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Sunday, February 25, 2024

The US Fixation on Chinese Espionage Is Bad for Science

Had I been born a decade later, would I still have aspired to come to the United States to be a scientist? Over the past few years, I’ve asked myself this question countless times and am nowhere near an answer. As a child in China in the 1990s, I looked to the beautiful country across the Pacific as the place where I wanted to be, and I learned that a career in the sciences would take me there. When I arrived in Chicago in 2009 for my PhD in physics, it was a dream come true. But as tensions rise between my birth country and my adopted home, the dream is now suspect. Being a foreign scientist in the US—and being Chinese in particular—has been labeled a security risk.

In the fall of 2018, the US Justice Department launched a “China Initiative” to combat economic espionage, with a focus on academia. Any connection to China, be it personal or professional, was considered a potential conduit for intellectual property theft. The heavy-handed approach has since backfired. A series of high-profile cases ended in acquittal or dismissal. Few spies were caught. The investigations have disproportionately targeted scientists of Chinese descent, and are denounced by academic associations and civil rights groups as racial profiling.

This week, the Justice Department announced an end to the China Initiative, concluding that the controversial program “is not the right approach” and that addressing the myriad of “national security threats” posed by the Chinese government, as well as other foreign adversaries, “demands a broader approach.” Andrew Lelling, former US Attorney for the District of Massachusetts and one of the leading prosecutors on the China Initiative, also acknowledged that while the initiative had “lost its focus” and some mistakes were made, it has “created a climate of fear among researchers” and “general deterrence” as a goal “has been achieved in spades.” 

The focus of the current policy debate has been on the means; the end is left unexamined. Everyone appears to agree that foreign acquisition of ideas and personnel poses a real threat to American science. Everyone also seems to believe that US leadership in the sciences is essential, and one way to maintain that is to attract foreign talent, people like myself.

The adjectives intrigue me. Foreign versus American, while I am both and neither. It’s amazing how the language and hence logic of the state are accepted as axiomatic. When I left China for the US, the decision was personal. It was not Beijing’s loss or Washington’s gain. To say so is to suggest that either government is entitled to my presence and my labor. I refuse to yield my worth this way. I try to picture my 19-year-old self in China today, watching the borders close due to the pandemic and visa restrictions, swallowing the shards of a shattered dream. Even in this imagined scenario, the pain is unbearable. But that pain, too, is personal. To appropriate the private ache as an injury to national competitiveness is to trivialize its magnitude, to reduce the value of a person to their usefulness to the state.

What does it mean for a government to lay claim to a piece of knowledge and the people who produce it? The fixation on borders and demands of national allegiance have obscured the more fundamental questions about research ethics and social responsibility. When state authority is assumed to be the norm and the default in the governance of science, the implications are not just for where the research is done or who does it. The prioritization of national interest shapes the purpose and content of inquiry: which questions are asked, who benefits from the answers, and at what cost. To the drumbeat of great-power rivalry, the dark cloud of nationalism looms over the future of science.

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“He who steals a belt buckle faces execution; he who steals a state becomes a feudal lord”—the adage from fourth-century BC philosopher Zhuangzi still rings true today. Charges of theft often have little to do with material harm and even less with restorative justice. The primary goal of guarding ownership is to uphold order and protect the powerful.

Before it started faulting other countries for purloining American ingenuity, a newly independent United States aggressively acquired advanced machinery and skilled workers from Europe, at times violating British emigration and export control laws. At the end of World War I, US authorities confiscated German chemical patents in the name of reparations. Two and a half decades later, Operation Paperclip recruited hundreds of former Nazi scientists and engineers to the US. Allied governments raced against each other for German weaponry and industrial designs, at times deceiving the public and bending rules meant to hold Nazi collaborators accountable. As the world split into opposing camps in the Cold War, what concerned policymakers on both sides was not “bombs” but “whose bomb.”

The implications of military use on science persist long after the original hostilities have ceased, passed down through what’s taught in classrooms, how laboratories are run, and who funds the work. MIT was the country’s largest nonindustrial defense contractor at the end of WWII and throughout the early decades of the Cold War. Professors wrote textbooks and designed curricula based on their military-oriented research: from electronics to radar technology, from solid-state physics to nuclear engineering. Graduates from these programs went on to teach at other institutions. Research infrastructure established during the war—such as facilities, personnel, governmental relations, and industrial ties—remained and often expanded in peacetime, warping universities’ educational and research missions.

