On Tuesday, three organizations—Asian Americans Advancing Justice, the Brennan Center for Justice, and APA (Asian Pacific American) Justice—issued a joint letter to President-elect Joe Biden, urging him to end the Justice Department’s “China Initiative,” among other recommendations.
The letter was co-signed by dozens of organizations and individuals and expresses “deep concern with the federal government’s racial, ethnic, and national origin profiling and discriminatory investigations and prosecutions of Asian Americans and Asian immigrants, harming the lives of not just individuals, their families, and communities, but eroding the health of our democracy.” The letter goes on to argue that the China Initiative is one of several “racially biased policies and government efforts” that “create widespread fear among Asian American scientists and promote bigotry against the greater Asian American community.”
Before I address these claims, it will be helpful to remember just what the Initiative is and why it was created. According to the Justice Department (DoJ) website, the China Initiative, launched in 2018 by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, “reflects the strategic priority of countering Chinese national security threats and reinforces the President’s [Trump’s] overall national security strategy. The Initiative was launched against the background of previous findings by the Administration concerning China’s practices.” In other words, the Chinese government poses a particular threat to American national security and therefore requires a particular, targeted response.
The National Association of Scholars is well-acquainted with said national security threats, specifically within American K-12 and higher education. In 2017, Senior Research Fellow Rachelle Peterson revealed the inner workings of Confucius Institutes, Chinese Communist Party-operated “language and culture centers” that really function as propaganda and espionage nodes on American college and university campuses. Last year, we began researching China’s so-called “talent-recruitment” programs, most notably the Thousand Talents Program (TTP), by which the CCP clandestinely signs researchers outside of China to lucrative contracts in exchange for duplicating their research in Chinese “shadow labs.” And most recently, Peterson uncovered the years-long ties between the CCP and the College Board, including their collaboration in creating the Advanced Placement Chinese Language and Culture test. Given the growing power of the CCP and its sheer determination to establish global dominance, we expect that these three examples are but the tip of the iceberg.
Throughout all of this work, we at the NAS have heard the “investigating Chinese influence is racist” argument for years. Tuesday’s letter by Asian Americans Advancing Justice et al. is but its latest rehash. Frankly, the argument is weak. Here’s why.
First and foremost, efforts such as the China Initiative have nothing to do with race and everything to do with a specific government’s widespread, well-documented malfeasance. (This of course assumes that we even accept race as a valid category, which many do not, including myself. But I’ll cede for now that “Asian” and “Asian-American” are “races.”) Is it then “racially discriminatory” to focus investigative efforts on researchers connected to the Chinese Communist Party? Are these efforts indeed “the latest wave of resurgent xenophobia,” as the letter claims? Not at all, evidenced in part by the fact that the U.S. government does not investigate Asians of other nationalities to nearly the same extent.
There are no widespread DoJ investigations of Japanese researchers. Or Korean researchers. Or Taiwanese, or Mongolian, or Filipino, or Malaysian … you get the point. Why is that? Is it because the federal government has a special hatred of Chinese people? Hardly. It’s because, to our knowledge, none of these other governments have spent decades creating international research theft networks under the euphemism of “talent-recruitment.” Were we to find out they have done so, surely the U.S. government would investigate them as well. And this goes for any foreign nation, not just Asian ones. If the federal government were indeed motivated by anti-Asian racism, we would expect many more cases involving non-Chinese Asians. But we do not.
Furthermore, not everyone investigated or prosecuted for illegal ties to China is even Chinese. The only reason the Thousand Talents Program hit the mainstream press is because of the case of Harvard’s Charles Lieber, a white American man. In fact, at least eight of the 39 individuals in our TTP and TTP-related cases database are Americans not of Asian descent (there may be more, as five of the individuals have yet to be identified). Yes, the majority of cases involve suspects of Chinese descent, but it is foolish to claim that this is evidence of racism. China is a country of nearly 1.5 billion people. Over 90% of these people are of Han Chinese descent. It’s therefore common sense that the vast majority of those suspected of illegal ties to China are, you guessed it, Chinese. Claiming racism simply begs the question.
