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Campus voices grow in US against probes

By Lia Zhu in San Francisco | China Daily Global | Updated: 2021-11-23 23:35

Almost 2,000 academics and administrators in the United States have joined in a call for the government to scrap a program that targets Chinese scholars for investigations on national security grounds.

Critics say the so-called China Initiative, launched by the Department of Justice in 2018, has created a climate of fear among Chinese academics and the people they work with on campuses across the US.

As of Sunday, 1,954 faculty members and administrators from 220 educational institutions across the nation had endorsed an open letter to US Attorney General Merrick Garland in which they call for an end to the program. Many fault the prosecutions that have been opened into the scholars caught up in the investigations.

Efforts to encourage faculty members to endorse the open letter are ongoing, according to APA Justice, which launched the campaign last month.

The initial letter to Garland was sent in September by a group of 177 faculty members from more than 40 departments at Stanford University, including eight Nobel laureates.

In support of the Stanford letter, 214 faculty members at the University of California, Berkeley have sent an open letter to Garland, along with 167 of their peers at Temple University, and 198 at Princeton University.

The China Initiative was launched by the administration of then president Donald Trump in late 2018 to combat alleged economic espionage. The program has resulted in dozens of prosecutions.

However, in many of the cases, academics have been accused of fraud relating to grant programs or visa forms, rather than economic espionage.

The first trial under the China Initiative was that of Anming Hu, a former professor in the department of mechanical, aerospace and biomedical engineering at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. The judge acquitted him in September, saying "the prosecution's failure is clear".

Feng Tao, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Kansas, was the first academic to be indicted under the China Initiative in August 2019. His trial is scheduled to start on Dec 6.

In their open letter, the Stanford faculty members said the China Initiative has "deviated significantly" from its claimed mission in that it is harming the US' research and technology competitiveness and "fueling biases" that, in turn, raise concerns about racial profiling.

The letter identifies three "fundamental flaws" of the program: It disproportionally targets researchers of Chinese origin; the alleged crime in such cases has nothing to do with scientific espionage or intellectual property theft; and it harms the US science and technology enterprise and technology workforce.

According to the letter, the chilling effect of the China Initiative and other actions of the US government are discouraging many scholars from coming to or staying in the US, and that "seriously" hampers the university's efforts to recruit the best Chinese students and postdoctoral scholars.

The concern about the loss of talent is confirmed by recent joint research by the University of Arizona and Committee of 100, a group of prominent Chinese Americans. The report, released early this month, found that scientists of Chinese descent report far greater racial profiling by the US government, increased difficulty in obtaining research funds, and more fear than those of non-Chinese descent.

"There is no doubt that the China Initiative is driving Chinese talent away from the US and damaging our overall competitiveness," said David Ho, a professor of medicine at Columbia University.

Rights activists said that the China Initiative's impact on researchers of Chinese and Asian descent has been far broader than prosecutions, while the human impact of the prosecutions is immense.

"The government's framing and rhetoric around the China Initiative has led to profiling and overzealous investigations, encouraging agents and prosecutors to look for people and alleged crimes that 'fit' DOJ's (Department of Justice) initiative," Ashley Gorski and Patrick Toomey, attorneys in the National Security Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, wrote in a recent article.

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