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As trial of Harvard prof opens, Biden faces pressure to end Trump program to catch Chinese spies

Campaign to kill Justice Department’s "China Initiative" intensifies despite Beijing’s continuing espionage activities.

Published: December 14, 2021 7:40am

Updated: December 15, 2021 8:28am

As a high-profile Harvard professor stands trial for hiding his ties to the Chinese government, the Biden administration is coming under intense pressure from a loose coalition of lawmakers, nonprofits, and academics to abandon the so-called China Initiative, a Justice Department effort to preserve America's technological edge by thwarting Chinese spies.

Launched by the Trump administration in 2018 and continued so far by its successor, the China Initiative is designed specifically to identify and prosecute those engaged in hacking, stealing trade secrets, and conducting economic espionage for the Chinese government on U.S. soil. The program has led to several arrests and convictions, including, for example: 

  • Last month, a federal jury convicted Yanjun Xu, deputy division director of China's Sixth Bureau of the Jiangsu Province Ministry of State Security, for attempting to steal trade secrets and commit economic espionage. 
  • In July, three officers in China's Ministry of State Security were charged with participating in a global computer intrusion campaign targeting infectious disease research. 
  • In April, a PhD chemist and U.S. citizen from Michigan was convicted of wire fraud, economic espionage, conspiracy to commit trade secret theft, and possession of stolen trade secrets to help set up a new company in China.

Charles Lieber, a renowned nanotechnology professor who chaired Harvard's Chemistry Department, was arrested and charged nearly two years ago. Federal prosecutors allege he lied about his involvement in China's Thousand Talents Plan, a Chinese government initiative meant to recruit experts in science and technology, and about becoming a "strategic scientist" at Wuhan University of Technology.

Lieber's trial, which began Tuesday, may help determine the fate of the China Initiative.

"It may have a real impact on the future of these cases being brought under the China Initiative," Derek Adams, a partner at the Potomac Law Group, told the Harvard Crimson. "If Lieber ends up being found not guilty on this one, then I think it's just going to increase the pressure of some folks in Congress to shut down the initiative entirely."

The Justice Department's push to shut down Chinese espionage activities seems to have deterred at least some potential spies. More than 1,000 researchers who had hidden their affiliation with the Chinese military fled the United States last summer, according to the department.

However, critics argue any successes are the exception to the rule and part of a witch hunt that's having a chilling effect on scientific research.

Activists are calling for the Biden administration to end the China Initiative, arguing it targets people of Asian descent with racial profiling. These critics also claim the program is mainly focused on innocent academic researchers and has largely yielded charges of fraud — such as lying about links to Chinese entities or accepting foreign money — as opposed to concrete espionage.

This month, the MIT Technology Review found that nearly 90% of China Initiative defendants are of Chinese origin, only about a quarter of defendants charged under the initiative have been convicted, and the initiative's focus has shifted from espionage to cases of "research integrity," often involving researchers failing to disclose ties to China.

Academics at some of America's most elite universities have made similar complaints. Nearly 100 Yale University professors signed on to a letter castigating the China Initiative as invasive and discriminatory. They also endorsed an earlier open letter signed by 177 Stanford University faculty members to Attorney General Merrick Garland claiming the China Initiative "disproportionately targets researchers of Chinese origin."

The Stanford professors, who called for Garland to kill the program, didn't mention that last year federal authorities arrested a Stanford researcher for failing to disclose she was actively working for the Chinese military.

Academics aren't the only ones targeting the China Initiative. The Committee of 100, a nonprofit promoting closer U.S.-China relations, released a study arguing American prosecutors are more severely punishing and more often falsely accusing Asian and Chinese defendants of espionage than others.

The U.S. Heartland China Association, a pro-China business group that regularly works with organizations tied to the ruling Chinese Communist Party, described the Justice Department program as "McCarthyism," a reference to the late Sen. Joseph McCarthy's crusade against communist influence in the early years of the Cold War. Two of President Biden's picks for senior roles in his administration — Reta Jo Lewis to run the Export-Import Bank and Mitch Landrieu to serrve as infrastructure czar — are both listed as "strategic advisers" for the association, according to the Washington Examiner.

California Democratic Rep. Ted Lieu and 90 other members of Congress made similar accusations, calling on the Justice Department to investigate "the repeated, wrongful targeting of individuals of Asian descent for alleged espionage."

Supporters of the China Initiative reject accusations of racial profiling, noting that the overwhelming majority of China's espionage activities are carried out by individuals of Chinese ethnicity and that each individual accused of spying for China gets due process under U.S. law.

One problem with distinguishing between Chinese espionage and legitimate research is that China doesn't distinguish between the civil and military domains and commercial and military applications. As part of its strategy, Beijing blurs the lines between academia, industry, the private sector, and military research, according to experts.

"While the U.S. government often twists itself into knots determining what is classified or unclassified, the Chinese government often sees little-to-no distinction," said Craig Singleton, an adjunct China fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. "Instead, Beijing is focused on collecting and harnessing any and all useful information to power its defense modernization. This includes everything from foundational knowledge taught on U.S. college campuses to cutting edge research, much of which is not technically classified but still has potential military applications."

The U.S. must also account for China's "passive collection of information in support of its military aims," Singleton continued. "The Chinese government has not been transparent about its defense build-up ... thereby making it very difficult to determine which kinds of cooperation pose a national security risk ... These disciplines vary widely, from specialties such as artificial intelligence and armaments technology to fields not typically associated with the defense industry, including geology."

Singleton just authored a new report detailing how numerous U.S. universities — and even some K-12 schools — support China's military-industrial complex.

Whatever the outcome of the Lieber trial, Chinese espionage isn't going away. In fact, U.S. officials say the threat is only growing.

About 80% of all economic espionage cases brought by the Justice Department allege activities that would benefit the Chinese state, according to recent department figures. Meanwhile, two-thirds of the department's trade secret theft cases are connected to China.

This surge in known Chinese espionage activity has caught the U.S. intelligence community's full attention.

FBI Director Christopher Wray testified his agency is opening counterintelligence investigations into China "every 12 hours." 

Chinese espionage costs the U.S. between $200 to $600 billion a year in stolen intellectual property, according to Mike Orlando, the acting director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center. This has been happening for some 20 years, putting the total cost well into the trillions of dollars. 

Earlier this year, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines described Beijing as "an unparalleled priority for the intelligence community."The Justice Department didn't respond to a request for comment.

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