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'Painted as spies': Chinese students, scientists say Trump administration has made life hostile amid battle against COVID-19

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 8/23/2020 Deirdre Shesgreen, USA TODAY
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WASHINGTON – On July 23, Juan Tang was ensconced inside the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco when federal officers came to the door with an arrest warrant for the 37-year-old cancer researcher. 

Law enforcement officials had already seized Tang's passport and moved to revoke her visa during an interview in June, ensuring she could not leave the country – but they couldn't arrest her on foreign diplomatic property. 

Tang, a researcher at the University of California-Davis, became hysterical when the consular officials told her about the arrest warrant. Believing she needed medical help, her diplomatic hosts took her to a hospital, according to court papers. Federal law enforcement officers followed closely behind, ready to arrest Tang as soon as she was discharged.

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Now, Tang is in the Sacramento County Jail, charged with visa fraud. Tang said on her visa application she had not served in the Chinese military, when in fact she "is a uniformed officer" in the People’s Liberation Army, the Justice Department said in announcing charges against her. 

The charges against Tang are part of a sweeping initiative from President Donald Trump's administration that targets alleged Chinese government spying and intellectual property theft, particularly at American universities and research labs. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other Trump officials have given new prominence to the crackdown in recent weeks, delivering scorching speeches casting China as a menace to American democracy and a threat to U.S. national security. 

Critics say the Trump administration's rhetoric is inflammatory and its actions have created a hostile climate for Asian students and researchers working and studying in the U.S. – often working on cutting-edge scientific developments. Some argue the aggressive push will backfire, driving away talented students and scientists who fear being profiled because of their ethnicity at a time when the U.S. desperately needs scientific and medical advances to combat a crippling pandemic.

Brain drain: International students turning away from US colleges because of COVID-19, Trump

"We face not only the racial hostilities – and a lot of that has been heightened because of COVID-19," said Yangyang Cheng, a physicist from China who works for Cornell University.  

Now, she said, "we're seeing parallels between my birth country and my adopted home in their rhetoric towards science and scientists – how the state is claiming ownership over scientists themselves, as well as the work they produce. And that is deeply troubling."

Chinese scientists working or studying in the U.S. feel torn about where they belong, she wrote in an essay last spring: "In their home country, where an authoritarian government is increasing its hold on society, aided by technology for surveillance and censorship? Or in a country whose president actively rejects them, where they are painted as spies?"

The new emphasis on Chinese espionage is part of a broader get-tough-on-China policy from the White House as Trump seeks re-election. U.S.-China tensions have dramatically escalated in recent months amid the coronavirus pandemic, troubled trade negotiations and Beijing's decision to restrict freedoms in Hong Kong.

The Trump administration has cast the policy in terms of helping the U.S. protect its scientific and technology research, including that related to the pandemic. The president has also used racist language to talk about COVID-19, as he seeks to blame China for the virus' spread. 

Donald Trump, Xi Jinping are posing for a picture: President Donald Trump meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, on June 29, 2019. © Susan Walsh, AP President Donald Trump meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, on June 29, 2019.

Chinese 'propagandists' at PTA meetings? 

Trump administration officials say the crackdown on Chinese spying is not an attack on all Chinese individuals working or studying in the U.S. Instead, they say, it's directed at the Chinese government and its ruling Communist Party leaders.

"This is not about the Chinese people, and it’s certainly not about Chinese Americans," FBI Director Christopher Wray said in a July 7 speech at the conservative Hudson Institute think tank. More than 100,000 Chinese students and researchers come to the U.S. annually, he noted. "Our society is better for their contributions."

Still, Wray painted a stark picture of the threat.  

"We’ve now reached the point where the FBI is opening a new China-related counterintelligence case about every 10 hours. Of the nearly 5,000 active FBI counterintelligence cases currently underway across the country, almost half are related to China," he said. "And at this very moment, China is working to compromise American health care organizations, pharmaceutical companies and academic institutions conducting essential COVID-19 research."

Pompeo cast an even wider net, suggesting China had dispatched "propagandists" into every corner of U.S. society and America's decades-long engagement with China had created a "Frankenstein."

"We opened our arms to Chinese citizens, only to see the Chinese Communist Party exploit our free and open society. China sent propagandists into our press conferences, our research centers, our high schools, our colleges and even into our PTA meetings," Pompeo said in July 23 remarks at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library.

Views on China: Americans see China more negatively than ever amid coronavirus pandemic, Trump attacks, poll finds

There's no question the Chinese government is encouraging and recruiting people to steal American intellectual property and engage in other criminal behavior, said Margaret Lewis, a law professor at Seton Hall University and expert on China. But the way the Trump administration has framed the issue is "problematic," Lewis said, because it sweeps up anyone who has ties to China and subjects them to scrutiny. 

Pompeo and others have exacerbated the problem by casting it as an ideological fight between American democracy and Chinese communism, she said. China experts have warned of a new "red scare" that echoes Cold War-era rhetoric about the Soviet Union and casts a cloud of suspicion over all Chinese Americans, as well as Chinese foreign nationals living in the U.S.

