But seems to have prompted them to delete a bunch of allegations from the China Initiative’s website. Can you talk a little bit about that? About how many seem to have vanished and what your sense is for why they might have been deleted?

Eileen: Yeah. Well, there’s what the Department of Justice has told us, which is that this is just standard practice that they do remove and update cases.

Kaiser: Whenever a journalist asks.

Eileen: Whenever it makes sense to remove a case from their website is what they said. But when we actually looked at the before and the after, and we have a video in one of our stories that highlights just how much was removed, what we found was that it was 17 cases that totaled 39 defendants that they had removed from its website, and then two cases with five new defendants. But it wasn’t just this that was added or removed. They also updated the cases with sentencing and trial information, which is great, but not something that they were doing beforehand.

And I think we can say… we’re fairly confident in saying that they did make these removals and updates and all of that in response to our questions, both the official questions that we sent over to the DOJ spokesperson, as well as conversations that we had with some unnamed individuals that were formerly at the Justice Department. I actually had a call with one former senior executive at DOJ in which we went over one of the cases on the phone. We were very perplexed that there was a man that had been convicted of financing a turtle smuggling ring from New York to Hong Kong. Obviously endangered animal smuggling is bad. No question about that. But if we go back to the goals and the priorities that the Justice Department set out when they started this program-

Kaiser: That’s not on the list?

Eileen: That does not fit into intellectual property or foreign influence or any of these things, so we had a conversation where this senior official read through the case, the press release that was on the site with me on the phone and was trying to figure out why it was that this was on there.

Kaiser: Should have put that in the story. That’s great.

Jess: I do want to add too, that some of the cases that were removed, weren’t just turtle smuggling cases. One of the cases they removed was, as you mentioned before, Anming Hu.

Kaiser: Oh, wow.

Jess: Because they said, “Oh, well, I guess it’s not in our interest of justice anymore to keep publicizing his case.” That was a very public case. He has been widely reported as being part of the China Initiative. And they didn’t remove the press releases from the internet. They just removed it from the China Initiative website and in the press release it still says, as of December 2nd, that this case is part of the China Initiative. So I think that’s something that is worth pointing out that some of the cases they removed are cases that did not work out well for them.

Kaiser: Yeah. Let’s talk about Anming Hu. There was so much egg on the FBI’s face after that blew up so spectacularly. Besides removing his case from their website, what has been the DOJ’s reaction to this? Do you sense that just as it was an inflection point in popular attitudes toward the China Initiative, that it was also maybe a point where they got demoralized at Justice? Are they embarrassed? Are they feeling like, okay, maybe we can kind of slowly wind this down now that…

Eileen: There’s certainly a lot of people that have been watching these cases, including Congressmen and Congresswomen, some of whom we’ve spoken to that really hope that the Anming Hu case will be that inflection point. I think it’s too early to tell whether or not it is. There’s other people that we’ve spoken to that believe that perhaps Charles Lieber, that case will be much more of a bellwether of what will come after this. So it’s unclear.

The other thing that I want to add is having spoken to Department of Justice officials, and this goes back to what I was saying earlier about how the narrative has shifted so much around the China Initiative, one of the things that’s really interesting to me and problematic is there’s so many ways to deny culpability and responsibility. So the FBI agent in that case did a horrible job, as it came out in the trial. False statements, just lies on many occasions, right?

Kaiser: Coercion. Lots of stuff.

Eileen: Right. But so one of the arguments that I’ve heard from DOJ officials is that this is not an issue of the China Initiative. This is the issue of the sole FBI agent.

Kaiser: The one bad apple.

Eileen: Those were the exact words that were used with me in a conversation. The other thing that I think is worth pointing out is we talk about the FBI and the DOJ interchangeably, and they’re not. FBI is a law enforcement and information intelligence agency. DOJ is Department of Justice. They’re very linked, but I do think this is important because when you go to what the FBI, what their website has on China, they’re not talking about the China Initiative. They’re talking about the China threat, and that is the language that is plastered on their website. We got comment from them as well. We asked everyone, “What is the China Initiative? What is your guidance? How are you working with DOJ?” I think that’s important as we’re talking about this kind of plausible deniability.

Kaiser: Yeah, that’s scary because Christopher Wray of course infamously talked about how China represents a whole-of-society threat that needs to be met with a whole-of-society response.

Eileen: Exactly.

Kaiser: At least they’re not doing these press events where they’re boasting about opening a new investigation every X number of hours. But I’m curious, who in the administration right now … I’m not seeing anyone outside of Justice coming out and defending this thing anymore. There’s nobody else in the administration.

