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The US government is ending the China Initiative. Now what?

The end of the initiative

An investigation by the MIT Technology Review, published in December, found that the China Initiative had strayed from its initial mission. Instead of focusing on economic espionage, the initiative appeared as an umbrella for some of the cases involving China. Defendants were repeatedly charged with minor violations such as grant fraud, visa fraud, or lying to investigators. But even when defendants were not charged with espionage, federal prosecutors identified them as threats to national security.

Concerns about China’s economic espionage have been growing among U.S. government officials over the years. During the Obama administration, Justice Department officials brought in a record number of cases under economic espionage law, including several lawsuits against Chinese entities. The same department filed cyber-espionage charges against five hackers affiliated with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army – the first time state actors have been convicted of hacking.

But the China initiative, announced by the Trump administration on November 1, 2018, was the first country-specific initiative in the history of the Department of Justice. The announcement follows months of conflicting rhetoric by Trump and his administration, which portrayed China as a threat to the “whole society” response and cast all Chinese students at American universities as potential spies.

“As I focus on the growing threat posed by China, I conclude that this initiative is not the right approach. And instead, the current threat landscape demands a broader approach.”

Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olson

Our investigation involves compiling and reviewing a list of well-known cases as part of the initiative, primarily highlighting activities and successes based on the Justice Department’s press releases જોકે although the department’s lack of transparency made it impossible to pull the entire list together.

We’ve found some cases that are fully aligned with the stated purpose of the initiative, such as allegations of hackers linked to Chinese state security who are believed to be behind large-scale Equifax data breaches, or prosecutions for stealing from a Taiwanese company and three individuals. . Trade secrets from an American semiconductor company to benefit a Chinese state-owned enterprise.

But the review found that prosecutors increasingly focus on research integrity issues such as grant fraud or “double-dipping” – seeking funding for similar research from both American and Chinese sources – even though most academics involved are intent on publishing. Worked on research. Openly

Our data also show that almost all defendants 8 88%-were ethnically Chinese, including many American citizens or people who have lived and worked in the U.S. for many years.

After the MIT Technology Review published its findings, Andrew Lelling, a former federal prosecutor who helped shape the initiative as a member of its steering committee, wrote in the LinkedIn Post that the initiative was “sound policy” but “turned out to be, and some notable, By the way, he lost his focus. ” He continued, “The DOJ should revise and discontinue parts of the program to avoid unnecessarily cooling scientific and business cooperation with Chinese partners.”

Country-specific policy

In announcing his 2018 initiative, Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke of “non-traditional collectors,” drawing attention to lab, university, and defense researchers who were being co-opted to transfer technology against US interests.

“Non-traditional collectors are used as euphemisms for ‘spies,'” said Gisela Cusakawa, a staff attorney for Asian Americans’ Advancing Justice, in an email.

“It blurs the line between the Chinese government and the people of Chinese descent. Essentially, the effect of the fixation on ‘non-traditional collectors’ is to focus on people of Chinese descent rather than on those carrying out state-sponsored espionage acts, “she added.

Our investigation found that by 2021, cases classified by the federal government as “China Initiative Cases” had become the epitome of prosecution, accusing defendants of a wide range of crimes. It was the only thruline that Justice Department officials vaguely described as an “alliance with China.”

Many groups and individuals who have advocated ending the initiative have said they see some actions by the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party as legitimate economic or security threats.

But the same groups and individuals have said the government can address these concerns without targeting Asian-Americans.

Proceed to clarity

As part of the issue, in many academic cases, guidelines for disclosing foreign affiliations and other sources of funding were not always clear. For example, participating in a Chinese talent program is legal જોકે although participation is a cause for suspicion and is a factor in many cases of the China Initiative.

Collaboration with researchers in foreign institutions has long been an accepted and encouraged part of academic life. But the U.S. And the tense political relations between China and the actions of academics under the China Initiative have created uncertainty about the future of cooperation between American and Chinese researchers.

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy’s (OSTP) new guidelines on strengthening U.S. research security, released in early January, provide some new clarifications on what types of international cooperation are allowed.

The guidelines are intended to clarify the requirements for federally funded researchers and to develop best practices for federal research agencies.

