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Culture of suspicion spawned by DOJ’s “China Initiative” may work against U.S. interests

By David Schwartz
Published: November 30th, 2021

The “China Initiative,” the Department of Justice’s ongoing effort to crack down on foreign espionage or improper involvement in U.S.-funded university research, appears to be having a chilling effect on Chinese-American scientists that could ultimately hurt U.S. technology competitiveness while helping China, according to a report in the New York Times.

The Times chonicles several cases in which scientists of Chinese descent have been targeted by FBI investigators, with severe negative consequences on their lives and careers, without much evidence beyond what amounts to clerical errors in submitting disclosure forms – which are often confusing to begin with.

As a result of these types of cases, and what many Chinese-American scientists say is a culture of suspicion brough on by the DOJ crackdown, some top researchers are returning to China and bringing their technology know-how with them.

A recent study conducted by the University of Arizona surveyed scientists of both Chinese and non-Chinese descent, finding that half of the Chinese scientists surveyed — including some American citizens — felt they were being surveilled by the U.S. government.

It’s that climate that prompted nearly 2,000 academics from many top U.S. universities have signed open letters to Attorney General Merrick Garland expressing concerns that the initiative disproportionately targets researchers of Chinese descent and urging that the program be terminated.

“So much of our intellectual technological power is from immigrants,” said Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist at Stanford University and a former U.S. Secretary of Energy, who was one of those signing the letter. “We’re shooting ourselves not in the foot but in something close to the head.”

Many scientists have expressed frustration over what they say are shifting and overlapping disclosure guidelines from universities and funding agencies, which can result in FBI scrutiny. And some experts say the focus on college professors is misguided, and the real problems lie with bigger fish.

“I don’t think anybody doubts the Chinese government and C.C.P. are engaged in economic espionage and other malign behaviors,” said Michael German, a fellow at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice and a former F.B.I. agent. “So that’s where the U.S. government should focus its resources, instead of trying to grab easy statistical accomplishments by targeting college professors who have nothing to do with Chinese espionage.”

Source: The New York Times

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