Amidst Sino-U.S. tension, American scholars decouple from China

On 14 October, Brookings Institution scholars Cheng Li and Ryan McElveen penned an article highlighting the decoupling of people-to-people exchange as the latest casualty in the new cold war between U.S. and China.

After years of disputes, disillusionment, disappointment and distrust between the two countries, US policy towards China has now changed from one of “engagement” to an all-encompassing “decoupling” including cultural and educational exchanges.

To that end, Washington has eliminated the Peace Corp program as well as the Fulbright scholarship program in China and Hong Kong, suspended entry of more than 1,000 Chinese graduate students and researchers suspected of connection to the “military-civil fusion strategy” of the People’s Liberation Army,  limited number of Chinese graduate students allowed to major in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) at U.S. universities, and proposed travel ban on Chinese Communist Party members which number at 92 million people, all in an effort to prevent Chinese citizens infiltrating these programs to conduct economic espionage.

Of course decoupling goes both ways, and in addition to warding off Chinese citizens from the U.S., U.S. citizens are also decoupling from China. Especially if they are ethnic Chinese.

FBI’s “China Initiative” and Chinese –Americans in the Crosshairs

Two weeks after the Brookings article was published, on 30 October, SupChina released an educational video for Chinese-American researchers on how to protect themselves from false charges and arrests by the FBI at a time when they are targeted for increased scrutiny.

Entitled “Scientists in the Crosshairs” and captioned “We interview experts and gather their best advice for how to avoid being wrongly prosecuted for non-disclosure and other administrative wrongdoings”, the video showed interviews with lawyers, individuals from Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC) that defends civil rights, university professors, and Chinese-American scholars who have been wrongfully arrested for alleged espionage.

They highlight the FBI’s ‘China Initiative” launched in February 2018, where Director Christopher Wray described the threat from China as “a whole-of-society threat”, and has designated some China-related cases as “academic espionage.”

It was the first time the Department of Justice undertook an initiative to focus on a specific country (and ethnic group), and since then many suspects, majority of whom were ethnic Chinese, have been arrested and charged. By July this year, Wray claimed that half of the nearly 5,000 active FBI counterintelligence cases underway were related to China, and the bureau was opening a new China-related counterintelligence case almost every 10 hours.

Because the “China Initiative” frames Chinese espionage as conducted by “non-traditional collectors”—i.e. academics and researchers—Wray states U.S. requires a “whole-of-society” response as well, and as such the FBI is investigating researchers and recruiting informants across U.S. universities and think tanks.

However, because not all agents in the “China Initiative” have subject matter expertise in the STEM field, or even on China (many have background on organized crime and counter-terrorism), the result is numerous “false positive” cases where innocent people were wrongly charged. Also, putting the initiative as FBI’s top national security priority may produce pressures to fulfill quotas and a rush to open investigations.

Currently there are three types of cases: (1) Real cases of bad actors; (2) False positives involving innocent individuals; (3) Non-disclosure in paper work that violated grant confidentiality.

Regarding the first type, there are indeed bad Chinese actors sent by the Communist Party to conduct malign activities of IP theft and industrial espionage.  For example, Chi Mak, a defense contractor, was sentence on March 24, 2008 for conspiring to export sensitive defense technology to China.

The second type are the false positives, such as the famous case of physics Professor Xiaoxing Xi from Temple University, who was falsely accused of illegally sharing information about a “pocket heater” but was later exonerated.  Unfortunately his career and livelihood were in tatters, and he is now suing FBI for damages.

The third type are non-disclosures and improper paperwork regarding federal grants.  Grantees from the National Institute of Health, National Science Foundation, and Department of Energy are required to disclose supplemental income, conflicts of interest, and one such case is Dr. Xifeng Wu from University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Centre who allegedly did not disclose paid work in China.  Although nondisclosure and administrative wrongdoings are not espionage, she was deemed an oncological double agent and placed on administrative leave during investigation, and ultimately took early retirement from the cancer centre.

Many FBI cases fall within the third type regarding nondisclosure, which is compounded by changing standards in university research integrity offices wherein professors and researchers may not have kept up to date.

For example, Catherine Pan, head of Dorsey and Whitney’s U.S.-China practice, mentioned that tenured professors inform her they know how to fill out grant applications.  They say they have been tenured for 25-30 years, are not new assistant professors from the post-doc program filling out applications, and are not doing anything wrong.

For now, cutting ties with China

Nonetheless, Professor Xioxing Xi from Temple University has a stern warning for Chinese-American researchers that “You don’t have to do anything wrong to be targeted.”  Indeed in the face of various cases of false positives which prompted Congress to launch an investigation into the FBI for conducting racial profile, Chinese-Americans researchers are cutting ties with China.

With the perception that any contact with China has become radioactive, Catherine Pan mentioned faculty members are now saying “Going forward, I’ll make sure I have nothing to do with China”, “I will not travel to China to attend academic conferences”, “I will not admit Chinese PhD students”, and “I will not co-publish papers with Chinese researchers.”

Pan informed them none of these activities are illegal, but for many Chinese-Americans it’s a different experience. For them, to be targeted by their fellow Americans in the FBI, and the risk of punishment for “researching while Asian”, “guilt by association”, and memory of how Japanese- Americans were profiled as “enemy alien” during WWII, outweigh any potential benefits of exchanges with China.

So long as China continues to send malign actors to conduct economic espionage and FBI counters with the China Initiative, the safe course forward for Chinese-Americans is to remove themselves from the crosshairs and decouple from China. And if the U.S. government is closely scrutinizing its own citizens for civil-military fusion ties to China, it would not be surprising if it is also surveilling Israel’s China ties via its main academic exchange program SIGNAL (Sino-Israel Global Network & Academic Leadership).

About the Author
Dr. Christina Lin is a US-based foreign policy analyst specializing in China-Mediterranean relations. She has extensive US government experience working on national security issues and was a CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear) research consultant for Jane's Information Group.
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