Abolish Trump-era ‘China Initiative’, academics urge, amid racial profiling criticism

Stanford University professors say the programme is fuelling racism and harming US competitiveness, rather than uncovering spies in universities

Calls are growing to abolish a controversial Trump-era initiative that looks for Chinese spies at US universities, which critics say has resulted in racial profiling and harmed technological competitiveness.

In a letter sent to the Department of Justice, 177 faculty members across 40 departments at Stanford University asked the US government to cease operating the “China Initiative”. They argue the programme harms academic freedom by racially profiling and unfairly targeting Chinese academics.

The letter follows the acquittal last week by a US federal judge of a researcher accused of concealing ties with China while receiving American taxpayer-funded grants.

“We understand that concerns about Chinese government-sanctioned activities including intellectual property theft and economic espionage are important to address,” the Stanford academics wrote. “We believe, however, that the China Initiative has deviated significantly from its claimed mission: it is harming the United States’ research and technology competitiveness and it is fuelling biases that, in turn, raise concerns about racial profiling.”

On Thursday, a federal judge in Tennessee acquitted Anming Hu, an ethnic Chinese nanotechnology expert at the University of Tennessee Knoxville, who had been accused of concealing his ties to Beijing while applying for research funding to work on a Nasa project. The judge said the US government hadn’t proven its case.

“Given the lack of evidence that defendant was aware of such an expansive interpretation of Nasa’s China funding restriction, the court concludes that, even viewing all the evidence in the light most favourable to the government, no rational jury could conclude that defendant acted with a scheme to defraud Nasa,” US district judge Thomas Varlan wrote in a 52-page ruling.

Anming Hu enters the Howard H. Baker, Jr. United States Courthouse in downtown Knoxville, Monday, June 7, 2021
Anming Hu, a nanotechnology expert at the University of Tennessee Knoxville. Photograph: Caitie McMekin/AP

Responding to the decision, the Department of Justice said “we respect the court’s decision, although we are disappointed with the result”, according to US media. Hu’s attorney, Phil Lomonaco, said the academic was focused now on recovering his tenured position at the University of Tennessee.

“Many universities should have learned from the experience that professor was forced to endure,” Lomonaco said. “The Department of Justice needs to take a step back and reassess their approach on investigating Chinese professors in the United States universities. They are not all spies.”

‘There’s a better way’

The high-profile trial came after a series of arrests of US-based researchers who had been accused of not properly disclosing their work in China in recent years. After a jury deadlock, Hu’s case ended in mistrial in June. An FBI agent admitted that he had “used false information to justify putting a team of agents to spy on Hu and his son for two years”, according to local news reports.

The Trump-era China Initiative began in 2018. In justifying such an operation, Department of Justice said on its website: “The Department of Justice’s China Initiative reflects the strategic priority of countering Chinese national security threats and reinforces the president’s overall national security strategy.” It also publishes a list of successful prosecutions – with the latest one on 14 May.

But critics say while it is necessary for the US to protect its national security, such a programme that targets an entire ethnic group would end up in discrimination against Asian Americans – in particular those who are of Chinese origin.

On 30 July, 90 members of the US congress urged the Department of Justice to investigate what they called “the repeated, wrongful targeting of individuals of Asian descent for alleged espionage”, in a letter to attorney general Merrick Garland.

Last week, Democratic congressman Ted Lieu demanded the Justice Department apologise to Hu. “You should stop discriminating against Asians. You should investigate your prosecutors for engaging in what looks like racial profiling. If Hu’s last name was Smith, you would not have brought this case,” he wrote.

The recent round of calls came in the wake of growing violence against Asians in the US. According to an FBI annual report last month, the number of reported crimes against people of Asian decent grew by 70% last year, totalling 274 cases.

Margaret Lewis of Seton Hall Law School in New Jersey, who has been calling on the US government to rethink its approach to research security, said: “I understand the need to be concerned about the Chinese government’s behaviour that incentivises violations of US law, but the US should first not engage in rhetoric that fuels xenophobia and racism.

“It worries me that people with certain characteristics might fall under suspicion,” she said. “Let us not pretend there’s no concern about Beijing, but there’s a better way to do it. Getting rid of the name is the first step.”


Vincent Ni China affairs correspondent

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
China likely to greet Trump-Kim talks with hope and trepidation
Closer ties between North Korea and US could spark anxiety over longer-term security threat

Tom Phillips in Beijing and Daniel Hurst in Tokyo

09, Mar, 2018 @8:30 AM

Article image
Trump aides defend tariffs move as Europe and China decry 'trade war'
British PM May expresses ‘deep concern’ in call with president while Senate Democrat says struggle with Europe would be ‘a boost for Russia’

Edward Helmore in New York

04, Mar, 2018 @5:14 PM

Article image
'The fool builds walls': China takes aim at Trump trade war threats
State media attack US president’s actions as selfish and rude after $50bn in tariffs are unveiled

Lily Kuo in Hong Kong

18, Jun, 2018 @4:59 AM

Article image
Trump held off China sanctions over Xinjiang to protect trade deal
President says he didn’t want to impose additional penalties while he was in the middle of a negotiation

Guardian staff and agencies

22, Jun, 2020 @3:52 AM

Article image
Donald Trump accuses China of 'unpresidented' act over US navy drone
President-elect makes spelling error in belligerent tweet as China says ‘hyping up’ of issue not helpful but agrees return of vehicle

Martin Pengelly and agencies

18, Dec, 2016 @1:43 AM

Article image
Donald Trump rails against China as team runs damage control over Taiwan
President-elect sent tweets hours after Mike Pence tried to downplay possibility that Trump could threaten diplomatic rift with Beijing through actions last week

David Smith in Washington

05, Dec, 2016 @8:53 AM

Article image
Coronavirus: Trump aide claims China guilty of cover-up akin to Chernobyl
White House seeks to blame Beijing and WHO for US deaths while Trump spends second day on golf course as toll nears 100,000

Richard Luscombe in Miami and Martin Pengelly in New York

24, May, 2020 @5:32 PM

Article image
Trump praises China and blames US for trade deficit
President says he does not blame Beijing ‘for taking advantage’ of US, and is confident it will defuse North Korea threat

Tom Phillips in Beijing

09, Nov, 2017 @4:30 PM

Article image
Chaos Under Heaven: Trump as raging bull in a China policy shop
Before Covid upended everything, the US president upended relations with Beijing – without interest or ability to build anew

Lloyd Green

14, Mar, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
Trump's Taiwan phone call preceded by hotel development inquiry
Woman who talked to mayor about airport expansion plans said she was associated with Trump Organization, official says

Nicola Smith in Taipei

03, Dec, 2016 @12:14 PM