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Chinese Academics in US Increasingly Going Home Out of Fear

The United States is paying a heavy price for the China Initiative, the 2018 probe of academic and economic spying begun by then-President Donald Trump which has driven up the number of Chinese-born academics departing back to China by 40 percent, according to a new study by the Asian American Forum.

The investigation was ordered ended last February by President Joe Biden. But, according to the 46-page report, titled Caught in the Crossfire: Fears of Chinese-American Scientists, “The China Initiative caused panic and an exodus of senior academic researchers of Chinese descent in the US.” The number who dropped their American academic or corporate affiliation in 2021 in favor of a move back to a Chinese institution jumped by 23 percent over 2020. In 2021, 1,500 Chinese scholars who were educated in the United States left to go back to China.

The US loss has been China’s gain. The returning academicians have steadily moved into top positions in academia and industry, “lured to return to China by a combination of factors: large and fast-growing investments in science, high social prestige and attractive financial rewards tied to positions in Chinese institutions, and capable research collaborators and assistants.”

Nor can the US afford it. American students themselves are opting for, in order: majors in business, social sciences and history, biological and biomedical sciences, communication and journalism and computer and information sciences, with the result that, according to a 2007 report by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine quoted in the AAF report: “American science may be in decline and soon lose its long-held leadership in the world. Evidence cited in support of this claim included inadequate US investments in science education at all levels and in scientific research, in an era when competing countries, China in particular, had been increasing science-related investments and narrowing gaps with the US.”

That difference was made up in US academia by foreign students, particularly Asians and particularly Chinese. Of 34,000 PhD recipients of degrees in science and engineering fields awarded by US institutions in 2020, 46 percent, or 15,000 held temporary visas, most of them foreign students.

“Among these 15,000 recipients with temporary visas, the largest portion came from China, at 37 percent. In other words, 17 percent of all 2020 US doctoral degrees in S/E went to foreign students from China.”

Most foreign-born noncitizen recipients of US S/E doctorates remain in the US for subsequent employment. “For those from China, about 87 percent have stayed in the US, constituting a significant part of the American S/E labor force.”

It should be noted that China’s thousands of Confucius Institutes across the world have been accused of creating a false picture of China, buying their way onto campuses, and using economic coercion to push the China story. But that doesn’t equate to espionage.

The sad part, according to the report, is that in reality, the Initiative, after targeting roughly 150 academics, didn’t catch any important spies. It “mostly targeted US-based academic scientists of Chinese origin for ‘research integrity’ issues, the most prominent being failure to disclose relationships with Chinese institutions on federal grant applications, particularly those to the National Institutes of Health.”

Of the 50 indictments announced or unsealed since the start of the program and posted on the Justice Department’s China Initiative web page, according to a 2021 Bloomberg report, 38 percent were academic researchers and professors with fraud for failing to disclose affiliations with Chinese universities. None has been accused of spying, and almost half of those cases were dropped. Only 20 percent allege economic espionage, and most of those are unresolved. Just three claim that secrets were handed over to Chinese agents, Bloomberg said.

One high-profile case was against Gang Chen, former head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a member of the US National Academy of Engineering, the report noted. “After his arrest on January 14, 2021, his lab was closed, and his research group dispersed. A year later, all charges were dropped. The chilling effect of the Gang Chen case was significant and consequential; it resulted in greater community awareness among Chinese-American scientists and heralded nationwide discussions in the community as to how to protect oneself.”

The result has been almost incalculable. ‘”While mainland China’s contribution to the world’s science and technology was minor only three decades ago, it is now a major contributor of science and technology,” the report notes. “In terms of the total number of science and technology publications in scientific journals, China has now surpassed the US as the world leader. In terms of patent applications by residents, China outperforms the US by a factor of five.”

At least part of the reason for that is the return of Chinese scholar-scientists from the United States back to China. It isn’t just in universities and colleges, and it isn’t just because of Trump’s initiative. The public attitude toward Asians has grown increasingly hostile as xenophobic commentators on cable television, radio and social media have railed against them, particularly after the onset of the Covid-19 coronavirus, which was found to have originated in Wuhan.

Some 32 percent of Asian adults say they have feared someone might threaten or physically attack them – a greater share than other racial or ethnic groups, according to an April 2022 survey by Pew Research. “The vast majority of Asian adults (81 percent) also say violence against them is increasing, far surpassing the share of all U.S. adults (56 percent) who say the same.”

Some of these espionage cases are so egregious as to be embarrassing to US investigators. Perhaps the most famous, or infamous, involves Lee Wen Ho, a Taiwanese-born scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, creating simulations of nuclear explosions to improve the safety and reliability of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

Lee was arrested and indicted on 59 charges of stealing secrets for China, ignoring the fact that he was Taiwanese. He was held in solitary confinement and interrogated for weeks. Eventually, the government was only able to charge Lee with improper handling of restricted data, one of the original 59 counts.

In June 2006, according to media reports, Lee received US$1.6 million from the federal government and five media organizations as part of a settlement of a civil suit he had filed against them for leaking his name to the press before any formal charges had been filed. “Federal Judge James A. Parker eventually apologized to Lee for denying him bail and putting him in solitary confinement and excoriated the government for misconduct and misrepresentations to the court.”

Nor is Lee Wen Ho alone. The government has taken on numerous cases of spying against Asian with widespread publicity, only to drop them later. When Song-Chun Zhu, an accomplished computer scientist and the director of the Center for Vision, Cognition, Learning and Autonomy at UCLA, announced his intention to return to China in 2019, according to the report, “an article was widely circulated on Chinese social media, publicly thanking Donald Trump and his China Initiative for sending top Chinese-American scientists like Zhu back to China.”

Zhu now serves as the dean of the Institute for Artificial Intelligence at Peking University./ By John Berthelsen/ Asia Sentinel 


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