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The China Initiative, the US crackdown on Chinese economic espionage, is a mess. We have data to show that.

Our analysis reveals a significant shift towards academics, starting in 2019 and continuing through 2020. In 2018, none of the case studies focused on research integrity. By 2020, 16 of 31 (52%) newly reported cases were. (One research integrity case in 2020 also included a charge of violating the EEA.)

At least 14 of these research conscientiousness cases arose from suspicions stemming from links to “talent programs,” in which Chinese universities provide financial incentives for scientists to conduct research, teach, or return other activities to a sponsoring institution. partial basis. or on an ongoing basis. (At least four cases of trade secret theft involve participation in a talent program.)

Federal officials have repeatedly stated that participation in talent programs is not illegal, although they have also called they are, according to Bill Priestap, a former assistant director of counterintelligence at the FBI, “brain-raising programs” that “encourage the theft of intellectual property from US institutions.”

Number of cases initiated under the China Initiative, by year

National security ties are sometimes weak.

The initiative’s increased focus on research integrity has included several cases where scientists have worked on topics such as artificial intelligence or robotics that may have national security applications. But most of the work in these areas is basic research, and many of the disciplines that have been prosecuted do not have a clear connection to national security.

Nine of the 23 research conscientiousness cases involve health and medical researchers, including people who study heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and cancer; six of them were dedicated to NIH-funded researchers, reflecting the institute’s aggressive stance against “foreign government undue influence on federal-funded research,” said a spokesman for the NIH’s Correspondence Research Office. NIH efforts before the China InitiativeThe representative submitted questions on the initiative to the Department of Justice.

Financial Agencies Allegedly Deceived in Research Integrity Cases

In contrast, the national security implications seem to be centered around fears that anyone associated with China might serve as “unconventional collectors,” which the China Initiative newsletter describes as “researchers in laboratories, universities, and defense industries. are involved in technology transfer contrary to US interests. ” But as our database shows, only two out of 22 researchers have ever been accused of attempting to improperly access information or ship goods to China. The charges were later dropped.

China Initiative’s Cases Not As Successful As Justice Department Claims

Three years after the start of the program, less than a third of the defendants of the China Initiative have been convicted. Of the 148 defendants, only 40 pleaded guilty or were found guilty, and the charges were often less serious than those initially charged. Almost two thirds of cases – 64% – have not yet been reviewed. Of the 95 people still facing charges, 71 are not prosecuted because the accused is in an unknown location or cannot be extradited.

In particular, many research integrity cases fell apart. While eight cases are pending, seven cases against scientists have ended in dismissal or acquittal, and six have ended in plea or conviction. This is in stark contrast to the usual outcomes of federal criminal cases, where the vast majority end up with a plea of ​​guilt. Analysis of federal statistics by the Pew Research Center.

Results for the defendants under the China Initiative

Almost 90% of all cases are brought against persons of Chinese origin.

One of the earliest and most persistent criticisms of the China Initiative was that it could lead to increased racial profiling of people of Chinese descent, Asian Americans and Asian immigrants. Justice Department officials have repeatedly denied that the China Initiative is engaged in racial profiling, but people of Chinese descent, including American citizens, have been disproportionately affected by the initiative.

Our analysis shows that of the 148 people indicted under the China Initiative, 130 – or 88% – are of Chinese origin. This includes American citizens who are ethnic Chinese and citizens of the People’s Republic of China, as well as citizens and others associated with Taiwan, Hong Kong, and long-standing communities of the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia.

Protectors of Chinese heritage

Those numbers are “really high,” said Margaret Lewis, a law professor at Seton Hall University who has written extensively about the China Initiative. “We knew it would be the majority,” she added, but this “just underscores that the ‘but we are persecuting other people too’ argument … is not convincing.”

New cases are still being opened under the Biden administration.

The initiative was launched under the Trump administration, and while the number of cases clearly linked to the China Initiative has dropped since President Joe Biden took office, they have not stopped.

For example, Mingqing Xiao, a mathematics professor from Illinois, was accused in April 2021 of not disclosing ties to a Chinese university in his National Science Foundation grant application. In July, four Chinese citizens were charged with hacking into dozens of companies and research institutions.

Meanwhile, federal prosecutors continued to push forward the prosecution. The trial of Charles Lieber, a Harvard chemistry professor accused of hiding his ties to Chinese universities, is set to begin in mid-December. Prosecutors plan to stand trial against high-profile academics in Kansas, Arkansas and elsewhere in the first few months of 2022.

New China Initiative cases launched in 2021

How it started

Fears of Chinese economic espionage targeting the U.S. have grown over the years, and estimates of the damage to the U.S. economy range from $ 20 to $ 30 billion before $ 600 billion… Law enforcement has skyrocketed under the Obama administration: in 2013, when the administration announced a new strategy To prevent the theft of US trade secrets, China was mentioned over 100 times.

In 2014, the Justice Department indicted five hackers associated with the People’s Liberation Army of China for cyber espionage – for the first time in the United States, statesmen were prosecuted for hacking. Then, in 2015, the United States and China signed a landmark agreement pledging not to carry out commercial cyber-robbery against each other’s businesses.

But it wasn’t until 2018, as part of the Trump administration’s much more confrontational approach to China, that the ministry officially launched its first country-specific program.

According to a former Justice Department official, these efforts were “data-driven” and were based on intelligence briefings for the attorney general and senior Department of Justice officials from the FBI, who revealed day after day that the PRC and its affiliates were [were] is actively involved in hacking, economic espionage, theft of trade secrets, undermining our export controls and using unconventional collection methods. ” He said this includes Chinese consulates helping to “disguise the actual origins of Chinese visa applicants in order to avoid being denied a visa due to their affiliation with the PRC military.”

However, Trump campaigned in part on anti-Chinese and anti-communist rhetoric – notoriously one rally in 2016: “We cannot continue to allow China to rape our country, and this is what they are doing.”

In the months leading up to the launch of the initiative, Trump reportedly told a group of corporate executives at a closed-door dinner at his Mar-a-Lago estate that “almost every [Chinese] a student who comes to this country is a spy… ”

Against this backdrop, on November 1, 2018, Sessions announced the launch of the China Initiative.


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