In addition to the Justice Department prosecutions, the Trump administration has also rescinded visas for certain Chinese graduate students and taken steps to nix the Fulbright exchange program in China and Hong Kong.

Some Republicans in Congress are pushing for an outright ban on visas for Chinese graduate and post-graduate students who want to study STEM fields in the U.S. 

"We've fed China's innovation drought with American ingenuity and taxpayer dollars for too long," Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., said in a statement announcing the GOP bill. "It's time to secure the U.S. research enterprise against the (Chinese Communist Party's) economic espionage."

Chinese espionage aims at American academia 

President Barack Obama's administration also viewed China as a significant threat in terms of intellectual property theft and espionage. 

From 1997 to 2009, 17% of defendants charged under the Economic Espionage Act were of Chinese descent, according to an analysis by Andrew Kim, a litigator based in Texas and a visiting scholar at South Texas College of Law. After 2009, the percentage of Chinese espionage defendants tripled to 52%, he found. 

The Trump administration significantly ramped up the investigation and prosecution of such cases, launching a formal unit to probe Chinese economic espionage with John Demers, head of the Justice Department's national security division, at the helm.

Now, the DOJ says about 80% of all economic espionage prosecutions brought by federal prosecutors include allegations of conduct that would benefit the Chinese state. And there is "at least some nexus" to China in about 60% of all trade secret theft cases, the Justice Department says. 

A Justice Department spokesman did not respond to an email seeking additional information about those statistics.

The Justice Department's initiative casts a "blanket of criminal suspicion" over anyone associated with China, said Lewis, the Seton Hall professor. 

"The United States’ criminal justice system does not allow guilt by association," but that is what the DOJ has done, she wrote in a legal analysis of the department's China Initiative. And it takes "a fear-provoking turn" with repeated rhetoric framing intellectual property theft and espionage as part of a broader communist threat.

Many of the Justice Department's China Initiative cases involve allegations of false statements, failure to disclose income or visa fraud, China experts note – not espionage or intellectual property theft, which are harder to prove. 

That "sweeps in a much broader range of potential defendants than crimes that are more overtly nefarious, like stealing a competitor’s robot technology," Lewis writes in her analysis. Instead of "overkill" prosecution, she says, universities could resolve these issues by beefing up their reporting requirements, increasing transparency, and expanding auditing to guard against possible conflicts.

In his analysis, Kim found that 21% of Chinese and 22% of all Asian defendants charged under the Economic Espionage Act were never found guilty of spying or another serious crime. He looked at a random sample of EEA cases from 1997 to 2015. In about one-fifth of those cases, he said, the defendant was either acquitted, pleaded guilty to making false statements or the prosecutors dropped all charges.

"In other words, as many as one in five Asian-Americans accused of being spies may be innocent," Kim writes. "The same can be said for only 11% of defendants with Western names." 

Cases 'based on Google searches'?

When prosecutors announced charges against Tang, the cancer researcher in California, the Justice Department said she was one of four Chinese nationals charged with lying on their visa applications about their affiliation with the Chinese military. 

"Today’s announcement shows the extreme lengths to which the Chinese government has gone to infiltrate and exploit America’s benevolence," John Brown, head of the FBI's national security branch, said in the July 23 statement. “In interviews with members of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army in over 25 cities across the U.S., the FBI uncovered a concerted effort to hide their true affiliation to take advantage of the United States and the American people.” 

But Tang's attorney, Malcolm Segal, said the case is weak and appears to be based on photographs that federal agents found online. 

"The basis for the government’s claim appears to be a published picture of Dr. Tang taken at a Chinese hospital where both civilians and military personnel wear uniforms, with different insignia to distinguish members of the military," Segal said in an email to USA TODAY. "We believe they have misunderstood or misinterpreted the photographs and her professional background."

He said Tang speaks little to no English and is being held in the county jail, as COVID-19 rages through such institutions. He said he's working to resolve the case quickly so she can be reunited with her family in China "after what turned out to be a very brief stay in the United States solely for the purpose of scientific study."

Tang's first attorney, a public defender, said Tang fled to the consulate in San Francisco after agents took her passport because she needed assistance from her home government. 

Justice Department officials in Washington and California declined to discuss Tang's case with USA TODAY. But a motion opposing her release on bail says the FBI found a photo online of Tang wearing an Air Force uniform bearing the insignia of the "Civilian Cadre."

In an accompanying article, the FBI says, Tang was listed as an associate researcher at Air Force Military Medical University, Molecular Medicine Translation Center. "Members of the (Air Force) Civilian Cadre are considered active duty military members," the motion states.

When federal officers interviewed Tang in June, she denied being in the military, although investigators said they found further evidence when they searched her residence. They say she also lied about having experience with chemical or biological agents. 

"Tang operated clandestinely in the United States, along with apparently several (if not more) of her colleagues," the prosecutors' motion states. "The defendants in these cases are operating in the U.S. with the knowledge and support of their government. Tang has already demonstrated operational sophistication by deleting materials from her electronic devices and repeatedly making demonstrably false statements to the FBI."