Jess: Something that is worth pointing out is that we’re in a … This path has been a transition period for our government. We’re in a… This past year has been a transition period for our government. We have a new administration, the Assistant Attorney General for National Security, who was sort of at the center of a lot of these cases, John Demers left under some scandal last June or July.

Kaiser: Yeah. June, it was in June.

Jess: And his replacement was only just confirmed a few weeks ago. The U.S. attorneys who are doing these cases in the field are still being confirmed. I mean, the one from Massachusetts just got confirmed last week after a very controversial process.

Kaiser: Yeah. You’re following that pretty closely.

Jess: Yeah.

Kaiser: That’s Rachael Rollins, right?

Jess: It is. And she was, we can talk more about it later, but it was a very interesting confirmation process. But one thing is, it’s unclear exactly how much they are going to defend it or how much they are going to come out and say, we’re willing to roll this in, roll ourselves into this, but so we’ll see what they have to say kind of going forward, but it is…

Kaiser: Have you gotten any sense from what Merrick Garland is feeling about this? I mean, are there any discernible changes at all? I mean, what’s the fate of this thing under Garland?

Eileen: I mean I think the biggest difference, and this is important because words matter, rhetoric matters, is that there is a change in how this administration talks about the threat. I think they’re very aware of anti-Asian hate.

Kaiser: Yeah.

Eileen: And so I think they’re more aware of that Merrick Garland has said in multiple hearings that this is based on conduct, that this isn’t about racial profiling. He’s talked about bringing back implicit bias training, which was paused under the Trump administration, so that…

Kaiser: They instituted a new program under Trump of bias reinforcement. It was pretty successful apparently.

Eileen: Right. But those things take time. And so it’s really, it’s unclear. And, and I think the other thing is, as everyone’s talking about what’s next for the China Initiative, and there are a lot of civil rights groups and academics and associations of academics and all of that, that are calling for the end to the China Initiative. But is it going to be the end of a PR, a bad PR essentially. And is it going to be the continuation of this focus on the China threat as the FBI puts it under some other name that’s very much still an open question.

Jess: Right. What does it actually mean to end the China Initiative? You can come out with a big announcement saying, “We’ve ended the China Initiative, but then continue to be prosecuting these academics for these nondisclosure issues, and continuing to be looking at all these other cases. Does that mean that the China Initiative has ended? But the Biden administration has not said what their plan is on research security. It’s something they’re going to come up with in the near future. And they have like Eileen said, words matter, and they’ve said very clearly that do not want this to be an excuse for anti-Asian bias, that that’s not what this should be about, but we still have, I don’t know what the details will be.

Kaiser: Right. They can say it all they want, but I think that just even changing the name of it, not calling it the China Initiative, not having it be country specific, that would actually probably do a lot to… I mean, look, it really colors the way that a lot of people think about it. I mean, when you know that there is one specific, only one country specific program, and that it is about China, that really reinforces a lot of these ideas. I’m curious, how have they responded, the people you talk to, to Andrew Lelling and others on and off the record, how they responded to this open letter campaign? So many prominent scientists and researchers have now come out, so many university administrators have written very forcefully about this. Is it doing anything to them?

Eileen: Yeah, that’s a good question. I mean, Andrew Lelling has spoken both to us and previously to other reporters, he’s been quite public about how he thinks that the China Initiative did have a chilling effect. And when he was still district attorney, he spoke of that as kind of a good thing, in that we are…

Kaiser: The good chilling effect.

Eileen: Right? And now he believes that it’s gone a little bit too far. And he told us that the message has been sent. If the point was to have scientists be 150% clear on what their affiliations are, what they’re disclosing, what they have to disclose, absolutely everything, everywhere that that message has been sent. And that another 23 academics don’t need to be prosecuted.

Kaiser: That was not the original message though, right. I mean, come on. We know that wasn’t. It was supposed to be about industrial espionage. It was supposed to be about influence operations, and all these things. And now it’s, it’s about non-reporting of sources of funding. Which is, yeah, of course we should not have that, but Christ, anyway. Yeah. I’d love to hear, I’m sure there’s so much stuff that you can’t tell me right now that you were told in confidence and didn’t make it into your story, but hey, another time. What is the evidence though for ethnic profiling in the China Initiative? So you guys looked at a lot of data. If you had to sort of, “Aha here,” this is a strong piece of evidence that suggests that indeed there was racial ethnic profiling. For example, I think you put out a number. I mean, it’s a very high number of the percentage of people of ethnic Chinese background.

Jess: Something I think to make sure, we’re clear about it. It’s very hard to prove racial profiling with numbers. Because it’s about intent. But what you can show is this is there’s no question that this was disproportionately impacting people of Chinese descent, that they were…that most of the people who were caught up in this were of Chinese descent. I think the number was…

Eileen: 130 of 148 individuals.

