MATT KIRSCHNER discusses the impact of the DOJ’s China Initiative on Chinese Professors in the U.S. and the mass return of Chinese talent to China.
On January 14, 2021 at 6:30am, federal agents stormed the home of Mechanical Engineering Professor Gang Chen at MIT. The agents woke his wife and daughter, handcuffed him and put Chen in jail. What crime could Chen—an esteemed professor who hopes to develop a semiconductor that converts car exhaust into electricity—have possibly committed to warrant his arrest? The Department of Justice (DOJ) charged Chen with concealing seven Chinese affiliations in applications for $2.7 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Energy. Chen faced a sentence of up to 20 years in prison. Fortunately for him, the DOJ dropped all charges a year later after prosecutors announced that they had received new information indicating that Chen had not been required to disclose those affiliations. After the incident Chen said, “I am no longer the Gang Chen I was before. From my family, the trauma we experience, the fear we still have, to my professional career. My research group is gone. I will no longer be the same person I was before.”
There have been dozens of cases like Chen’s. These cases all occurred under the backdrop of former President Trump’s China Initiative, a DOJ initiative with the goal of countering Chinese national security threats. Over the past decade the U.S. has grown wary of China’s growing prominence in fields like science and technology and become concerned about China’s potential threat to U.S. national security. During the Trump Administration the White House took at least 210 public actions against China, including years of tariffs and publicly blaming China for the COVID-19 outbreak.
Although the China Initiative intended to prevent Chinese espionage and maintain U.S. security, not a single individual was convicted of spying. The DOJ ended up prosecuting American professors for narrow and highly technical reasons—like failure to disclose Chinese affiliations in grant proposals to U.S. funding agencies—rather than state-directed spying. Many of the affiliations are guest professorships and collaborations in China where disclosure wasn’t required or such requirement wasn’t known. The DOJ did not find evidence that those accused of fraud had or intended to spy for China. But the DOJ succeeded in sowing doubt and fear in the minds of Chinese American scientists and researchers.
The DOJ arrested and charged Anming Hu, Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, with three counts of wire fraud in 2020. Federal prosecutors alleged Professor Hu intentionally hid his summer job at Beijing University. In addition to being jailed, Professor Hu was suspended without pay and then fired from his job. Professor Hu is a world-renowned nanotechnology expert. His reputation was destroyed. His lab was disbanded. With the help of a GoFundMe campaign, Hu raised funds for his legal defense. More than a year after his arrest, Hu was acquitted of all charges and reinstated in his job. Hu’s in the process of rebuilding his lab and his reputation. In a phone interview with the Knox News, Professor Hu said, “It’s a new beginning. Even though I suffered a lot—it’s still painful in my heart—and the damage with my reputation, to my family, I think we have to move on. I don’t want to stick on the past.”
The China Initiative may have done more harm than good in helping the U.S. secure a lead in science and technology. Haifan Lin, the Eugene Higgins Chair Professor of Cell Biology at Yale University and founding Director of the Yale Stem Cell Center, experienced a months-long suspension from his lab after the DOJ began investigating him for not sufficiently reporting instances of outside support for his research. Lin was thus unable to guide his nine-member research group, significantly slowing his lab’s activities and hindering the research of Yale students and postdocs. Nearly 100 faculty members signed a letter claiming that the university’s suspension of Lin violated due process due to a lack of evidence of wrongdoing. The DOJ eventually dropped their investigation of Lin in 2022 and the university ended his suspension. But Lin’s suspension nonetheless marked a setback not only for him and his lab but also for U.S. progress in stem cell research.
The DOJ announced the end of the China Initiative on February 23, 2022, amid criticism of racial profiling of Chinese American citizens. Matthew Olsen, head of the National Security Division of the DOJ, announced that although the department’s actions had been motivated by “genuine national-security concerns,” he worried about the “chilling atmosphere” the China Initiative created for scientists. But the general sentiment in the Chinese community has been that the DOJ has only superficially ended the program, but the long-term impact they’ve had on the Chinese-American academic community remains. Even after the DOJ ended the China Initiative, the University of California, San Diego pursued a hearing to investigate Xiang-Dong Fu, a professor in the School of Medicine’s Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine, in light of his relationships with Chinese universities and researchers. Fu was found to be in technical violation of the university’s conflict of interest policy. The hearing committee recommended to UCSD Chancellor Pradeep Khosla that Fu be suspended for two years, but Fu chose to resign. Both Fu and his attorney believe the decision was based on discrimination and racial profiling. Fu said, “To me, a two years’ suspension is equivalent to dismissal, because once you lose your team, you cannot do research anymore.” Fu discovered a new family of RNA binding proteins and received the Searle Scholar award and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society Scholar award. Fu recently returned to China.
With conditions in the U.S. becoming more inhospitable to Chinese Americans both professionally and on a day to day living basis, many leading professors and academics are migrating back to China. According to a joint report by Harvard, Princeton and MIT, at least 1,400 U.S.-based Chinese scientists left U.S. educational institutions in favor of China in 2021—a 22% increase from the previous year. This trend will undoubtedly weaken the ability of the U.S. to compete with China in science and technology. Leading structural biologist Yan Nieng announced this past November that she was leaving Princeton and returning to China to help build the Shenzhen Medical Academy of Research and Translation. Fields Medal winner Shing-Tung Yau left Harvard University for Tsinghua University in April of 2022. Although Yau did not respond to a request for comment, he compared the academic environment in the U.S. to the Soviet Union in a speech to Harvard freshmen in September of 2021.
According to the LA Times, this exodus of Chinese scientists back to China recalls the case of Qian Xuesan, the MIT-trained rocket scientist and co-founder of CalTech’s Jet Propulsion Lab. Xuesan was accused of being a Chinese sympathizer during the McCarthy era and placed under house arrest for five years under suspicion of being a spy despite a lack of any substantial evidence. In 1955 Xuesan was deported to China. After returning to China, Xuesan helped develop China’s first nuclear weapon. Former Navy Secretary Dan Kimball later complained that the treatment of Qian was “the stupidest thing this country ever did.”
Cover Image Source: MIT Department of Mechanical Engineering, USA
Matt Kirschner can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.