The letter states that “It is appropriate for the Justice Department to take measures to address the harms caused by agents of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) who have engaged in economic espionage and trade secrets thefts. However, naming only China in a DOJ initiative ignores threats of economic espionage by other nations. The label ‘China Initiative’ itself is as unacceptable as ‘China Virus.’” The Initiative by no means “ignores other threats.” Indeed, the federal government has taken measures to curb influence from other nations not named China. For example, former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and the Department of Education (ED) have both revised and beefed up enforcement of foreign gift disclosure regulations in the last two years. This has triggered the back-reporting of over $6.5 billion dollars by American colleges and universities, gifts that came from nations including China but also including Russia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar. Similarly, in August three members of the House of Representatives sent joint letters to leaders at six universities, imploring them to publish gift records from these very same nations. These efforts and more are not limited to China, or even Asia—they include any nation that is a demonstrated threat to American national security.
That said, and as I explained above, China has made itself a particularly dangerous threat to the U.S. and therefore warrants a targeted response. If you, Asian Americans Advancing Justice et al., know of other nations whose governments are stealing American intellectual property at even close to the rate of China, please alert the DoJ. Otherwise, stop pretending that all nations are equally culpable in this matter. You may take up your frustrations with the CCP, who, as the DoJ highlights, is the apparent beneficiary of “[a]bout 80% of all economic espionage prosecutions” on the federal level. Assuming that this high percentage is due to racism rather than that 80% of cases actually are related to China once again begs the question.
The DoJ also notes that “there is at least some nexus to China in around 60 percent of all trade secret theft cases.” The writers of this letter take issue with the phrase, “nexus to China,” which they claim “often is merely ancestral, leading to profiling by race, ethnicity, and national origin.” This ignores the very real efforts by the United Front Work Department to “make the foreign serve China,” which frequently draws heavily on the Chinese diaspora's ties to China, even if these individuals are not professional spies. We do have to be careful not to fall into racial profiling, but at the same time we have to have keep our eyes open to the fact that the Chinese government seeks to exploit private laypersons for political purposes.
It’s clear that the DoJ’s focused investigation of Chinese influence is not racist or otherwise discriminatory. On the contrary, this focus is needed to combat a specific problem by a specific government.
So we must ask: Do you, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, the Brennan Center for Justice, and APA Justice, actually care about justice? Or do you want to allow CCP meddling to go on unchecked, hiding behind fallacious claims of imagined racism? It is not just to turn a blind eye to intellectual property theft. It is not just to allow untold amounts of undisclosed CCP money to pour into our colleges and universities, both on the “legal,” institutional level and the illegal individual level. It is not just to, as you say, act as if “wire and other frauds, filing false tax returns, selling counterfeit computer parts, making false statements, and lying on university conflicts of interest forms” are “minor or unrelated offenses.” They are neither minor nor unrelated. They are the primary means by which researchers in America, Chinese or otherwise, cover up their own illegal dealings with the Chinese government.
Moreover, several forms of economic espionage are not, under current law, illegal, such as signing up for the Thousand Talents Plan. It's not that the U.S. government finds no evidence of espionage, but that our laws haven't kept up with the pace our current espionage practices. In the meantime, to leave the aforementioned “minor” crimes unenforced is to leave the door open to malign CCP influence in American higher education and beyond. The DoJ must do more, not less, to curb this threat.
The three organizations end their letter by urging President-elect Biden to “Immediately end the ‘China Initiative,’ which is based upon the unlawful and bigoted premise that scientists of Chinese descent should be investigated without evidence of wrongdoing, based simply on their ancestry.” As I’ve shown, this claim is ignorant at best and manipulative at worst. Biden should do nothing of the sort and ought to continue, indeed, to increase, President Trump’s efforts to protect American national security against any and all threats, be they from China or elsewhere.
David Acevedo is Communications & Research Associate at the National Association of Scholars.