As U.S. Hunts for Chinese Spies, University Scientists Warn of Backlash

The F.B.I. agents followed the professor for nearly two years and even kept his son under watch. He was fired from his tenured position at the university after they told them he was a Chinese spy.

An agent testified in court that the F.B.I. was unable to find evidence of espionage.

Federal prosecutors accused Anming Hu of concealing his ties with a university in Beijing and defrauding the government in connection with research funds he received from NASA. The trial ended in a hung jury. The case was called ridiculous by one juror. The scientist was acquitted on all counts by a judge.

In his first interview since being acquitted, Dr. Hu said it was the most difficult time of his life.

Universities in the United States used to have the best and brightest scientists from around the world. Government officials are suspicious of scientists like Dr. Hu who are exploiting the openness of American institutions to steal sensitive taxpayer-funded research at the request of the Chinese government. Scientists and university administrators say that it has slowed research and contributed to a flow of talent out of the United States that may benefit Beijing.

A picture of a community on edge emerged from interviews with several scientists of Chinese descent working in American universities. Some people said they were humiliated by mandatory training on foreign interference that only featured examples of ethnic Chinese scientists. They were concerned that a collaboration with another scientist from China could provide an opening for federal investigators.

The trial of Dr. Hu, who worked at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, is being held up as an example of government overreach. He was under house arrest for 18 months with no job or income, and was dependent on donations from the community for his legal defense fees. His garbage was taken out by his neighbors and church friends. Dr Hu said his immigration status remains in limbo after the university offered to restore his job.

He said that his rights were invaded, his reputation was destroyed, and his family was hurt. This is not fair.

Anming Hu lives in Tennessee. The Chinese-born scientist and professor has spent the last few years fighting accusations that he acted as a spy for China.

A recent study conducted by the University of Arizona and the Committee of 100, an organization of prominent Chinese Americans, surveyed scientists of both Chinese and non-Chinese descent working at academic institutions in the United States on issues of race and ethnicity in science and research. Some American citizens and around half of the Chinese scientists said they felt they were being watched by the U.S. government. The China Initiative was started during the Trump administration and has continued under Biden.

The program is meant to stop the theft of American trade secrets by the Chinese government. Civil rights groups and lawmakers have asked if it has gone too far in targeting academics, since most research done at universities is unclassified and eventually published.

Nearly 2,000 academics at institutions including the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Princeton University have signed open letters to Attorney General Garland expressing their concerns that the initiative disproportionately targets researchers of Chinese descent and urging that the program be terminated.

Steven Chu, a physicist and former U.S. secretary of energy, is one of the signers. We are shooting ourselves in something close to the head.

The first academic to be charged under the China Initiative was Dr. Hu. The F.B.I. has brought 12 prosecutions at universities in the last three years, but none of them have involved charges of economic espionage or theft of trade secrets. wire fraud, lying to federal investigators, and failure to disclose ties with China are some of the allegations.

A problem years in the making is behind the recent scrutiny of academics.

Scientists have sought alternative sources of money over the past two decades as federal funding for basic scientific research at universities has been stagnant. American universities wanted to expand their global footprint and collaborated with international peers. Beijing, which aspires to become a science and technology superpower, was happy to oblige.

Researchers took advantage of opportunities in China, including talent recruitment programs, lucrative consulting contracts, and grants.

The Chinese government sometimes used these relationships to steal intellectual property from American companies. As the Trump administration intensified scrutiny of espionage by China, it expanded the dragnet to include academic collaboration, prompting federal agencies that provide funding and some universities to step up enforcement of policies on the disclosure of foreign ties and conflicts of interest.

In recent months, academics have signed open letters urging that the China Initiative program be terminated.

Anna Puglisi is a senior fellow at Georgetown University's Center for Security and Emerging Technology. The bigger question we need to be asking is, "Do we have the system in place to mitigate the behavior and central government policies of a nation state that are specifically set up to target the seams in our system?"

To some, the scrutiny was excessive.

Many scientists are frustrated by the fact that it is hard to avoid getting caught in the F.B.I.'s web because of the confusing disclosure guidelines from universities and funding agencies. NASA and the University of Tennessee at Knoxville gave unclear rules on how to disclose foreign ties during Dr. Hu's trial.

Card 1 of 6.

There was a tense era in U.S.-China relations. The two powers are at odds as they compete for influence and technology in other countries. The main fronts in U.S.-China relations are listed here.

Pacific dominance. The U.S. has sought to widen its alliances in the region as China has built up its military presence. Taiwan is a democratic island that the Communist Party considers to be Chinese territory. It could change the regional order if the U.S. intervenes there.

It is possible to trade. The trade war is on hold. The Biden administration has continued to protest China's economic policies and has imposed tariffs on Chinese goods.

Technology. There are still plenty of U.S. tech companies doing business in China despite internet giants being shut out. China needs to achieve technological self-reliance according to Mr. Xi.

Michael German, a fellow at New York University's Brennan Center for Justice and a former F.B.I. agent, said that the Chinese government and C.C.P. are engaged in economic espionage and other malign behaviors. The U.S. government should focus on its resources instead of trying to get easy statistical accomplishments out of college professors who have nothing to do with Chinese espionage.

A spokesman for the Justice Department said the department was dedicated to counter Chinese efforts to undermine national security, but also took concerns about discrimination seriously.

unease is growing In 2010 Yiguang Ju was asked to help develop a plan for the future of American rocketry by NASA and he said it had been the honor of a lifetime.

He said he would decline the invitation if it were offered today. The pride of working with the agency was not worth the risk to him and his family. He said it was not because he didn't want to serve. I am scared to serve.

I don't want to serve. Yiguang Ju, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Princeton University, fears that if he were to work with NASA again, he would be in for a lot of scrutiny.

China has begun to experience a reverse brain drain. Over the last decade, a growing number of Chinese scientists have returned to the country due to the promise of plentiful funding, impressive titles and national pride. Scientists coming back to China say the hostile environment in the United States is a factor.

Many who once held faculty positions at top American schools have been recruited by a Chinese research university. A professor from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was hired by Westlake in August.

Shi Yigong, the president of the university, said that colleagues had complained about the atmosphere of suspicion in the United States. Sometimes I hear stories of a bitter nature from those who have decided to leave their jobs in the U.S. I think some of them have been treated harshly.

Dr. Hu is determined to stay in the United States.

The son of a factory worker grew up in a poor village in the east of China and said his interest in science began at a young age. In elementary school, he rigged a radio with a speaker and scrap mineral and hung it from a tree.

He left China in 1997 to get a second PhD in physics in Canada, after earning advanced degrees in China. He moved to the United States with hopes of a better life and career.

He said that he has sacrificed too much.

He wants to stay in the United States to contribute to science and justice, but also to his new passion. He said that he has no interest in politics. Targeting Chinese and Asian Americans will not make the United States strong.

Amy Chang Chien contributed reporting.