Kaiser: That’s 90%.

Eileen: Nearly 90% specifically, if we want to get exact it’s 88%, but nearly 90% is pretty problematic.

Kaiser: I’d say, but of course people are going to point to Charles Lieber and they’re going to say, this is the one white guy who got shot by a cop that proves that the cops aren’t targeting Black men, right? This is just, that’s what’s going to happen. And it’s really unfortunate, Christ. Yeah. So yeah, that’s a pretty goddamn pretty strong piece of evidence. I mean, something that we’ve talked about a little bit, Eileen, even were it not for the explicitly named China Initiative, this singling out of people with a China nexus is something that’s been going on for a long time. And we’re all familiar with the Wen Ho Lee case, the Los Alamos scientist who was down on espionage charges and that they were later pled down to something improper handling of data. Which amounted, I mean, I think to a near total exoneration, but only after completely ruining the guy’s life. So it seems likely that as Jess was saying, that even if they shut this thing down, this is going to continue. When you talk to these sources who are working on anti-AAPI hate and who are working on combating the China Initiative, people like AAJ, and the Committee of 100, what have they said about that problem, about that persistent problem of anti-Asian and specifically anti-Chinese bias?

Eileen: Yeah. I’ll get to that in one moment. I think it is important to note though, that that nexus to China, that is another one of these undefined terms. It is not legally defined and it is not at least according to the sources that I spoke to, there is no definition of nexus to China.

Kaiser: Wow.

Eileen: So that is incredibly problematic. And as a lot of these groups have spoken about, it ends up meaning anyone that has family in China, maybe has property or economic interest, just by… that have nothing to do with their work. People that go to China. All of these issues are, or could be at some point targeted.

Kaiser: Yeah.

Eileen: And that’s really quite frightening. I think a lot of the civil rights groups that especially focus on Asian American issues they look at the Wen Ho Lee case, but they also look back to how Asian Americans have been targeted in the past. Let’s not even call it internment. The incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II is part of this same trend that they see of being the perpetual foreigner. And then moving in the other direction historically, moving forward, I think there is this really legitimate fear that racial profiling is something that this country is going to be grappling with for a long time. And it’s not going to end with the China Initiative. The China Initiative is a really prominent potential case of it. Again, it’s hard to say because of intent but that’s the legal definition, but the ways that it’s affecting communities is very real and very scary and is likely going to continue on, unless there are more structural changes.

Kaiser: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Speaking of structural changes, Jess, as I mentioned, you’ve been following the confirmation hearings of Rachael Rollins, who has now finally been confirmed as District Attorney for Massachusetts. It was touch and go there, right? It required, yeah…

Jess: Absolutely. I mean, so it ended up being a 50-50 vote in the Senate to confirm her and Kamala Harris had to come down from the White House to break the tie.

Kaiser: Wow.

Jess: And just to give you an idea of how unusual that is for a US attorney, the last time they even had to do a roll call vote for a U.S. attorney was 1975.

Kaiser: Wow. Was the China Initiative a factor in it though? I mean, was her vocal opposition to it at all a factor in that hearing?

Jess: Not that I’ve seen. I mean, so the reason why Rachael Rollins kind of became, so opposed by Republicans, and it was the Republicans who were opposing her. Is that she has a reputation for what’s called being a progressive prosecutor. She’s a woman of color herself. She is, was until she was to confirmed, the Suffolk County DA. So she was the District Attorney for Boston basically.

Kaiser: Right.

Jess: And she had a policy of what she called non-prosecution for low level crimes. So she would say, for example, drug possession, she said, “I don’t think it’s worth prosecuting people who are suffering from drug addiction and crimes that stem from that.” And she had, for example, she also did a disorderly conduct, trespassing, shoplifting, being a minor in possession of alcohol, a standalone charge of resisting arrest, these are all crimes that she said, “Our automatic decision is we’re not going to prosecute them.” I think something people maybe who don’t follow the justice system that closely don’t realize is that it’s a prosecutor’s decision whether or not to prosecute a case. A prosecutor can have as much evidence as they want, and they can say, “No, I don’t, we don’t, for whatever reason, we don’t want to prosecute this or we do.” And so that gave her the reputation of being soft on crime, even though she has quite a few other people who would say the opposite. And she is someone who cares about racial justice. That’s something that she has made, she has said many times that she wants the justice system to become more racially fair. And so while the China Initiative itself didn’t necessarily come up in her confirmation hearing so that I’ve seen, it is also true that two of the most high profile academic cases, Charles Lieber and Gong Chen are Massachusetts District cases.

