As US hunts for Chinese spies, university scientists warn of backlash
The FBI agents spent nearly two years tailing the professor, following him to work, to the grocery store and even keeping his college-age son under surveillance. They told the university where he held a tenured position that he was a Chinese operative, prompting the school to cooperate with their investigation and later fire him.
But the FBI was unable to find evidence of espionage, according to an agent’s testimony in court.
Federal prosecutors pressed charges anyway, accusing Anming Hu of concealing his ties with a university in Beijing and defrauding the government in connection with research funds he had received from NASA. The trial ended in a hung jury. One juror called the case “ridiculous.” In September, a judge took the rare step of acquitting the Chinese-born scientist on all counts.
“It was the darkest time of my life,” Hu said, in his first in-depth interview since being acquitted.
Universities in the United States once welcomed the best and brightest scientific talents from around the world. But government officials have become increasingly suspicious that scientists such as Hu are exploiting the openness of American institutions to steal sensitive taxpayer-funded research at the behest of the Chinese government. It’s had a chilling effect across campuses that scientists and university administrators say has slowed research and contributed to a flow of talent out of the United States that may benefit Beijing.
In interviews with several scientists of Chinese descent working in American universities, a picture emerged of a community on edge. Some described being humiliated by mandatory training on foreign interference that featured only examples of ethnic Chinese scientists, and unexplained delays for visa renewals. They were all concerned that seemingly anything — a collaboration with another scientist from China, a slip-up on a disclosure form — could provide an opening for federal investigators to come knocking.
The trial of Hu, who worked at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, is being held up as a clear example of government overreach. He was under house arrest for 18 months during the investigation with no job or income, reliant on GoFundMe donations for his legal defense fees. Neighbors and church friends delivered groceries and took out his garbage. Although the university has since offered to reinstate his job, Hu, a naturalized Canadian citizen, said his immigration status remains in limbo.
“My basic human rights were invaded, my reputation was destroyed, my heart was deeply hurt, my family was hurt,” he said. “This is not fairness.”
A recent study conducted by the University of Arizona and the Committee of 100, an organization of prominent Chinese Americans, surveyed scientists of both Chinese and non-Chinese descent working at academic institutions in the United States on issues of race and ethnicity in science and research. Around half of the Chinese scientists surveyed — including some American citizens — said they felt they were being surveilled by the U.S. government. Some have blamed a law enforcement program called the China Initiative, which was started during the Trump administration and has continued under President Joe Biden.
The program is aimed at preventing the Chinese government’s theft of American trade secrets and other acts of espionage. But scholars, scientists, civil rights groups and lawmakers have asked whether it has gone too far in targeting academics, especially since most research done at universities is unclassified and eventually published.
Nearly 2,000 academics at institutions including Stanford University, the University of California, Berkeley and Princeton University have signed open letters to U.S. 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, one of the signers, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist at Stanford University and a former U.S. secretary of energy. “We’re shooting ourselves not in the foot, but in something close to the head.”
Hu was the first academic charged under the China Initiative to stand trial. So far the FBI has brought 12 prosecutions at universities or research institutions in three years, but none have involved charges of economic espionage or theft of trade secrets or intellectual property. Most involved allegations such as wire fraud, lying to federal investigators and failure to disclose ties with China.