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The China Initiative
Chen was one of the most high profile scientists charged under the China Initiative, a Justice Department program launched under the Trump administration to counter economic espionage and national security threats from the People’s Republic of China.
Despite its stated purpose, an investigation by MIT Technology Review found that the initiative has increasingly focused on prosecuting academics for research integrity issues—hiding ties or funding from Chinese entities on grant or visa forms—rather than industrial spies stealing trade secrets. Only 19 of 77 cases (25%) identified by MIT Technology Review alleged violations of the Economic Espionage Act, while 23 cases (30%) alleged grant or visa fraud by academics.
Our reporting has also found that the initiative has disproportionately affected scientists of Chinese heritage. Of the 148 individuals charged under the initiative, 130 (88%) are of Chinese heritage.
Chen’s is the eighth research integrity case to be dismissed before trial. Last month, Harvard professor Charles Lieber was found guilty of six charges of false statements and tax fraud, while the trial of University of Tennessee-Knoxville professor Anming Hu, the first research integrity case to go before a jury, ended first in a mistrial and then a full acquittal.
Research Integrity cases from MIT Technology Review’s China Initiative Database
A catalyzing case
Chen’s indictment raised awareness of, and opposition to, the initiative, due to both his prominence in his field and the seemingly routine activities, including collaborating with a Chinese university at the behest of his home institution, for which he was being prosecuted. As a group of MIT faculty wrote at the time, “We are all Gang Chen,” both expressing support for their colleague and their own concerns about how their own activities could draw government scrutiny.
“The end of the criminal case is tremendous news for Professor Chen, and his defense team deserves accolades for their work,” says Margaret Lewis, a law professor at Seton Hall University who has written about the China Initiative. “But let’s not forget that he was first questioned at the airport two years ago and indicted one year ago. The human cost is intense even when charges are dropped.”
She added: “I am hopeful that the Justice Department will soon move beyond announcements regarding the review of individual cases to a broader statement ending the China Initiative.”
“Rebranding the ‘China Initiative’ will not be enough,” says Patrick Toomey, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)’s National Security Project, which has represented two prominent researchers erroneously charged before the China Initiative was announced in 2018. “The Justice Department must fundamentally reform its policies that enable racial profiling in the name of national security.”
But is not just academics and civil rights groups that are speaking out. Over the past year, criticism of the initiative has ramped up from all sides, including 90 members of Congress requesting Attorney General Merrick Garland investigate concerns about racial profiling, and even former DOJ officials advocating for a change in direction as well.
John Demers, the former head of the Justice Department division that oversees the initiative, reportedly favored a proposal for amnesty programs that would allow researchers to disclose previously undisclosed ties with no fear of prosecution. Meanwhile, in response to MIT Technology Review’s reporting, Andrew Lelling, the former U.S. District Attorney for Massachusetts that brought charges against Chen, argued that the part of the program targeting academics should be shut down. Six more research integrity cases remain pending, with four scheduled to go to trial this spring.
Some kind of announcement may be coming soon: DOJ spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle told MIT Technology Review in an email last week that the Justice Department is “reviewing our approach to countering threats posed by the PRC government“ and “anticipate completing the review and providing additional information in the coming weeks.”