Kaiser: That’s right. Yeah. I mean, I hear there are a lot of universities in the state of Massachusetts.

Jess: We have one or two.

Kaiser: Yeah. I have heard. Yeah. That’s fascinating. So, I mean, maybe the last question here, this is obvious beyond the scope of your actual reporting, but I’m really curious. Do you think that President Biden right now is facing kind of a dilemma here where he’s caught between on the one hand, the anger of API activists who are understandably really pissed off over the surge of anti-API hate that many, rightly and I certainly do, attribute in part to this vilification of Chineseness, the sinophobia, to…and then in, the China Initiative itself, what Maggie Lewis is, has called the “criminalization of Chineseness.” So that on the one hand, and on the other the potential attacks on his right flank for being soft on China, just like Rachael Rollins, right? It reminds me a lot of the dilemma that I feel like President Biden must be facing right now. Do you have some thoughts on that?

Eileen: You’re always going to get a little bit of silence when you ask reporters to speculate on things they haven’t reported on, but I have had sources that have spoken to this difficulty, certainly. I think the Biden administration more than perhaps Biden himself are aware of and concerned about the concerns that activists have brought up. I don’t know that Biden himself has ever actually spoken about the China initiative.

Kaiser: But he did go to Atlanta right after….

Eileen: Absolutely. And those gestures to the Asian American community are certainly… They’re important. They mean a lot.

Jess: I think something that I do feel comfortable saying is that Biden is trying to be the anti-Trump in a lot of ways. And Trump was famously not shy about leaning into some ugly Asian stereotypes and ugly Asian rhetoric.

Kaiser: Yeah, absolutely.

Jess: And so I think that is something that Biden will at least publicly want us to separate himself from, but how that plays into his actual policy towards China and the concerns that they might have about some legitimate economic espionage and actions by the state is really hard to say.

Eileen: I was just going to add to the other side of that, the administration has not been soft on China. And I don’t think we’re in a moment where he can be soft China. And so I think that other aspect of what you asked about is certainly a concern.

Kaiser: Yeah, that’s really disappointing, but it’s absolutely the case. You’ve flicked at this many times, but there is actual espionage, absolutely there is. I think there have been some publications out there that I think have done an excellent job of really riding the line of making it very clear that this stuff does happen. One book, I know that we’ve had her on the show before, but Mara Hvistendahl’s book The Scientist and the Spy, does an outstanding job of this. It really sort of looks at the facts in the case, but it also talks about FBI overreach and racial profiling. So if you haven’t read that, that’s something I would recommend.

Speaking of recommendations, let’s get to those recommendations. But first, thank you so much to both of you, and of course to Karen too, who unfortunately couldn’t join us. But congrats on this really important work. We’ll put, obviously, links to it. You get only a couple of MIT Technology Review pieces for free every month, but use them wisely, use them on this piece. There’s actually two pieces of it. There’s the main story and then there’s another addendum that has disclosures, the transparency statement and a little more on the methodology. But just read the main piece at least. It’s fantastic work. So congrats to both of you and to Karen.

Eileen: Thank you so much for having us.

Kaiser: Well, I’m not letting you off the hook yet. We’ve got to move on to recommendations. And before we do that, a quick reminder that The Sinica Podcast is powered by SupChina. If you like the work that we’re doing here at Sinica, the best thing you can do is to subscribe to the SupChina access newsletter, which brings you the most important news out of China every day. While you are at it, check out our business focused SupChina AM, which is daily and free, and our weekly round up of society and culture news, SupChina Vibe, which is also free. It’s written by Jiayun Feng who’s our fantastic society and culture writer.

All right, onto recommendations. Eileen, why don’t you kick us off. What you got for us?

Eileen: The book that I recommend is called America For Beginners. It’s about an Indian mother that journeys to the United States in search of her estranged and possibly deceased son. It’s a road trip novel. It’s about unlikely characters that would not have met otherwise and are meeting, and as a result of that learn some things about themselves and about America. It’s really beautifully written, very easy to read and has just a lot of surprising elements.

Kaiser: That sounds great. That sounds really, really good. I think I’m going to see if it’s on audiobook. I’ve got some travel coming up for the holidays and it sounds like a perfect airplane audio book. What’s the name of the author? Do you remember?

Eileen: Leah Franqui. I picked it up at the airport, so I think you’re right about what it is good for.

Kaiser: Oh, good, good, good. All right, Jess. Whatcha got?

Jess: So I want to recommend one of my favorite shows just came back with the first episode of their sixth season this week. It’s called The Expanse.

Kaiser: I love The Expanse.

