Why Ending the Justice Department’s “China Initiative” is Vital to U.S. Security

Chinese and Chinese-American scientists are increasingly fearful about working in the United States, according to a recent survey. The study, conducted by the Committee of 100 and the University of Arizona, revealed that over 50 percent of scientists of Chinese ancestry working in the United States, regardless of citizenship, fear they are under surveillance by the U.S. government. Many are reconsidering their plans to stay in the United States. This trepidation results from a cramped and distorted vision of national security on the part of the U.S. government, and it could not come at a worse time. The reverberating effects within the scientific community threaten to undermine the primacy of U.S. science and technology at a time when the pandemic and climate change have become predominant threats to Americans’ health and prosperity.

Background and Official Framing

In 2018, the U.S. Justice Department unveiled the “China Initiative,” a project designed to crack down on trade secret theft, hacking, and economic espionage conducted by – or for the benefit of – the Chinese government. FBI Director Christopher Wray described Chinese espionage in hyperbolic language, calling it a “whole-of-society threat” requiring a “whole-of-society response.” Wray decried “naivete” in the academic sector in particular. He claimed almost every FBI field office saw cases in which China relied on “non-traditional collectors” rather than intelligence agents, “whether it’s professors, scientists, [or] students.” This logic allowed FBI agents to target not just Chinese government agents, but a far larger category of individuals with a “nexus to China.”

In 2018, in conjunction with the FBI, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) sent 18,000 letters to academic institutions to be “vigilant” about intellectual property theft by China. By design, the message sent a chill through the scientific community. One of the Justice Department’s China Initiative Steering Committee members, then- U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts Andrew Lelling, said, “I think those letters have had an in terrorem effect. And that’s good, because you want a little bit of fear out there to sensitize people to the magnitude of the problem.”

Effects on Research Environments

Scaring researchers is antithetical to the open and collaborative nature of fundamental research at academic institutions, which has historically made the U.S. an attractive place for cutting-edge science and scientists to flourish. Since 1901, 148 of the 432 American Nobel Prize winners were immigrants to the U.S. Yet a former China Initiative prosecutor, George Varghese, openly pondered, that given the increased economic threat China posed today, “Should we allow for foreign academic collaboration?” Many academic leaders say we should. And even more pointedly, more than 2,400 faculty members at more than 200 universities across the country have now called on Attorney General Merrick Garland to end the China Initiative.

President Ronald Reagan would most likely agree with the position expressed within today’s academic community. In 1985, during the height…

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