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The Justice Department should back off researchers

The department’s China Initiative, launched to target Chinese espionage and intellectual property theft, lacks focus and clarity — and has far too aggressively investigated scientists as a result.

Qing Wang, who was accused of hiding ties to a Chinese university while securing US research grants, says he "was shocked" when he was arrested in May 2020. Wang is photographed at home in Cleveland on Aug. 18.Dustin Franz/The Washington Post

In 2018, the Trump administration launched a major effort, known as the “China Initiative,” to tackle Chinese espionage in the United States. Its primary stated purpose was to root out Chinese spies in American businesses and laboratories who were transferring trade secrets, information, and intellectual property to the Chinese government. That’s a fine and important goal, but three years into the program, the initiative has proved to lack focus and clear guidelines. Despite announcing many charges and arrests related to the program, for example, the Department of Justice has yet to actually articulate what, exactly, constitutes a China Initiative case — leaving researchers, academic institutions, and watchdogs confused over what the federal government is looking for or even trying to achieve.

The lack of clarity or focus surrounding the program makes it ripe for abuse. In fact, a recent investigation by the MIT Technology Review found that the government has not only refused to be transparent but has also changed its records regarding the program. That’s especially concerning given how the initiative has manifested at academic institutions, as researchers and academics have been targeted by the government for their financial ties to China — potentially encroaching on their academic freedom and inhibiting collaboration with Chinese researchers.


Though a recent case involving Charles Lieber, a Harvard professor and world-renowned scientist, delivered a guilty verdict for Lieber and a victory for the Justice Department, the reality is that most cases, including Lieber’s, have failed to turn up any actual instances of economic espionage. In fact, only three of the at least 77 cases opened under the initiative claim that secrets and information were transferred to the Chinese government.

That’s why the Biden administration must evaluate the merits of the China Initiative as it currently stands and recalibrate it in order to actually focus on Chinese espionage and theft of intellectual property — a real problem that undermines scientific research and has national security implications. That means moving away from its current enforcement, which has far too often focused on researchers for failing to disclose any funding they received from the Chinese government, and instead put resources toward actual evidence of economic espionage.


Receiving grants from China is perfectly legal for researchers in the United States, as it should be, but people are required to disclose them. What got Lieber in legal trouble was not merely his failure to disclose funding he received from the Chinese, but his lying to the FBI and filing false tax returns — crimes that he should be held accountable for.

But many other cases opened by the Justice Department have simply been about researchers’ failure to disclose grant money from China, not affirmatively lying about their financial ties to Chinese research institutions. While academics should certainly disclose where they get funding from, in order to safeguard against conflicts of interest and potential double-dipping, failure to do so ought to be dealt with in a much less severe manner and ideally at the university level. (Punishment could come in the form of sanctions like losing grants, for example, leaves of absence, and, in more serious cases, job termination.)

Even Andrew Lelling, the former US attorney who prosecuted China Initiative cases, says that the public policy purpose of prosecuting nondisclosure cases has been served, and it’s time to move on. “If we were looking for general deterrence, which we were, we’ve achieved that. Researchers are terrified now,” he told the Globe editorial board. “What public policy goal is served by continuing to track down academics to prosecute? That to me is the issue. . . . Is there anything more in the public interest to be gained by doing new cases? Existing cases I think they should see through to the end. But why develop new ones? The point has been made.”


The problem with having the government so forcefully cracking down on nondisclosures is that it has had a chilling effect on scientific research by giving the impression that collaborating with Chinese scientists or institutions could land someone with a prison sentence if the agreement is not executed perfectly. And it also makes scientists, including Chinese researchers recruited by American universities, live in fear of being targeted. Indeed, Peter Zeidenberg, an attorney who represents many academics under investigation, told the Globe editorial board that he has seen Chinese researchers leave the United States altogether because they are afraid of unjustly getting caught up in this initiative — ultimately a loss for the United States, which is trying to draw talent from around the world.

It’s no secret that the China Initiative has been problematic from the get-go. By targeting a single nation, the program sparked concerns of racially profiling people of Chinese descent, including those who are US citizens. These concerns have not been quelled, given that nearly 90 percent of people charged under this initiative have Chinese heritage. Even Lieber, who is not of Chinese descent, was initially targeted in part because he had “too many” Chinese students in his lab, according to testimony at his trial.


The problems with the initiative don’t stop there. The FBI was found to have built a case against a researcher of Chinese descent at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville on false evidence — using false information to put him on a no-fly list, spy on his son, and pressure him into becoming a spy for the US government. This kind of misconduct should not be tolerated, but so long as the DOJ program is broad and lacks focus and transparency, then misconduct in this vein is likely to happen again.

At a hearing before Congress in November, Attorney General Merrick Garland assured lawmakers that Justice Department officials “never investigate or prosecute based on ethnic identity.” But a year into his tenure, his department has yet to publicly review how the China Initiative has manifested at universities, and whether it has threatened academic independence or resulted in racial profiling. It’s time for the Biden administration to take that step and prepare to change the direction of the program accordingly.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.