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China’s initiative, the US crackdown on Chinese economic espionage, is a mess. We have the data to show.


Our analysis shows a significant shift in focus toward academics beginning in 2019 and continuing through 2020. In 2018, none of the cases were related to research integrity. By 2020, 16 of 31 (52%) cases were newly reported. (One of the research integrity cases in 2020 also included a charge of violating the European Economic Area.)

At least 14 of these research integrity cases were initiated due to suspicions arising from links to “talent programmes,” where Chinese universities offer financial incentives to academics to conduct research, teach, or return other activities to the sponsoring institution, on a part- or full-time basis. (At least four cases of trade secret theft also include alleged participation in the talent show.)

Federal officials have repeatedly said that participation in talent programs is not illegal — although they have also called them “brain acquisition programs,” in the words of Bill Priestap, former FBI assistant director of counterintelligence, which “encourage the theft of intellectual property from American institutions.”

Cases uploaded under the China initiative by year

Ties to national security are sometimes weak.

The initiative’s growing focus on research integrity has included many cases of academics working on topics such as artificial intelligence or robotics, which may have national security applications. But most work in these areas is basic research, and many of the disciplines in which the cases have been brought have no clear links to national security.

Nine of the 23 research cases involve medical and health researchers, including people who study heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and cancer. Six of those focused on NIH-funded researchers — a reflection of the institute’s aggressive stance on countering “the undue influence of foreign governments on federally funded research,” a representative from the NIH’s Office of External Research said. The NIH effort preceded the China initiative, and the representative referred questions regarding the initiative to the Department of Justice.

Funding agencies were allegedly defrauded of research integrity issues

Instead, the national security implications appear to center around fears that any individuals with ties to China could be “unconventional collectors,” which the China Initiative fact sheet describes as “researchers in laboratories, universities, and the defense industrial base being exploited for technology transfer inconsistent with with the interests of the United States.” But as our database shows, only two of the 22 researchers were accused of trying to improperly access information or smuggle goods into China. The charges were later dropped.

The cases of China’s initiative are not as successful as the Ministry of Justice claims

Three years after the program began, less than a third of those accused of the China initiative have been convicted. Of the 148 people charged, only 40 have confessed or been convicted, and pleas of guilt often involve fewer charges than were originally filed. Nearly two-thirds of the cases – 64% – are still pending. Of the 95 people still facing charges, 71 are not under active prosecution because the defendant is in an unknown location or cannot be extradited.

In particular, many issues related to research integrity have collapsed. While eight cases are still pending, seven cases against academics have ended in dismissal or acquittal and six have ended in pleas of guilt or conviction. That’s a sharp contrast to the usual outcomes of federal criminal cases, where the vast majority end up pleading guilty, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of federal statistics.

Findings of the accused under China’s initiative

Nearly 90% of all cases are against people of Chinese descent

One of the early and most pressing criticisms of China’s initiative was that it might lead to increased racial profiling against individuals of Chinese descent, Asian Americans, and Asian immigrants. Justice Department officials have repeatedly denied that the China initiative engages in racial profiling, but individuals of Chinese descent, including US citizens, have been disproportionately affected by the initiative.

Our analysis shows that of the 148 individuals charged under the China Initiative, 130 – or 88% – are of Chinese origin. This includes US citizens of Chinese descent and citizens of the People’s Republic of China as well as citizens and others with connections to Taiwan, Hong Kong, and ancient Chinese diaspora communities in Southeast Asia.

Defendants of Chinese heritage

Those numbers are “really high,” said Margaret Lewis, a professor of law at Seton Hall University who has written extensively about the China initiative. She added, “We knew it would be the majority,” but this “only confirms that the argument” but we are suing other people as well “…is not convincing.”

New cases are still being filed under the Biden administration

The initiative was launched under the Trump administration, and while the number of issues explicitly linked to the China initiative has decreased since President Joe Biden took office, it has not stopped.

For example, Mingqing Xiao, a professor of mathematics in Illinois, was accused in April 2021 of failing to disclose ties with a Chinese university when applying for a grant from the National Science Foundation. In July, an indictment was unveiled against four Chinese nationals for hacking dozens of companies and research institutions.

Meanwhile, federal attorneys continued to push the prosecutions forward. The trial of Charles Lieber, a Harvard chemistry professor accused of concealing his ties to Chinese universities, is due to begin in mid-December. Prosecutors plan to try cases against prominent academics in Kansas, Arkansas and elsewhere in the first few months of 2022.

New China Initiative issues filed in 2021

How did you start

Concerns about Chinese economic espionage targeting the United States have been growing for years, with estimates of the cost to the US economy ranging from $20 billion to $30 billion to $600 billion. Law enforcement has begun to skyrocket under the Obama administration: In 2013, when the administration announced a new strategy to mitigate theft of US trade secrets, China was mentioned more than 100 times.

In 2014, the Department of Justice filed cyber-espionage charges against five Chinese People’s Liberation Army hackers — the first time the United States has pursued government agencies for hacking. Then in 2015, the United States and China signed a landmark agreement committing not to conduct commercial cyber theft against each other’s companies.

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

The effort was “data-driven,” according to the former Justice Department official, and “originated from intelligence briefings by the attorney general and senior Department of Justice leaders from the FBI, which showed day after day that the People’s Republic of China and its affiliated actors worldwide. [were] It is deeply involved in hacking, economic espionage, stealing trade secrets, sabotaging our export controls and engaging in unconventional collection methods.” This includes Chinese consulates that help “disguise the actual backgrounds of Chinese visa applicants to avoid visa refusals on the basis of their affiliation with the PRC military,” he said. .

However, Trump has cracked down in part on anti-Chinese and anti-communist rhetoric — declaring bluntly at a rally in 2016, “We can’t keep letting China usurp our country, and that’s what they’re doing.”

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

This was the background when Sessions announced the launch of the China Initiative on November 1, 2018.

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