The Journal Gazette
Tuesday, September 21, 2021 1:00 am

Research threat

China Initiative more harassment than enforcement

Christer Watson

An important case was decided a couple of weeks ago; a physicist was acquitted.

The charges accused him of wire fraud and making false statements. More broadly, however, the case was a typical example of the Department of Justice's China Initiative.

The DOJ has been aiming for several years to prosecute scientists with connections to Chinese institutions. The justification was to prevent espionage and theft. In practice, however, it appears to be finding minor paperwork mistakes.

The case involved Anming Hu, a former professor at the University of Tennessee who specializes in nanotechnology. He is a Canadian citizen who is ethnically Chinese.

As is common for many scientists, he won grants from various funding sources. Much scientific research at universities is funded not by the university but instead by other organizations.

Hu won such a grant from the Jet Propulsion Lab, associated with NASA. Hu successfully completed the research associated with the grant and submitted the appropriate results to NASA and the lab.

Hu was also funded in his research, in part, by the Beijing University of Technology. This grant's terms included an expectation of working a minimum of two months a year and paid $4,700 a month.

This is roughly equivalent to paying the professor's salary during a summer, when the university does not provide salary.

The DOJ apparently became interested in this case because it thought Hu was involved in China's Thousand Talents program. This program was started in 2008 with the aim of bringing high-profile scientists to China to jump-start research programs. The program specifically targeted ethnically Chinese scientists who were very successful at foreign universities.

I want to emphasize a moral principle here. Every person should have the freedom to move and work in another country if they choose. We rightfully condemn the former Soviet Union's practice of trapping people behind the Iron Curtain, for example. If someone wants to move to China, that is their right and we have no moral standing to stop them.

The case against Hu was based on his work for both NASA and the Chinese university. Congress has set formal rules that forbid NASA from formal collaboration with Chinese-based institutions. The DOJ claimed Hu was an employee of the Chinese university and knowingly hid that information from NASA.

The ruling a couple weeks ago was that this case was not proven. More precisely, the jury could not come to a unanimous decision. The judge then ruled the case was unproven and Hu was acquitted.

It is worth repeating a few key points here. First, Hu did the research NASA paid for. Second, there was no espionage or theft of intellectual property. None of this work was classified, either.

Damage, however, was done. Hu was arrested in 2020. Because he is a Canadian citizen, his work authorization was not renewed and the University of Tennessee fired him.

There are other cases with similar results. According to a recent report, the DOJ's China Initiative has resulted in charges against nine professors or academics. None of the charges, however, involve economic espionage. Instead, the frequent charge appears to be wire fraud or making false statements.

There have been several acquittals or dropped charges. These do not appear to be strong cases. But these cases are doing damage.

The president of the American Physical Society sent an open letter to the U.S. attorney general regarding these prosecutions. The key claim was that the Department of Justice is harming U.S. scientific research. Informally, university administrators appear to be advising scientists to stop any collaborations with Chinese institutions to avoid potential scrutiny.

More formally, a recent survey of early-career scientists who chose not to come to the U.S. indicates that about half of them regard the U.S. as unwelcoming to foreigners.

Being the world leader requires attracting the best minds to solve the hardest problems. The U.S. cannot be unwelcoming to foreigners and lead the world in scientific research.

The DOJ's China Initiative is a misguided response to Chinese scientific efforts. It should be either radically reformed or eliminated.


Christer Watson, of Fort Wayne, is a visiting assistant professor of physics at Purdue University Fort Wayne. Opinions expressed are his own. He wrote this for The Journal Gazette, where his columns normally appear the first and third Tuesday of each month.

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