How the China Initiative Went Wrong

A key anti-espionage effort is mired in accusations of racism and overzealous prosecutions.

By , the senior content manager at Asia Society.
FBI Director Christopher Wray speaks at a press conference about Chinese hacking at the Justice Department in Washington, DC, on December 20, 2018.
FBI Director Christopher Wray speaks at a press conference about Chinese hacking at the Justice Department in Washington, DC, on December 20, 2018.
FBI Director Christopher Wray speaks at a press conference about Chinese hacking at the Justice Department in Washington, DC, on December 20, 2018. Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

On Nov. 1, 2018, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the launch of a new initiative designed to combat Chinese economic espionage, which he said had been increasing rapidly against the United States. Pulling together resources from across the federal government, the China Initiative sought to protect against “new and evolving threats to our economy, not only defense and intelligence targets, but also universities and research institutions.”

“We are here today to say: Enough is enough,” Sessions said. “We’re not going to take it anymore.” Little over three years later, the Justice Department remains committed to repelling the threat from China, which in a recent speech FBI Director Christopher Wray characterized as “more brazen” than ever before. But the China Initiative itself now appears to be on life support.

Last month, federal prosecutors dropped charges against Gang Chen, a professor of mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who was arrested last year for, among other charges, failing to disclose an affiliation with a Chinese university on a grant application he filed with the Energy Department. The government’s retreat from the case followed the September acquittal of Anming Hu, a Chinese-born nanotechnology expert at the University of Tennessee, who had been indicted for fraud and making false statements under the China Initiative in 2020.

On Nov. 1, 2018, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the launch of a new initiative designed to combat Chinese economic espionage, which he said had been increasing rapidly against the United States. Pulling together resources from across the federal government, the China Initiative sought to protect against “new and evolving threats to our economy, not only defense and intelligence targets, but also universities and research institutions.”

“We are here today to say: Enough is enough,” Sessions said. “We’re not going to take it anymore.” Little over three years later, the Justice Department remains committed to repelling the threat from China, which in a recent speech FBI Director Christopher Wray characterized as “more brazen” than ever before. But the China Initiative itself now appears to be on life support.

Last month, federal prosecutors dropped charges against Gang Chen, a professor of mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who was arrested last year for, among other charges, failing to disclose an affiliation with a Chinese university on a grant application he filed with the Energy Department. The government’s retreat from the case followed the September acquittal of Anming Hu, a Chinese-born nanotechnology expert at the University of Tennessee, who had been indicted for fraud and making false statements under the China Initiative in 2020.

The arrests had galvanized vocal opposition from academics, activists, and lawmakers across the country, who warned they would induce a chilling effect in vital exchanges between the United States and China. In September, an open letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland written by more than 170 professors at Stanford University and cosigned by colleagues at several other colleges called for the dissolution of the China Initiative.

They may soon get their wish. The New York Times has reported that the Justice Department is considering retiring the name “China Initiative” and reabsorbing its work into the caseload of the national security division. The statement’s wording is telling: While the name “China Initiative” may disappear, much of the work that underpins it will go on. Nevertheless, the government’s inability to convict Gang is still a setback for what was a major component of the Trump administration’s policy on China. It’s a failure likely to have repercussions beyond the lives of the scientists who were directly implicated.

“There’s no reason for congratulations,” Gang, who has resumed his post at MIT, told Foreign Policy. “There are no winners in this [ordeal], which was politically motivated. Not myself, my wife, my family, MIT, the scientific community, and even the FBI and the American people.”

To understand where the China Initiative went wrong, it’s first important to establish how it started. In recent decades, the U.S. government has grown increasingly concerned that the Chinese state was engaging in widespread intellectual property theft in order to bolster both private and state-run Chinese firms—a practice that became particularly worrisome as the Chinese economy grew into the world’s second largest. According to estimates, Chinese economic espionage costs the U.S. economy $400 billion per year.

“The primary purpose of the China Initiative was to combat what the government perceived as widespread trade secret theft from U.S.-based businesses,” said Andrew Lelling, a lawyer now in private practice who was an architect of the China Initiative during his tenure as a U.S. attorney under President Donald Trump. “Cases involving research transparency were not the top priority.”

Universities, though, were not a trivial concern. For decades, the U.S. government took a relatively hands-off approach to academic exchange with China, as politicians in both parties believed that the benefits of exchange between the two countries outweighed the risks. Evidence suggests that this approach had merit. Nearly 9 in 10 students from China who pursued advanced degrees in the United States ultimately stayed, contributing to America’s economy, national security, and soft power as expressed through the reputation of the country’s universities.

But by the middle of the last decade, the political calculus around engagement had shifted. The U.S. government regarded initiatives like the “Thousand Talents Program”—where Beijing offered American academics generous salaries to affiliate with Chinese universities—as a potential vector for technology transfers. A report from the Australia Strategic Policy Institute, a Canberra-based think tank, also revealed the People’s Liberation Army had sent thousands of military-trained scientists to foreign universities in order to study matters of strategic significance. Many of these scientists were later found to have concealed their People’s Liberation Army affiliation on application forms.

