As DOJ Cracks Down on Chinese Espionage, Critics Seeks to Abolish Initiative, Citing Racial Discrimination

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As the Justice Department’s (DOJ) crackdown on Chinese-state-sponsored intellectual property nets the high-profile conviction of Harvard University’s former chair of chemistry, Charles Lieber, a growing list of China Initiative critics seeks to abolish the program that they say unfairly targets Chinese academics.

Notable opponents of the department’s “China Initiative” include Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) and Judy Chu (D-Calif.); the Stanford University faculty group, Winds of Freedom; and the Chinese American organization, Committee of 100.

Launched in 2018, the DOJ billed the initiative as seeking to stem China’s rampant theft of American intellectual property and as an “enforcement strategy” for “individuals whose primary profession is not intelligence collection, but who collect sensitive U.S. technologies and information on behalf of Chinese government entities” — that is, “non-traditional collectors.”

Lieber is among a series of U.S. academics convicted or charged under the initiative. Many of these academics have been charged in relation to failing to disclose their ties to Chinese funding sources.

According to prosecutors, “from at least 2012 through 2015” Lieber served as a “High Level Foreign Expert” in the Thousand Talents Program for the Wuhan University of Technology, receiving “up to $50,000” per month in pay and “approximately $158,000” for living expenses.

At the same time, Lieber was also supplied with “more than $1.5 million to establish a research lab” in China.

On Dec. 21, 2021, Lieber was convicted on two counts of failing to report foreign bank and financial accounts to the IRS, two counts of filing fraudulent income tax returns, and two counts of making false statements to federal authorities.

Prosecutors argued Lieber was motivated by the desire to conceal his undisclosed connections with the Thousand Talents Program, which U.S. authorities say is a Chinese Communist Party recruitment plan that facilitates the transfer of foreign technology and know-how to China.

Critics, however, maintain the China Initiative betrays its original charter, claiming the government pursues “process offenses” and “research integrity issues,” which they allege are not crimes related to economic espionage.

In September 2021, Winds of Freedom, the Stanford faculty group, sent a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland seeking the termination of the initiative. It stated: “Most prosecutions are for misconduct such as failure to disclose foreign appointments or funding. While such problems should be addressed, they should not be confused with national security concerns.”

Vera Zhou

Senior research fellow at the National Association of Scholars, Rachelle Peterson, shared an alternative perspective with The Epoch Times“Transparency of foreign gifts and contracts is crucial to public accountability. The public should know what foreign parties are buying influence over the colleges and universities that they attend, send their children to, or donate to.”

Peterson cited the story of University of Washington student, Vera Zhou, as “one of the most poignant stories showing the power of foreign funding.”

“On a trip back to China to visit family, Vera used a virtual private network to access her homework,” said Peterson. “For this she was arrested, sent to a re-education camp, and then held under house arrest. Bob Fu, the Chinese dissident and pastor, advocated for her release. The State Department worked, too, to free Vera. The University of Washington did nothing.”

Between October 2017 and March 2018, Zhou was held in a re-education camp in Xinjiang, according to Department of Education records and State Department officials. After March 2018, Zhou was remanded to “house arrest” and thereafter remained under the watch of Chinese authorities until the State Department secured her release and return to the United States in September 2019.

“When the State Department approached the University of Washington about asking for Vera’s release, the university refused, saying it was in the middle of negotiating ‘a multimillion dollar deal’ with China and didn’t want anything to jeopardize that,” said Peterson. “Shortly afterwards, the University of Washington brokered a deal with Huawei, the Chinese tech firm designated by the FCC as a national security threat.”

Epoch Times Photo
Students at the University of Washington are on campus for the last day of in-person classes in Seattle, Washington, on March 6, 2020. (Karen Ducey/Getty Images)

In December 2020, the University of Washington published a letter in response to the allegations, writing, “the insinuation that the University allowed financial interests of any kind to interfere with its handling of this situation is outrageous” adding they had “no idea what ‘multimillion-dollar deal’ [was] being referenced.”

However, Department of Education records documenting the receipt of foreign gifts note that between 2018 and 2019, the University of Washington received millions of dollars from Chinese companies Huawei, Origincell Technology Group, Shanghai De Novo Pharmatech, and Futurewei. In addition, the University of Washington was also receiving money from its on-campus Confucius Institute, a Beijing-funded language center that has been criticized for promoting Chinese propaganda, and maintaining an exchange program with Tsinghua University.

CEO of the Christian non profit, China Aid, Bob Fu, advocated on behalf of Zhou’s mother with the University of Washington before working with State Department officials to secure Zhou’s release. Fu told The Epoch Times he believes the University of Washington’s decision not to assist Zhou was “1,000% percent” influenced by the university’s Chinese entanglements.

“The timeline tells clearly there’s a link, there’s a relationship,” said Fu. “There are thousands of students from China at the University of Washington campus, and China pretty much controls them.”