The judge denied Tang's request to be released on bail during a July 31 hearing held via Zoom.

Tang's case is one of at least 50 brought by the Justice Department since launching the China Initiative in 2018. The charges range from economic espionage to wire fraud to bribery. 

One of the most high-profile cases came to light in January, when prosecutors charged Charles Lieber, then-chair of Harvard University's department of chemistry and chemical biology, with lying about his participation in China’s Thousand Talents Plan and failing to report income from a Chinese university on his tax returns. Beijing created the Thousand Talent program in 2008 to encourage scientists in the U.S. to share knowledge and research with China – in exchange for salaries, research funding, and other incentives. 

Prosecutors said Lieber was paid $50,000 a month by the Wuhan University of Technology and living expenses of up to $158,000 via the Thousand Talents program. And he snagged another $1.5 million to set up a research lab at the Chinese university, according to the Department of Justice

Lieber's attorney, Marc Mukasey, has adamantly denied the allegations and suggested the charges were political.

"The indictment is flat-out wrong. We will not let Professor Lieber be used as part of anyone’s political agenda," Mukasey said in an emailed statement. "The notion that Professor Lieber was engaged in improper work with China is laughable. There is not a more gifted, selfless, dedicated, patriotic scientist in this country than Charlie Lieber.  He is innocent and his name will be cleared."

China has not made any secret of its talent recruitment program, and Beijing is hardly alone in trying to attract top-notch scientists – or in using financial incentives and other perks as a lure. 

Federal prosecutors acknowledged as much in announcing the charges against Lieber.

"All the Thousand Talents Program does is induce people doing research in the United States to come to China and help them do the same research by offering them money. And that's not illegal, per se," said Andrew Lelling, U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts.

The problem is Lieber hid the money and his connections with Chinese entities, Lelling said. 

Lawmakers in Congress have also raised alarms about the program.

Chinese and American participants in the Thousand Talents Plan have "downloaded sensitive electronic research files" before going to China, submitted false information when applying for grant funds, and "willfully failed to disclose receiving money from the Chinese government on U.S. grant applications," according to a Senate committee investigation of the program.

"They find promising research and researchers, they systematically target them and then they take that research over to China," Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said at a recent Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing. "It is military, it is economic, it's healthcare, it's everything." 

Portman said he wants American researchers to benefit from international cooperation, "but we don't want to have this U.S. taxpayer-funded research being stolen." 

'A very deep scar': Wrongly accused scientist says prosecutions are hurting US innovation 

Others say there's a big difference between sharing scientific insights and stealing them.

Xiaoxing Xi – a Temple University professor and American citizen who was wrongly charged by the FBI for allegedly providing sensitive technology to China – said the U.S. now seems to view any collaboration with China as a crime, no matter the potential value and in contradiction to the nature of scientific research. 

In 2015, federal agents banged on Xi's door and brandished their weapons, as they woke his wife and two daughters and put him in handcuffs. Four months later, the Justice Department abruptly dropped the charges after apparently realizing they had mistakenly accused him of sharing sensitive superconductor technology; he had not shared any sensitive information but rather was engaged in normal academic collaboration.

"That left a very deep scar on us, not only psychologically and physically (but) ... from a professional standpoint," he said.

Xi and others say that international scientific collaboration should be encouraged, not seen as a threat, because it fosters an exchange of ideas. 

"If you suppress that, then you stifle the American innovation, and that is exactly hurting American competitiveness," said Xi.

He said the current climate reminds him of the "red scare" during the 1950s, when people lost their jobs, or worse, because they were painted as communists.

Cheng says the U.S. approach is particularly ill-advised in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, as scientists across the globe scramble to find an effective vaccine and treatments. 

"The nationalistic approach to COVID is absolutely harmful and genuinely stupid," said Cheng. She said some competition among individual scientists can be a healthy motivator.

But "in terms of public health, in terms of biomedical research, the results should be a public good," she said. "It should not be in ownership of any individual state and somehow weaponized as a geopolitical tool."

The pandemic has sparked a go-it-alone response from many world leaders, and in the U.S., the crisis has prompted fears that China or another foreign government will try to steal vaccine research. 

Indeed, earlier this month, the U.S. Justice Department accused two Chinese hackers of targeting the computer networks of companies known to be developing a potential coronavirus vaccine and treatment. Prosecutors said the hackers allegedly stole information for themselves, as well as information they knew would be of interest and value to the Chinese government. The U.S. and its allies have also accused hackers backed by the Russian government of trying to steal information from researchers and pharmaceutical companies racing to find a COVID-19 vaccine. 

Contributing: Kevin Johnson and Kim Hjelmgaard

You might also like these stories on U.S.-China relations:

Mike Pompeo likens China threat to 'Frankenstein,' says engagement hasn't worked

Chinese authorities take control of US Consulate in Chengdu

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Painted as spies': Chinese students, scientists say Trump administration has made life hostile amid battle against COVID-19


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