They set the goal of certified advertising requirements and forms for researchers seeking federal funding, and provide more information on when researchers should disclose potential conflicts of interest and participation in foreign programs, such as the Chinese Talent Plan. The guidelines also show the potential consequences for a violation, including the possibility of criminal charges.

And while the guidelines make more clarity, it’s not clear what effect they will have.

The OSTP explicitly condemned xenophobia and called for scientific collaboration and implementation of the guidelines without adversely affecting recruitment.

“The research security challenges we face are real and serious: some foreign governments, including the Chinese government, are working hard to obtain our most advanced technology illegally. This is unacceptable, “wrote former OSTP director Eric Lander in a report introducing the guidelines.

“At the same time, if our policies to address those actions significantly reduce our superpower’s ability to attract global scientific talent – or if they promote xenophobia against Asian Americans – we will hurt ourselves more than any competitor.” And an effective approach is needed. “

Many experts who offer written input to the rules have recommended that the guidelines include some mechanism for “waiver”, a way for people involved in talent programs and other attachments to disclose those relationships without fear of retribution જોકે although this idea was first introduced. When it arrived in early 2021, Republican lawmakers quickly swept it down.

When asked how researchers should proceed in the absence of a waiver provision, an OSTP official guideline points to the language instructing research agencies that “methods for correcting advertising exist, are clearly communicated, and are simple and straightforward.” ” OSTP rules encourage researchers to come forward to disclose past violations પરંતુ but language may not be enough to reassure researchers three years after the China initiative.

Emily Weinstein, a China policy analyst at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology, says the “China Initiative was facing problems at the academy that the academy had not yet realized were problems.” Sorry

“There must be some kind of olive branch,” she says. “Just fixing the disclosure requirement is to hit the bandage on it.”

A moment of celebration, and a need for reflection

But even with the end of the initiative, there is a “clear fear” in the academic community, says Rory Trux, a professor at Princeton University who has written about the impact of the initiative on American science.

It is noteworthy that hundreds of people from the academic community have rallied to push back against the government’s actions – including many researchers who are not ethnically Chinese, Trux says.

“Scientists and scholars in general rarely work collectively,” says Trux.

Changes to the initiative may not fully address the concerns of the Asian American community.

Professor Jenny J. of the Center for Educational Policy Studies and Practice at the University of Arizona. “The end of the DOJ’s China Initiative is a major step towards curbing the ethnic profile of Chinese scientists,” Lee wrote in an email to the MIT Technology Review. Before Olsen’s announcement.

“However, anti-China views, including those associated with China, will continue,” she added. “Negative stereotypes and discrimination against the Asian community extend beyond the courtroom.”

“The China initiative and the widespread rhetoric surrounding it have damaged our nation’s competitiveness, ruined the careers of innocent scholars, and severely damaged the government’s relationship with the Asian American community,” said Linda Ng, National Chair of OCA-Asian Pacific American Advocates. In a statement emailed after the announcement .. “While we are cautiously optimistic about the Justice Department’s review of the program, it should not be a rebranding exercise. Attorney General Garland and Assistant Attorney General Olsen should be committed to implementing reforms that are significant and focused. On preventing inappropriate racial targeting. National security interests should never be used as an excuse for Asian Americans and Asian immigrant scientists to systematically deprive them of their civil liberties. “

And even for scientists who have been prosecuted by the government, the ordeal continues – sometimes for years – after they have been acquitted.

Hydrologists Sherry Chen and Xia Xiaoxing, professors of physics, both preceded the case by the China Initiative તેમની they were charged in 2014 and 2015, respectively. But they followed the same path, in which the plaintiffs dropped the charges before the trial. Years later, both are still pursuing legal action and damages against the federal government.

Meanwhile, MIT professor Gang Chen, who was accused of wire fraud, made a false statement in a tax return and failed to disclose a foreign bank account, his charges were eventually dismissed before the trial because the government could not handle the weight of his evidence.

He went back to his laboratory and back to the classroom. They are adamant that they will continue their work, but will not apply for federal grants in the future – even though government grants make up a significant portion of the money available to fund research. “I don’t know how I will do that yet,” he told the MIT Technology Review in an interview days after his dismissal. “I have to figure it out.”

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