FBI ‘did not intend negative impact’ of prosecuting Chinese academics with ties to Beijing under Trump-era China Initiative

FBI ‘did not intend negative impact’ of prosecuting Chinese academics with ties to Beijing under Trump-era China Initiative

The FBI did not intend the “negative impact” that the China Initiative had on the Asian-American community and is willing to learn, said an official from the agency on Friday, addressing members of the Committee of 100, a Chinese-American civic group.

The controversial initiative, enacted during the administration of former president Donald Trump, was launched in November 2018 to prosecute scientific researchers and academics with ties to China.

Ostensibly aimed at stemming industrial espionage by Beijing, it was harshly criticised by Asian-American groups as racist and too willing to punish people for minor paperwork violations.

The China Initiative was officially disbanded in 2022 by the administration of President Joe Biden, although some believe – given the long lead time on investigations and Washington’s deep distrust of China – that it continues in fact, if not in name.

“We value your ideas and your criticisms,” said Jill Murphy, deputy assistant director of counter-intelligence with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. “It makes us better.”

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Chinese-American scientists fear US racial profiling

Chinese-American scientists fear US racial profiling

Murphy added that she is a supporter of scientific collaboration with China, and that the FBI values its relationship with the Asian-American community, but said it must also ensure that American secrets are protected.

“Hold us accountable,” she added. “My hope is that we can continue our work together.”

Shan-Lu Liu, a virology professor with Ohio State University, said too many academics had been caught up in the law enforcement campaign, undermining US competitiveness, particularly in areas that have nothing to do with national security, such as the search for a cure for cancer.

The scientific community has legitimate concerns, said David Zweig, professor emeritus with the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

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There are currently 100,000 Chinese-born scientists in the United States making an enormous contribution to US science and competitiveness.

“China would love to trigger what we call a reverse brain drain, bringing these people back,” said Zweig. “But they haven’t been able to succeed in that very much.”

There’s nothing wrong with trying to entice talent to return and blunt the brain drain, he added. Several economies have talent programmes, including Germany, Canada and Taiwan. “I am one of those drains,” said the Canadian, who now lives in the US.

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David Zweig is seen speaking at a presentation in Hong Kong in 2018. Photo: Sam Tsang

The problem comes when professors and scientists decide to “return part time”, aiming to be paid by both sides by handing US taxpayer-funded research over to China, often in clandestine fashion, he added.

On the flip side, China’s talent programmes – there are some dozen national programmes in addition to several major provincial ones dating back at least a decade – have been overly aggressive, said Zweig.

“It’s not surprising to me that the United States has responded very strongly,” he said.

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“The other side of that is the American response, which I believe was way over the top in terms of the China Initiative … [and it comes] right from the top leaders in Washington.”

One lesson Asian-Americans need to draw from this experience, said participants in the conference, is the need to stand up more forcefully politically and ensure the right balance is maintained between security and successful collaboration.

Added Murphy as she touted the need for greater communication, dialogue and prevention: “Quite frankly, if we have to charge someone, we’ve already lost.”

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