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Credit: Tyler Kliem

Over 150 Penn faculty members have signed onto an open letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland, urging the U.S. Department of Justice to overturn the “China Initiative” which they allege disproportionately targets researchers of Chinese descent.

The China Initiative project was unveiled in 2018 during the Trump administration, with the stated purpose of preventing economic and technological espionage for the benefit of the Chinese government. The open letter, however, wrote that the China Initiative has unfairly targeted Chinese and Chinese American researchers without evidence of espionage and is harming the U.S.’s technological progress and workforce. 

The letter comes at a time of mounting pressure from academic and political institutions towards the DOJ to revoke the Trump era initiative.

Faculty co-sponsors said that they wrote the letter to support efforts by Democratic Congressman Ted Lieu to bring a review of the China Initiative to the U.S. Congress. In July 2021, Lieu — along with 90 members of Congress — wrote a letter to Garland, urging the DOJ to investigate the “repeated, wrongful” prosecution of Asian researchers and scholars. Lieu also spoke at a Jan. 30 webinar organized by the Asian American Scholar Forum on the China Initiative and Chen's case.

The letter was drafted and organized by six faculty members from three different schools at Penn, including two from the College of Arts and Sciences, two from the School of Engineering and Applied Science, and two from the Perelman School of Medicine. The co-sponsors said the letter will be sent to Garland at the end of February.

The majority of the 168 signatories are faculty members in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, but faculty from a diverse range of disciplines — including political science, theatre arts, and English — have signed onto the letter in support.

The Penn faculty wrote that the China Initiative suffers from three “fundamental flaws" which make it discriminatory, misguided, and antithetical to scientific progress.

Racial Profiling

The first flaw in the logic of the China Initiative — according to the faculty members — is its targeting of researchers with ties to China without any evidence of wrongdoing. The faculty claim that the majority of prosecutions were based on racial profiling rather than any threat to national security.

Economics professor Hanming Fang — one of the letter's co-sponsors — said that he was alarmed by the fact that the China Initiative singled out one country and ethnicity in its name.

“The very nature that China is being mentioned in the name of the initiative is actually unprecedented. The DOJ [has] never had any other initiative that singles out a particular country and ethnicity,” Fang said.

Computer and Information Science professor Boon Thau Loo — also a co-sponsor — added that the letter was written in solidarity with Chinese academics and for the benefit of the research community.

“The label China has caused a lot of discomfort. Today, [it is] China; tomorrow, it could be another country,” Loo said. “I'm also worried about my own students in the future. When they enter the academic job market, are they going to be looked upon differently?”

A Disproportionate Response

The letter wrote that the second failing of the China Initiative was that the majority of investigations brought against Chinese researchers are due to failures to disclose foreign appointments or funding rather than espionage or intellectual property theft.

“[T]hese actions do not just affect the prosecuted faculty but affect the many more university researchers who are targeted, investigated, and feel threatened by inquiries initiated without prior evidence of significant wrongdoing,” the letter reads.

On Jan. 14, 2021, Gang Chen — a professor of mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — was arrested by the FBI. He was charged by the U.S. government for allegedly failing to disclose affiliations with Chinese government institutions when he applied for grants from the U.S. Department of Energy in 2017. A year after his arrest, the U.S. government dropped all charges against Chen.

Fang said that Chen’s arrest has caused many Chinese and Chinese American academics to fear that they may be the next target of the China Initiative. He added that Chen’s alleged 'crimes' — reviewing overseas grant applications or writing recommendation letters for his students seeking overseas employment — are normal activities that most academics engage in.

“I just felt like this involves a tremendous amount of misunderstanding about what academics do,” Fang said.

Negative Effect on U.S. Research

The third fundamental flaw of the China Initiative, according to the letter, is that it limits the progress of science and technology research and creates a hostile environment for Chinese and Chinese American researchers in the U.S.

The faculty members wrote in the letter that the China Initiative — along with other actions by the U.S. government — has created an “increasingly hostile atmosphere” for Chinese scholars, visitors, and immigrants.

Faculty co-sponsor and Physics and Astronomy professor Andrea Liu compared the current hostility between China and the U.S. to the Cold War-era tensions between the Soviet Union and the U.S. The current climate, she added, echoes the McCarthyist Red Scare of the 1950s, when scientists and scholars were accused of working for the communist USSR.

“Which response paid off better for the U.S.? McCarthyism, or the buildup of science and technology?” Liu asked. “I think that the historical answer is really clear. And I feel that what's happening with these investigations is we face that choice again.”

The other faculty co-sponsors were Shu Yang, a professor of material science and engineering, Gary Wu, a professor of gastroenterology at Penn Medicine, and James Gee, a professor of radiology at Penn Medicine.

Several of Penn’s peer institutions have organized similar open letters to the DOJ. In December, nearly 100 faculty members at Yale University signed an open letter to Garland denouncing the China Initiative. At Princeton University, 198 professors signed a letter sent in October 2021 to the DOJ criticizing the China Initiative.

Liu emphasized that even when academics falsely accused of a crime under the China Initiative are not convicted or charged, these cases should never have occurred in the first place.

“Even when there’s a good outcome — when charges are dropped, cases are closed in investigations, such as what happened with Gang Chen at MIT — his life will still never be the same. His children still saw him led off in handcuffs from their house,” Liu said.