At a Department of Education (DOE) press conference in October 2020, Zhou recalled her ordeal, describing the national security threat posed by undisclosed foreign money, “Donors can hold power over U.S. universities and influence actions … I spent my Thanksgiving, Christmas, and 2018 New Year in that cell … It makes me wonder, as a prestigious university, what do you really care [about]?”

China Funding

A 2019 letter (pdf) sent by then-DOE Acting General Counsel Reed Rubinstein to the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations announced the government’s intention to correct “historically lax oversight” regarding the reporting of foreign money by universities.

Rubinstein’s letter recounted Chinese Communist Party national security threats discovered from an investigation into six universities: Cornell University, Georgetown University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Rutgers University, Texas A&M, and the University of Maryland.

While the name of the given institution responsible for each of the entanglements was withheld, the letter reported: one university accepted funds from a foundation suspected of serving Communist Chinese propaganda and influence operations, one university received funds from a Chinese conglomerate to “develop new algorithms” and “biometric security techniques” for “crowd surveillance capabilities,” while another university had “multiple contracts” with the Communist Party of China’s Central Committee.

Moreover, as with the University of Washington, five of the six universities investigated had contracts with Huawei, which Rubinstein’s letter characterized as “a company that has been the subject of U.S. national security and trust concerns and banned from access to federal broadband subsidies for posing a national security risk.”

Furthermore, while Rubinstein’s 2019 letter detailed how between 2012 and 2019 the six universities collectively failed to report $1.3 billion from foreign sources, a 2021 follow-up letter to the subcommittee expanded upon the original investigation, revealing $6.5 billion in unreported foreign money accepted by universities.

Stanford University
Stanford University’s campus is seen in an aerial photo in Stanford, Calif., on April 6, 2016. (Noah Berger/Reuters)

Racial Profiling?

While there is documentation of ethnically Chinese victims resulting from China’s operations on American campuses, such as Vera Zhou, and of ethnically non-Chinese academics, such as Charles Lieber, being targeted by federal prosecutors, critics accuse the China Initiative of promoting racial discrimination.

A September 2021 white paper produced by the Committee of 100, a business organization of Chinese Americans, states, “The China Initiative launched by the Department of Justice is clearly racial profiling and injustice.”

Yet, the Chinese-American pastor who advocated on behalf of Zhou, Fu, calls such claims “ridiculous.”

“The Communist Party’s threat, their agent’s skin color happens to be yellow—that does not have anything to do with race, racial discrimination, or racism,” Fu said. “China’s Communist Party is a Chinese Communist Party.” [emphasis added]

Nevertheless, critics like Winds of Freedom view the number of ethnically Chinese academic defendants in China Initiative cases as evidence of the program’s discriminatory nature.

“We believe the China Initiative raises concerns of racial profiling,” the 2021 faculty group letter states. “The investigations have been disproportionately targeting researchers of Chinese origin.”

The Epoch Times spoke with the former Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, Thomas E. Wheeler, who is also a member of the Alliance for Asian American Justice, regarding critics’ concerns of discrimination, racism, and racial profiling in China Initiative cases.

“The Thousand Talents Program, as articulated by the Chinese Communist Party, targets individuals of either Chinese nationality or with Asian connections. It’s designed to pressure those Chinese individuals who have come to the United States and been educated in the United States, who have chosen to stay and work in the United States to engage in espionage,” said Wheeler. “The reason that a disproportionate number of Asians are implicated in the China Initiative is because China itself targets Asian Americans — and in particular Chinese nationalities.”

Confucius Institutes

In August 2021, Indiana Attorney General, Todd Rokita, launched an investigation into Valparaiso University’s Confucius Institute in order to determine “the true intent of any relationships between Valparaiso University’s programming and the Chinese Communist Party.”

In recent years, dozens of American universities have closed their Confucius Institutes amid heightened criticism of the center’s role in hampering academic freedom and promoting Chinese Communist Party propaganda. As of Jan. 18, there are 24 Confucius Institutes in the United States, down from more than 100 in 2017, according to the National Association of Scholars.

Confucius Institute
Bust of Confucius, Confucius Institute building on the Troy University campus, Troy, Ala., on March 16, 2018 (Kreeder13 via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Trump administration in August 2020 designated the Confucius Institute U.S. Center, a non profit that supports Confucius Institutes and Classrooms across America, as a foreign mission, in recognition of its role in “advancing Beijing’s global propaganda and malign influence campaign on U.S. campuses and K–12 classrooms.”

While Rokita refrained from commenting upon the “active investigation” into Valparaiso University, the attorney general told The Epoch Times, “Illegal conduct doesn’t know any specific border or kind of person. We go where the facts take us, it’s as simple as that. What other attorneys general should do is recognize this soft power, this propaganda, is real. And it’s going on in their states.”

Time will tell if officials, such as Rokita, shall succeed in convincing colleagues to be more cognizant towards potential Chinese government clandestine operations occurring within their purview.

Likewise, it remains unclear if critics of the China Initiative shall succeed in persuading Attorney General Merrick Garland to abolish the program or what would, if anything, be its replacement were the initiative to be abolished—for, at present, no substitute has been proposed.

Philip Lenczycki


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