Two Chinese American scientists They were suspended from their jobs the same day last month at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, raising concerns among their colleagues that they may have been targeted because of the fallout from the US. The controversial China Initiative of the Ministry of Justice.
The two scientists, both U.S. citizens working in the biomedical sciences, were notified of the dismissal at the same time on the morning of August 30, according to three sources and a document reviewed by The Intercept. One scientist declined to comment; the other did not respond to a request for comment.
The China Initiative was launched in 2018 under then Attorney General Jeff Sessions to combat industrial espionage, technology transfer, and hacking from China, but it floundered and sparked criticism from civil rights activists and Asian American activists. Despite ongoing Justice Department hype, charges in several recent cases have been dropped. Earlier this month, a federal judge acquittal Former scientist Anming Hu of the University of Tennessee-Knoxville after a lawsuit. A member of the jury attending the trial, told The Intercept “It was the most ridiculous case.”
The China Initiative was accompanied by an effort from the US National Institutes of Health, which administers federal grant money for biomedical research. research hundreds of researchers suspected of not disclosing foreign affairs. Inside June 2020 presentationMichael Lauer, the NIH’s deputy director of extracurricular research, said that to date, about a third of their investigations have involved the FBI, with 93 percent involving undisclosed ties to Chinese institutions.
Baylor cited potential problems with federal grant compliance as reasons for dismissing its scientists, among other concerns. But two Baylor faculty members told The Intercept they were afraid the school would punish people for their spouse’s work. Both of the dismissed scientists are married to scientists who have served in China. Faculty members asked them not to reveal their names as they were not authorized to speak to the press.
Houston was a sweeping ground 17-month FBI investigation sent in 2018 shock waves through the scientific community. The investigation involved FBI agents working with administrators at the NIH and MD Anderson Cancer Center, whose campus is adjacent to Baylor. For months, agents hunted down ethnic Chinese scientists, gaining access to the network accounts of 23 MD Anderson employees, and in one case installing a surveillance camera near a researcher’s office. In 2019, MD Anderson announced that it fired three scientists as a result of the investigation, but none of them were ultimately charged with a related crime. A scientist was charged in district court with possession of child pornography and was defamed in the local press, but saw the charge against him dropped.
A Baylor spokesperson declined to comment, saying the college did not discuss personnel issues. A spokesperson for the NIH said the agency “does not discuss internal audit reviews. [grant] recipient institutions or their affiliated researchers, regardless of whether such reviews have taken place or are ongoing.” The FBI did not respond to a question about whether it was investigating the two scientists.
China Initiative, attractive widespread examination. Recently Ministry of Justice information Form says the effort aims to define “non-traditional”. [information] Collectors (for example, researchers in laboratories, universities, and defense industry bases) who are involved in technology transfer against US interests.” Civil rights activists are concerned that the label “non-traditional collector” is being broadly interpreted to mean anyone of Chinese descent.
“Either what the FBI and other intelligence agencies say about this enormous threat from non-traditional collectors is true and they’re really bad at finding them, or the rhetoric is overkill and we need to be much more understanding,” Michael said. German is a man from the Brennan Center for Justice and a former FBI agent. In an interview with The Intercept, he called for “to ensure that the resources devoted to economic espionage are actually focused on people who are directed by the Chinese government.”
Over the past few decades, many US institutions have established joint programs and projects in China, often putting ethnic Chinese researchers on board to build ties. These scientists now say their institutions are sending mixed messages about international cooperation. For example, MD Anderson received the 2015 award from the State Council of China at a ceremony attended by Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Two years later, an MD Anderson vice president flew to Beijing to meet with the director of the agency that manages the China’s Thousand Talents program, which the FBI has often targeted.
Baylor also had several partnerships in China and encouraged researchers to work in the country, according to the faculty. Such an effort is official partnership Covering joint research projects and scientific exchanges at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou. Baylor on its website announces the job as a powerful example of cross-border cooperation. And the Chinese consulate in Houston in 2014 published photos From the signing ceremony that featured a Baylor center and a Beijing University-affiliated biomedical company. (In July 2020, the Trump administration suddenly Houston closed its consulateSecretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed it was “the center of espionage and intellectual property theft.”)
Baylor did not respond to questions about its work in China. It is unclear whether the partnerships are still active.
Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director Christopher Wray speaks during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on July 23, 2019, in Washington, DC. Wray said during the hearing that China was the biggest counterintelligence threat to the United States.
Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Although the China Initiative was launched under the Trump administration, profiling of ethnic Chinese scholars comes long before that. FBI’s Counter-Intelligence Unit, a special Economic Espionage Unit In 2010, under the Obama administration. The Justice Department says more than 80 percent of economic espionage prosecutions involve China, and FBI Director Christopher Wray has repeatedly alleged that the bureau has filed a new lawsuit involving China every 10 hours. But civil rights activists and lawyers say the Department of Justice has few successful prosecutions to make this effort. “There are big problems out there and I’m sick of being told you don’t have a security clearance,” said Margaret Lewis, a law professor at Seton Hall University whose research focuses on law in China and Taiwan. . “It’s not good enough for me. I can’t be told, ‘Trust us, we are the government.'”
In both the China Initiative investigations and previous litigation, Justice Department officials have argued that regardless of the issue, US scientific research and corporate knowledge are important issues of national security. Prosecutors filed lawsuits centering on genetically modified GlaxoSmithKline drugs Monsanto corn seedand a DuPont bleach used in paint and Oreo cookies. At times, agents resorted to extreme tactics. for 2012 case The FBI conducted an elaborate sting operation involving glass block insulation and movie smell publicize their work.
Since 2018, the bureau has also followed the examples of unreported Chinese ties flagged by the NIH — a persistent problem in academia, but something critics say is not meant to steal technology.
Baylor executives had previously given permission to scientists flagged by the NIH. chance to correct potential grant reporting violations, rather than subjecting them to criminal investigation. This approach has earned the institution praise among local faculty as well as among Asian-American activists. But the executive overseeing this effort has recently left Baylor.
“Baylor is no longer what it used to be,” said Steven Pei, a co-organizer of the APA Justice Task Force and an engineering professor at the University of Houston, who defends Asian American scientists wrongfully accused of crimes. “The faculty is now just as confused, frustrated and scared as they were two to three years ago.”