U.S. drops ‘China Initiative’ case against MIT professor

Foreign Affairs

The U.S. Justice Department dropped its case against Chen Gang, the MIT nanotechnology professor whom it accused a year ago of failing to disclose China ties. The U.S. government “badly…misunderstood the details surrounding scientific and academic collaboration,” said Chen’s lawyer.

chen gang illustration
Illustration for SupChina by Derek Zheng

The U.S. Justice Department dropped its case today against Chén Gāng 陈刚, a nanotechnology professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology whom it had accused of failing to disclose China ties a year ago.

A key accusation against Chen was that a 2017 grant application he submitted to the U.S. Energy Department amounted to wire fraud because he failed “to disclose ties to the Chinese government and a technology university in Shenzhen, as well as seeking to hide his membership in various government-funded talent recruitment programs,” the Washington Post reports.

  • But that was never true: When prosecutors interviewed “a senior Energy Department official who is considered an authority on what disclosures are material on grant forms,” that official told them “the 2017 form did not require disclosures of Chen’s ties to the technology university or other Chinese government organizations and programs.”
  • The U.S. Justice Department “badly…misunderstood the details surrounding scientific and academic collaboration,” Chen’s lawyer, Robert Fisher, said, per the New York Times.

Chen is one of many scientists who have been accused of covering up ties to China as part of the Justice Department’s “China Initiative,” which was launched under the Trump administration with the objective to disrupt “​​national security threats,” but has brought charges primarily on disclosure failures rather than accusations of spying.

  • Nearly 90% of those charged are of Chinese heritage, according to the MIT Technology Review, creating a “climate of fear [that has] pushed some talented scientists to leave the United States and made it more difficult for others to enter or stay.”
  • Over 40% of Chinese scientists in the U.S. feel racially profiled by the government, according to one survey.
  • “While I am relieved that my ordeal is over, I am mindful that this terribly misguided China Initiative continues to bring unwarranted fear to the academic community and other scientists still face charges,” Chen said in a statement today, per the Washington Post.

What next for the China Initiative?

The Chen case dismissal is the latest setback for the Justice Department’s troubled program, after the Department dropped half a dozen cases without prosecution or any evidence of wrongdoing last summer, and the trial against against Hú Ānmíng 胡安明 of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, ended in acquittal on all counts in September.

According to Wall Street Journal reporting last month, Chen’s is just one of multiple cases that the Justice Department has considered dropping, but the culture of fear the program created has already led “more than half a dozen top researchers of Chinese descent” to either move “from posts at U.S. universities to China” or look to do so.

“In the coming weeks, the name ‘China Initiative’ may be dropped, and the cases may no longer be packaged as a distinct group, but reabsorbed into the caseload of the department’s National Security Division,” per the NYT. “After initial discussion of offering amnesty in the pending grant fraud cases, officials are leaning toward resolving the cases individually.”

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