HomeAsian AmericansFBI, Asian American civic groups hold forum on building trust post-China Initiative

FBI, Asian American civic groups hold forum on building trust post-China Initiative

By Julie Tong

Asian American civic groups held a rare two-hour forum with the FBI in hopes of rebuilding trust from alleged discriminatory policies against Asian Americans. 

Billed as “A Dialogue Between Academic and Asian American Communities and the FBI,” the forum was hosted at Rice University, and sponsored by APA Justice, the Baker Institute and Office of Innovation, and the Texas Multicultural Advocacy Coalition (TMAC). Its goal, organizers say, was to open dialogue with governmental agencies.

“We hope this forum will serve as a first step toward building a regular channel of communications between both of these groups,” said Sergio Lira, Vice President of TMAC. “And we hope the panel will provide clarity on the changing landscape of national research security policy, and its implementation.” 

One major focus throughout the panel was the China Initiative, which was launched by the Department of Justice in 2018. Numerous civil rights groups criticized the program for being discriminatory after numerous Chinese American scientists were arrested and investigated. The program was shuttered in 2022; most of the academics were acquitted, or their charges dropped.

Kelly Choi, Supervisory Special Agent for FBI Houston’s Field office, said bridging the gap between the Asian American community and the FBI is a major priority of the agency.

 “Our goal truly is to hear from the AAPI community and understand what impediments may exist that we’re preventing you from wanting to talk to and reach out to either federal law enforcement such as the FBI, or our local and state partners,” she said.

During the panel, FBI representatives reaffirmed their prioritization to civil rights, clarifying that their investigations were not opened based on race or ethnic origin. The agency’s focus, they say, is on technological espionage by foreign governments such as China, as well as national security concerns. 

“I know that some of the actions that have happened in the past have had a negative impact on this community. And that certainly was not the intent,” said Jill Murphy, the FBI’s Deputy Assistant Director for Counterintelligence. “The intent… was purely to stop the transfer of technology that’s incentivized by the government of China, and not to dampen the scientific work and the collaboration that makes the world a better place.”

Advocates from the Asian American community and civic groups said they appreciated the agency’s openness to dialogue and feedback. Many stressed that Asian American scholars are still discriminated against even after the formal end of the China Initiative.

A survey conducted by the Asian American Scholar Foundation (AASF) between December 2021 and March 2022 found that though 89% of Asian American scholars wanted to contribute to US science, they felt fearful to do so. More specifically, 42% of respondents reported being fearful of conducting research; nearly half avoided federal grant applications as well.

“The China Initiative devastated the lives of numerous Asian American scholars engaging in everyday academic research and led to a measurable chilling effect on the community,” said Gisella Kusakawa, Executive Director of AASF. 

At least 70 Chinese students with valid documentation recently were inexplicably barred from entering the country before being interrogated and deported, with some facing five-year bans on re-entry.

David Donatti, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU, observes this reflects how rights are at their “lowest point” on the border. He adds that the lack of clarity on policy from Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), who controls the border, and how the FBI works with that agency can still create discriminatory situations today.

“If you are a Chinese student, it used to be that coming to the United States was a gold standard, we are a city on a hill,” said Donatti. “And now it is terrifying, because you truly do not know if you begin your studies, if you will be able to re-enter the United States.”

Overall, community advocates hope that the open communication with the FBI, and other governmental agencies like the CBP, will eventually lead to much needed reform from both institutions.

One major point raised by advocates is transparency: historically, the government’s vague and broad policies involving national security, the border, and other issues affecting Asian Americans have opened the door for discrimination. This includes due process for any allegations against individuals so it can be addressed by their universities or legal support, and paths of accountability and redress for whenever people’s rights are violated. 

“[Transparency is] not only sitting down at a table and having a dialogue, although it’s very important,” Donatti says. “It’s also having meaningful policies in place that are rigorous and clear. and easy to understand. And these policies should be subject to scrutiny.”

Another important factor they outlined was the importance of having Asian Americans involved in high-level discussions with all agencies– especially with CBP. According to Nature, CBP had been invited to the forum but declined. Many advocates, including Kusakawa, stressed the importance of having the CBP present in light of discriminatory practices at the border. 

“We need protection and training to address racial bias, both implicit and explicit, as well as more scientific experts and thought leaders being included in the discussion with FBI, CBP and law enforcement,” she said. “And the last thing is, we need to keep in mind that we cannot have Asian American scholars be collateral damage while we take the time to try to get this right. 

FBI agents agreed that opening dialogue was essential for them to better protect the Asian American community.

Agents said that building trust with the Asian American community is essential for investigations– especially when investigating hate crimes. As such, ensuring that the Asian American community is comfortable speaking with governmental agencies is especially important.

And ultimately, maintaining open lines of communication is critical to helping that process, said Murphy.

“This partnership, this relationship is really important to the FBI. We need to strive to continue to learn and listen more,” she said.

“To protect this community, we really need to spend time listening to you and your concerns. And we’re not always right. And we can always be better. We need open lines of communication.”

AsAmNews is published by the non-profit, Asian American Media Inc. Follow us on FacebookX, InstagramTikTok and YouTube. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to support our efforts to produce diverse content about the AAPI communities. We are supported in part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library in partnership with the California Department of Social Services and the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs as part of the Stop the Hate program. To report a hate incident or hate crime and get support, go to CA vs Hate.


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