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Mistrial in Justice Dept. fraud case against college professor prompts renewed scrutiny of agency’s ‘China Initiative’

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 6/17/2021 David Nakamura, Ellen Nakashima

Federal prosecutors failed to win a conviction this week in a case against a college professor in Tennessee accused of hiding his part-time work for a Chinese university, renewing criticism from civil rights advocates over a Trump-era Justice Department program targeting China’s economic espionage.

A Knoxville judge declared a mistrial Wednesday after a 12-member jury deadlocked in the case of Anming Hu, 52, a Chinese Canadian charged in February 2020 with federal counts of wire fraud and making false statements.

Prosecutors alleged that Hu, an associate professor of mechanical, aerospace and biomedical engineering, sought to conceal part-time work for the Beijing University of Technology to satisfy restrictions on grant funding from the U.S. government, including NASA.

Hu, who joined the University of Tennessee in 2013, was the first academic to stand trial on non-espionage charges under the Justice Department’s “China Initiative,” established by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions in 2018 to root out the Chinese government’s expanding efforts to steal intellectual property in the private sector, and at scientific research institutions and universities.

The department has brought charges in more than a dozen cases, including against high-profile faculty members at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Some of those charged were not of Chinese descent.

[G-7 takes stronger stand against China, at U.S. urging]

Federal prosecutors did not say whether they would seek to retry Hu.

“There ought to be some checks and balances and at least reasonable suspicion before they do to another Chinese professor what they did to Anming Hu,” said Philip Lomonaco, Hu’s attorney. He said the FBI investigated Hu for a year and nine months, with agents following him to work and the grocery store, staking out his house and even monitoring his son, a college freshman.

“The FBI had not even a scintilla of evidence that Professor Hu was committing a crime,” he said.

Marc Raimondi, a Justice Department spokesman, declined to comment on the Hu case. But, he said, the agency will “not back off prosecuting crimes involving a nexus with the People’s Republic of China.”

On Thursday, Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) and two Democratic colleagues on the House Judiciary Committee called on Justice Department Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz to open a formal review of Hu’s case, saying they were “deeply troubled” by the FBI’s treatment of him, according to a letter obtained by The Washington Post.

Critics of the initiative have said it has, in some cases, amounted to racial profiling and fostered a climate of fear in scientific research communities, while also contributing to xenophobia at a time when anti-Asian hate incidents are on the rise. Civil rights groups have called on the Biden administration to impose a moratorium on the program and conduct a review of its goals and tactics.

[More than 1,000 visiting researchers affiliated with the Chinese military fled the United States this summer, Justice Department says]

“If the administration and the Justice Department are truly concerned about espionage, this case does not appear to be it,” said John C. Yang, executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-AAJC. “That is our deeper concern about the China initiative and these efforts — they are not effective in addressing espionage and have clearly resulted in damage to the scientific community.”

National security experts acknowledged the concern, but said the threat is real. “There’s no place for xenophobia or ethnic profiling in government or academia,” said Anna Puglisi, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology. “However it is really important to remember that the Chinese government’s policies and programs, whether they be the talent recruitment programs or policies they’ve had in place for decades, incentivize people to acquire technology above and beyond normal collaboration.”

Department officials note that under the program, Justice has brought cases involving espionage and non-espionage charges. They include the case of Turab Lookman, a former scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, who pleaded guilty in 2020 to making a false statement to a government investigator about his involvement in the Thousand Talents Program, a Chinese government initiative to recruit people with access to foreign technology. Alexander Yuk Ching Ma, a former CIA officer, was charged last year in Hawaii with spying on behalf of China for more than a decade.

“It is the conduct that drives the case,” said Jay Bratt, a senior counterintelligence official in the Justice Department’s National Security Division. “Not the ethnicity.”

The mounting pressure on the department comes amid a growing bipartisan consensus that the United States must do more to confront Beijing over the Communist Party’s malign behavior. President Biden has rallied international allies to push back collectively against Beijing’s growing geopolitical power.

Some analysts have pegged the cost of China’s theft of trade secrets to the U.S. economy at $30 billion annually.

[Houston businessman convicted of conspiring to steal trade secrets, acquitted of economic espionage for China]

In Hu’s trial, testimony last week revealed that federal authorities falsely accused him of being a spy for China based on the results of a Google search from an FBI agent, Kujtim Sadiku. The agent testified that he had received a tip that Hu was being groomed by Beijing under the Thousand Talents Program.

According to the Knoxville News Sentinel, Hu testified that Sadiku urged him to travel to a conference in China to help spy for the U.S. government, but he declined. Federal prosecutors charged Hu with three counts of wire fraud and making false statements in what they called a bid to deceive NASA to win federal grant funding.

Trial documents showed Hu did disclose his work for the Beijing school to University of Tennessee officials on two documents and in two emails, the News Sentinel reported.

a person wearing a suit and tie talking on a cell phone: Anming Hu enters the United States Courthouse in downtown Knoxville on June 7. (Caitie McMekin/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP) Anming Hu enters the United States Courthouse in downtown Knoxville on June 7. (Caitie McMekin/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP)
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