by Rhiannon Koh, AsAmNews Contributor
Congress members, academics and journalists are speaking out against the Department of Justice’s China Initiative. They say the initiative unjustly targets Chinese academics with espionage accusations.
“In addition to harm it’s causing in our communities, the numbers simply do not justify this program,” Congresswoman Judy Chu said at a virtual press conference hosted by the United Chinese Americans coalition. “After 3 years of investigations, over 150 defendants and at least 77 cases, the China Initiative has secured just one single conviction in a court of law. This dismal record shows that the [Initiative] is flawed.”
The China Initiative was created in 2018 under the Trump Administration. According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s website, the Initiative works to identify and prosecute “those engaged in trade secret theft, hacking, and economic espionage” while protecting national infrastructure against external threats.
The virtual press conference also highlighted the Chinese academics who have been accused of espionage as a result of the China Initiative.
The DOJ often flags Chinese academics whose only wrong was committing paperwork errors. During the press conference, Congressman Ted Lieu noted that this occurred even before the China Initiative under the Obama Administration with Sherry Chen and Xi Xiaoxing.
Although those charges were dropped, the creation of the China Initiative followed a troubling trend. Lieu cited the United States’ troubling history of xenophobia and anti-Asian sentiments.
“We’re no longer looking at mistakes,” he said. “We’re looking at a systemic problem.”
Anming Hu is the latest Chinese academic to have been targeted by the China Initiative. Hu, who moved from Canada to the United States, was working at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville as an associate professor. Unbeknownst to him, the FBI began tracking Hu when they flagged an irregularity on his university paperwork.
Jaime Satterfield, a veteran Knoxville journalist who attended Hu’s trial, voiced his concerns about the FBI’s conduct.
“The thing that troubled me was the testimony,” Satterfield said. “The agent himself met with Dr. Hu and told Dr. Hu that he did not believe that he was a spy or was involved in espionage. It was only after Dr. Hu refused [the FBI’s offer to spy on China] that the agent began stalking Hu and his son. The FBI basically strongarmed the University, which then threw Hu under the bus.”
Wendy Chandler, one of the jurors on Anming Hu’s trial, also criticized the FBI.
“During the trial it was clear to me that the overwhelming desire to believe the FBI blurred all sense of rationale and reason. I kept wondering why these FBI agents—under the guise of protecting America—felt that this trial was worth going ahead with,” Chandler said.
“They know they lied, they know they spent countless hours, time, and money trying to prove their lie. And they nearly were successful. When the government starts throwing away facts and integrity and acts with malicious intent, we are all less safe. The China Initiative has proved itself to be huge error in judgement, and it would be nice to see some kind of apology to Professor Hu from the FBI and the University of Tennessee.”
Rep. Chu said it is troubling that the U.S. government has said it needs to retry the case even after the FBI agents admitted to knowingly building their case with falsified evidence and the case was declared a mistrial.
Though Hu was fully acquitted in September 2021, he struggles to rebuild his reputation.
“I often questioned my decision to leave Canada and move to the US and devote my life to research in this country,” Hu said. “It was a very dark time in my life.”
Hu’s lawyer, Philip Lomonaco, said that agents should go to where the espionage is, and not to specifically target a race because of it.
“That very phrase—China Initiative—drove our FBI agent, in this case, and other actors in this case to go to extent that they went to, to get a conviction on Anming Hu,” he said. “The Initiative means go after Chinese… and that’s where they were wrong to begin with.”
Hu was also joined by Qing Wang and Franklin Tao’s wife, Hong Peng, other academics who were also accused (and charges later dropped of espionage). Wang, who decided to move back to China after the ordeal, condemned the Initiative as a “politically motivated witch-hunt movement.”
Peng said her husband’s arrest took an emotional toll on him and his family.
“Ten years ago, my husband came to the USA with the dream of becoming an American scientist. For the past 20 years, he fully devoted his life to science to fulfill his dream of becoming an American scientist,” Peng said. “Now his career and life have been destroyed by this prosecution.”
Rep. Liu is hopeful that the Biden Administration will approach espionage cases differently.
“Unfortunately, when the former administration took over, they did not do the implicit bias training,” Liu said. “Now, under the Biden Administration, I’m very pleased that when Attorney General Merrick Garland was questioned at the House Judiciary Oversight Committee, he agreed to re-implement the implicit bias training at the Department of Justice to prevent any further instances of racial profiling.”
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