Jess: For someone that’s not familiar, it’s a show that’s set a few hundred years in the future when humanity has colonized the solar system and humanity has sort of divided into the people from Earth, people from Mars and the people who live out in the belt who are physiologically different and don’t necessarily have the same rights as people from the planets. I don’t want to spoil too much because it really kind of goes in some unexpected directions, but it’s a really interesting show about what a future might look like if we start to exploit the resources out in space the way that it looks like we might be heading.

Kaiser: Yeah. I cannot recommend it more highly. I absolutely love that show.

Jess: There’s a lot of fun space adventure in it, too.

Kaiser: Yeah. This sixth season has only put out one episode so far, but the production value in it is noticeably better. I mean, the CGI keeps getting better to the point where it’s the background, right? They do zero gravity and everything like that just so perfectly now that it no longer draws your attention it’s so good. Which is sort of like it’s so good that it’s invisible, which I absolutely love about it. But everything about this one, I feel like it has a more filmic quality this season so far. The acting is better. It’s just great. I think Marco Inaros is one of the best antagonist villains or whatever that they’ve ever devised. He’s so charismatic and has a kind of right on his side.

Jess: It’s so terrifying where that leads him. I don’t want to spoil anything because if you haven’t watched it’s-

Kaiser: It’s terrifying. It’s terrifying where it leads him. But at the same time you can kind of understand it, which is wonderful. It has that moral ambiguity in it, which is great. Yeah, I can’t tell you how much I love that show. And yeah, I didn’t love it the first couple of seasons. I didn’t love it. I mean, it got really great starting in season three.

Jess: It was interesting because it was on SYFY, The SYFY Channel the first two seasons the first three seasons and kind of had some weird timing, pacing issues. And then it went, in the fourth seasons Amazon took it over.

Kaiser: Yeah, that’s what is was. The fourth season when I got into it.

Jess: I heard that it’s Jeff Bezos’s favorite show, so no wonder it gets resources. Although I’m not sure he’s taking the right messages from it.

Kaiser: No, he doesn’t seem to be. I think he would be out there exploiting Belters. Anyway, that’s great. Great recommendation. Yeah, thank you so much. It’s always good to meet another person who loves that show. I call my brother and we talk about it for an hour after every episode that airs.

Jess: It’s based on a book series and the final book also just came out, which I have not read yet. I’m waiting for a good chunk of a couple days where I have nothing to do so I can just sit down and dive into the finale of the book series.

Kaiser: Oh, cool. Cool. I haven’t read the books yet. I think I’m going to at some point though. It’ll be fun. It’s co-written by a couple of people, right?

Jess: Yeah. Two guys who write under a single pen name.

Kaiser: All right. So my recommendation for this week is the novel that I’m reading right now, which is called Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr who wrote the wonderful prize winning book… I can’t remember if it won the National Book Award, I think it was the National Book Award [Editor’s note: It was the Pulitzer for literature], All The Light We Cannot See. Have either of you guys read that?

Eileen: I have.

Kaiser: Yeah, it’s just great.

Eileen: Yeah, it was excellent.

Kaiser: Yeah. All The Light We Cannot See. Exquisite, yeah. So this is definitely more challenging. It’s set in multiple times in places like in 15th century Constantinople and out into the future and sort of in the present. Doerr’s writing though is just lovely and it’s delicious. I’m really enjoying it. My daughter is also about to read it, which I’m pretty excited about because we had actually both read All The Light We Cannot See at roughly the same time. So it was a total kind of parenting achievement unlocked for me to be able to talk about a novel, a serious novel with her. She’s reading 1984 in school right now and constantly talking to me about that and trying to understand why it’s not banned in China. It’s not. It’s weird. I’d assumed it was banned in China. It’s not. It’s available for sale in China.

So thanks once again. It was just so great that you guys could take the time to join me to talk about this really important piece, set of pieces, that you guys did. Once again, this is in MIT Technology Review. Make sure to check it out and hit me up with your comments and your questions about it. We’ll have you guys back on again soon, I hope, and to keep up the great work.

Jess: Thank you.

Eileen: Thank you.

Jess: Thank you for having us.

Kaiser: All right. The Sinica Podcast is powered by SupChina and is a proud part of the Sinica network. Our show is produced and edited by me, Kaiser Kuo. We’d be delighted if you’d drop us an email at sinica@supchina.com. Or just as good, give us a rating and a review on Apple Podcasts, as this really does help people discover the show. Meanwhile, follow us on Twitter or on Facebook at @supchinanews, or you can follow Sinica at @sinicapodcast. Make sure to check out all the shows in the Sinica network. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next week. Take care.