Even the staunchest critics of U.S. engagement with China acknowledged that the overwhelming majority of the 330,000 or so Chinese students in the United States arrived for legitimate reasons. But Trump, who campaigned on a platform of cracking down on China, and other like-minded Republicans regarded Chinese students in the United States as a liability. In 2018, Trump reportedly came close to banning Chinese students from the United States altogether, before being talked out of it by former U.S. Ambassador to China Terry Branstad. In 2020, the Trump administration revoked the visas of thousands of Chinese students and researchers with direct ties to universities affiliated with the People’s Liberation Army.

University professors point out that they make an odd target for a secret-stealing. After all, an academic’s livelihood depends on publicizing any significant findings. But the China Initiative has uncovered numerous examples of wrongdoing from academics in the United States. In December, a federal jury in Boston found Harvard University chemistry professor Charles Lieber guilty of making false statements to authorities, filing false tax returns, and failing to disclose a Chinese bank account. Just last month, a professor at the University of Arkansas pled guilty to lying about the existence of patents he had filed in China. Neither prosecution established that the defendants were guilty of actually stealing secrets—a stated objective of China Initiative cases—but rather that the academics were guilty of other infractions.

The high-profile failure to secure similar convictions for Gang Chen and Anming Hu further revealed the China Initiative’s limitations. Chen, a naturalized U.S. citizen who has taught at MIT since 2001, was arrested on Jan. 14, 2021, for allegedly failing to disclose an affiliation with China on a grant application he submitted at the Energy Department and for appropriating $19 million from Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China.

Within days, several dozen of his colleagues sent an open letter to L. Rafael Reif, MIT’s president, pointing out flaws in the government’s case: The $19 million was paid to MIT, not to Chen. And the application form on which Chen allegedly failed to disclose his China ties had asked for only a two-page “biographical sketch.” References to Chen’s China affiliations, meanwhile, are dotted throughout his more than 120-page CV. Unlike Harvard, which kept its distance from Lieber, MIT publicly backed Gang from the start and even financed his legal defense.

The case against Hu, meanwhile, largely collapsed when the FBI agent assigned to investigate him admitted he’d used Google Translate to determine Hu’s connection to a Chinese institution. Following this dubious discovery, the FBI nevertheless placed Hu and his adult son under surveillance for 21 months, seemingly out of resentment at their own failed case. Hu, a scientist who had worked with NASA, was added to a no-fly list and had his computer and phone seized. He was fired by his university and was only reinstated this month.

Proving in court that a U.S.-based academic conspired to pass secrets to China is notoriously difficult. As a result, many China Initiative cases instead scrutinized administrative errors, such as, in the case of Gang, allegedly failing to disclose ties with Chinese institutions. By all indications, such concealment is hardly rare. In 2020, the Wall Street Journal reported that officials at the Texas A&M University System found that over 100 faculty members were involved in Chinese talent programs, even though only five had disclosed their participation.

Under the aegis of the China Initiative, FBI agents fanned out to universities across the country to teach professors proper procedures for disclosing foreign ties. But many scholars believe that the rules were sufficiently bewildering that they would rather refrain from an exchange with China than risk legal scrutiny, effectively acquiescing to one of the Trump administration’s broader goals.

The Biden administration has taken steps to alleviate these concerns. In August, Eric Lander, then the White House science advisor, announced that it would work to streamline disclosure requirements for researchers. Such a change would be welcome news for scientists across the country and would presumably allow the government to focus on more serious wrongdoing than merely administrative errors.

But the damage may already be done. The racial identity of the suspects—nearly 90 percent of those charged under the China Initiative were ethnically Chinese—has sent a chill throughout the scientific community at American universities, threatening a pipeline of talent from China that has dried up in the pandemic and prompting Chinese-born researchers to consider continuing their careers elsewhere. Reversing this trend may require more than a simple technocratic fix.

“Just because the rhetoric has softened under the Biden administration does not mean that the concerns about bias have disappeared,” said Maggie Lewis, a China expert at Seton Hall University Law School.

As for Gang, now ensconced back at MIT, the formal end of his China Initiative case has brought immense relief. But he told Foreign Policy that his year-long ordeal with the American legal system has changed the way he will approach the rest of his career.

“I assure people that I still love science,” he said. “I’m going to continue. But it’ll be very hard to persuade me to go back to applying for federal grants. People ask me: ‘If you don’t take on government programs, how do you do your research?’ The answer is: I don’t know yet.”

Matt Schiavenza is the senior content manager at Asia Society. Previously, he worked as an editor and writer at The Atlantic, where he launched and oversaw The China Channel.

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