“I do not plan to come back, I have no reason to come back. I plan to… live with dignity and happiness.” Those were the last words spoken in America by Qian Xuesen, a renowned scientist who co-led the Manhattan Project and co-founded NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, before being deported to China in 1955. The deportation itself was quite controversial, having taken place after Qian was groundlessly accused of being a spy for China and subsequently placed under house arrest for five years.
While American worries about Chinese espionage stretch back to the Cold War, such anxieties have only grown with the increasing importance cutting-edge technology in the Sino-American power struggle. So far, it appears that neither the U.S. nor China has an obviously superior hand, and so both sides have tried stealing trade secrets to give themselves an advantage. Chinese espionage often involves individuals recruited by Chinese companies or government entities bringing classified U.S. intellectual property back to China. Given that these stolen trade secrets involve vital information – including U.S. military strategies that could make fighter jets invisible to radar – it’s clear that such actions threaten America’s national security and need to be effectively countered.
Created in 2018, the Department of Justice’s China Initiative was meant to crack down specifically on Chinese economic espionage. However, as I’ve witnessed during my time at a U.S. Attorney’s Office, the China Initiative is more based on racial stereotypes than actual legal work. For the DOJ, the China Initiative is nothing less than an excuse to justify violations of Asian Americans’ constitutional rights. This is counterproductive to our national security and should be definitively ended by the Biden administration. For the sake of a tolerant and secure America, each American needs to urge Congress to exert more pressure on the executive branch to end the project.
Many critics, including 177 Stanford professors, have accused the China Initiative of intense racial profiling and sloppy legal work. While the program tried to uncover corporate espionage that benefits China, nearly 75 percent of suspects have been indicted on charges very distant from economic espionage, including making false statements to law enforcement or wire fraud. These common charges seen in the indictments often lead to weakened cases, which cannot sustain themselves. While federal prosecutors argue their efforts stop “the Chinese government [from] corruptly benefit[ing] from U.S. research funding,” there often is no evidence that any harm has occurred from sharing results of U.S.-funded research or that the sharing was even intentional.
More importantly, I’ve witnessed how labeling a case as a “China Initiative” case creates an atmosphere where concerns of “national security” seem to justify violations of various constitutional rights against people of Chinese backgrounds. Nearly 90 percent of the defendants charged under the initiative are of Chinese heritage, creating a perception with prosecutors that people from China have a higher likelihood of being a spy than other people. As a Chinese American, I felt increasingly uncomfortable with the racial terms used to describe the suspects, including “sneaky” and “dirty,” which have been historically used to justify the expulsion of Chinese. However, I never felt comfortable bringing my concerns to my supervisor, given the ease with which the whole office seemed to use or tolerate the usage of these terms.
This racialized atmosphere created conditions where prosecutors felt comfortable completely neglecting or outright ignoring suspects’ rights. For example, during an office-wide briefing about the decision to drop a case against five Chinese researchers alleged to have secret ties to China’s military, prosecutors chose not to focus on the little evidence linking the researchers with the Chinese Communist Party but instead complained how their case was thrown out on a “technicality.” What was that technicality? The fact that the researchers’ constitutional Miranda rights had been continuously violated by the FBI.
My experience is not an isolated one. FBI agents have admitted to pursuing a case against a Chinese Canadian professor even when the evidence didn’t support initial suspicions of spying. Based on this behavior, so commonly shown in China Initiative cases, legal analysts have argued that FBI agents pursued the case simply based on the fact that the professor’s last name was Hu.
The DOJ argues that it has “made incredible strides in countering systemic [Chinese espionage] efforts” and that the China Initiative is critical to combatting “the wide range of national security threats” posed by China. While protecting national security is indeed important, the tin evidence and low conviction rate of these cases make it clear that the China Initiative fails to actually combat Chinese corporate espionage. Instead, the China Initiative looks more like a project for the executive branch to appear tough on China at a time when such a stance is increasingly popular.
Instead, the DOJ’s efforts may actually be endangering U.S. national security by convincing Chinese scientists to work in China. A joint study conducted by the University of Arizona and the Committee of 100, a nonprofit group of leading Chinese Americans, found that 50.7 percent of Chinese scientists working in the United States experienced considerable anxiety at being surveilled by the U.S. government and planned to return to China. These are all scientists that could be aiding our research efforts in crucial projects relating to national security. However, the racial prejudice shown by the DOJ is making them and other Chinese scientists consider rediverting their talents to China.
This isn’t just a hypothetical problem. Returning to the example of Qian, after being deported to China under false pretenses of spying, he successfully developed China’s ICBM missile program, giving China the ability to launch nuclear missiles that could hit Washington, D.C. Former U.S. Secretary of the Navy Dan Kimball commented that deporting Qian was “the stupidest thing this country ever did.” Imagine what he could have done for the United States had he’d been allowed to live in America with what he asked for: “dignity and happiness.”
Instead of waiting for the next Qian Xuesen to be persecuted by the DOJ, President Joe Biden and Attorney-General Merrick Garland should remember the federal government’s shameful history of persecuting minorities and declare a moratorium on new cases under the initiative. Let us not shoot our national security in the foot, like our predecessors did, by continuing the China Initiative.
A previous version of this article attributed a survey to Arizona State University, not the University of Arizona.