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Profiling concerns after Chinese academics drop charges

When the Trump administration unveiled a sweeping crackdown on economic espionage by the Chinese government in 2018, advocacy groups and academics expressed concerns that the effort could result in racial profiling and have a chilling effect on collaborations.

Then last week, federal prosecutors abruptly dropped the charges against five Chinese researchers at US universities accused of visa fraud, fueling new doubts about the “China Initiative” and calling on the Justice Department to end it or to reorganize it.

The rejections of the cases, which targeted scientists from universities such as UCLA, UC Davis, UC San Francisco and Stanford, represent an embarrassing setback in the federal government’s efforts to combat Chinese economic espionage, which authorities say costs the US economy at least $ 600 billion. one year.

Representative Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) said on Monday he was urging the Justice Department’s Inspector General to investigate “whether the China Initiative is putting undue pressure on Justice Department officials to they engage in inappropriate or illegal profiling “.

Representative Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park) said in a statement that the administration’s decision to drop the charges “is further evidence that these investigations are rooted in racial profiling, not national security.”

“The results are shoddy cases like these which can nonetheless ruin the lives of those charged even when the charges are dropped,” she said.

Justice Ministry officials have defended the initiative, saying such investigations play a key role in tackling the threat of espionage posed by China. Thousands of Chinese students and researchers in the United States are believed to participate in Chinese government programs that trick and encourage them to transfer sensitive information to China, according to the Justice Department and intelligence officials.

On Monday, officials said the layoffs did not represent a change in policy. They said they dropped all five cases, which the agency trumpeted in several press releases, after providing defense attorneys with a note from an FBI analyst who questioned the value of targeting visa violators. to identify and stop the illicit transfer of technology to China.

“The type of visa obfuscation in these cases is not, per se, considered an indicator of priority counterintelligence activity,” the analyst wrote. “At this time, there does not appear to be a significant overlap” between visa fraud and technology theft cases.

Federal prosecutors, acting days before the scheduled start of a trial, said it would take too long to resolve questions in court about the memo. The trial, set to begin Monday in a federal courtroom in Sacramento, targeted Juan Tang, 38, who had applied for a visa to do cancer research at UC Davis.

On Friday, the Justice Department decided to dismiss four more cases – at Stanford University, UC San Francisco, UCLA and Indiana University – because legal issues and allegations were similar. The researchers, if found guilty, faced relatively little risk of jail time, and it didn’t seem fair for criminal cases to hang over their heads during what should be a protracted legal battle on the FBI’s note, officials said. officials of the Ministry of Justice.

The initiative has long sparked controversy. Universities fear the scrutiny will drive out Chinese academics and jeopardize future collaborations.

Advocacy groups have said the Justice Department could better focus its resources on larger economic espionage schemes that result in technology theft, and that by focusing so much attention on Chinese economic espionage, the Federal officials could miss people who steal trade secrets for other nations.

An analysis by Asian Americans Advancing Justice found that nearly half of the 79 lawsuits filed by the Justice Department under the “China Initiative” did not include charges of economic espionage, theft of trade secrets or related crimes. Instead, the group reported, prosecutors have laid charges of tax and electronic fraud and lying on visa and grant application forms.

Gisela Perez Kusakawa, a watchdog lawyer for the advocacy group that oversees legal admissions involving researchers prosecuted under the initiative, said U.S. officials should provide more details on how he defines links to the initiative. ‘army.

Among those who saw their cases abandoned: Lei Guan, a visiting UCLA researcher who was accused of lying about a visa application to hide his ties to the Chinese military, of making false statements and destroying and altering records as part of a federal investigation.

Guan, 30, previously attended the National University of Defense Technology in China, a university supervised by the country’s military, wrote FBI agent Timothy D. Hurt in an affidavit.

Guan told officers that as a student he occasionally wore a uniform on holidays and had received military training that involved “a lot of walking, running and standing,” the affidavit said, but he said. insisted that he was just a “normal student”. and not a military officer.

Guan was arrested in August 2020 and charged with destroying evidence after officers saw him remove a computer hard drive from his sock and throw it in a trash can, Hurt wrote. He alleged that Guan threw away the damaged drive a few days after he was questioned by investigators and attempted to board a flight back to China.

Harland Braun, a lawyer who represented Guan, said the researcher was uncomfortable speaking to the media until he returned to China. He said that the hard drive had belonged to Guan’s fiancee and that she had tried to minimize the electronics to take home.

The pair were warned that “if you are going through US Customs, be sure to minimize your electronics as they will hold you back and [you’ll] miss your flight. That’s all the hard drive was, ”he said. “When they saw him throw it in the trash, they concluded that he was interfering with their investigation.”

In another dismissed case, authorities alleged that Chen Song, a 39-year-old neurologist visiting Stanford, had not indicated that she was an active member of the Chinese military, claiming that she had been working since. 2011 as a military doctor.

Song answered “yes” on a visa form when asked if she had ever served in the military, according to the indictment, but then allegedly contradicted herself: in response to prompts asking her “Rank / Position, ”Song falsely indicated that she was a student and lied about when her service ended, according to the indictment.

“Dr. Song came to the United States for a reason: to become a better doctor,” said Ed Swanson, an attorney who represented Song. “While at Stanford, she did important research to help patients with diseases of the brain – patients in the United States, China and around the world. ”

But Justice Department officials argue that the US government must be aggressive to counter the serious economic threat posed by China.

FBI Director Christopher A. Wray told Congress in April that the office opens a new investigation into Chinese economic espionage every 10 hours and has around 2,000 open cases that “link to the Chinese government,” this which represents an increase of 1,300% compared to the last few years.

Charlie Woo, Los Angeles regional chairman of the Committee of the 100, a non-partisan governing body of Chinese Americans that has raised concerns about the initiative, said he hoped the decision to drop the lawsuits marked a new approach for Biden’s Justice Department.

“We ask the new attorney general to really assess the China Initiative so that the focus is on the main mission, which is to stop spying from China but not to cast such a wide net that creates fear in the scientific community among researchers of Chinese descent, ”Woo said.

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