Similarly, the privatization and commercialization of academic research also mold the contours of inquiry. The Bayh-Dole Act permits, and in fact encourages, universities to patent products from federally funded research and license them for profit. Before the law’s passage in 1980, results from publicly funded projects usually stayed in the public domain. Today, universities, including public university systems in California and Texas, rival the largest private firms in the world in the number of patent applications made per year. Institutions of higher learning vie for lucrative contracts with corporate partners and at times sue each other for exclusive access to knowledge.

A thing cannot be stolen unless it is owned. The assumption that the transfer of knowledge is a zero-sum game, that ideas obtained by the other is a deprivation and even threat to the self, belies a stark worldview of what science is and what it’s for—a worldview where academic inquiry serves commercial ends, and military applications are justified as long as the guns are pointed at the other side. The extreme disparity in vaccine distribution during the Covid-19 pandemic is a perfect example of how the present intellectual property regulations protect capital to the detriment of a global public. The excessive vigilance against the “stealing” of knowledge incurs a much more profound loss on all of society, the loss of an alternative vision for development rooted in abundance and care, unbound by the need for profit or lust for power.

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The same scarcity mindset underlies the perception of “talent” as a finite resource that nations and regions should compete over. In newly released guidelines on protecting government-funded research in the US from foreign exploitation, the White House states that “one of America’s most amazing and enviable superpowers is that we are the leading magnet for talented scientists and engineers from around the world,” and that security policies should not “significantly diminish” this superpower. This call for balance seems to indicate a tension between the need to safeguard American science and the desire to recruit foreign scientists, but both objectives reflect a crude nationalism that renders the rest of the world undeserving, as well as a common misunderstanding of how science is done and who becomes a scientist.

Contrary to popular portrayals in TV shows and films, scientific advancements are not driven by lone geniuses; they come from cumulative and collaborative efforts. Scientists are not born; they are trained. In a rich country like the US, the persistent shortage of science and technology workers from the domestic population is a social failure, stemming from insufficient investment and structural inequalities that continue to make the sciences a profession for privileged white men. The systemic injustices are also reflected in the country’s immigration policy. Beneath the illusion of a warm and welcoming America lies a cold, dark truth of exclusion and discrimination. For most of US history, the country’s borders were open to people who met its definition of whiteness, and Congress enacted immigration and citizenship laws to maintain this racial order. Geopolitical upheavals in the 20th century shifted the government’s calculation. The explicitly racist quotas based on national origin were removed. What has remained unchanged is the ranking of bodies and stratification of labor in service to American interests. Being “high skilled” becomes a way to gain proximity to whiteness.

In a society constructed on a racial hierarchy, nonwhite bodies always carry the mark of foreignness. The suspicion of ethnic Chinese scientists in the US as potential agents of the Chinese state is not new. Dating to the McCarthy era, the FBI ran a secret surveillance program of Chinese American scientists for decades, parts of which continued into the 1980s. The practice of racial profiling is not an unintended error caused only by individual prejudice. The biases emanate from the country’s racist foundation and are in service to a skewed goal.

The casual boasting of the US as the destination for “the best and the brightest” overlooks the political and socioeconomic conditions that compel people to leave their native land, and it mistakes migration as a privilege to be earned instead of being a basic human right. The mission of maintaining US leadership in the sciences by reaping the fruits of education from around the world—while refusing to share knowledge—reveals an appalling sense of entitlement, an elitist ideology privileging technocracy, and the colonial logic of extraction and domination.

In the first trial under the China initiative that targeted an academic, University of Tennessee professor Anming Hu was accused of defrauding NASA for not disclosing his affiliation with a Chinese university. After a mistrial, the judge issued a rare acquittal, determining that Hu did not intentionally hide anything and that NASA suffered no harm. Having failed to find any proof that the Chinese-Canadian scientist was a spy for Beijing, the prosecution relied on, as the sole basis for its case, a 2011 law that bars NASA funds from being used in collaboration with “China or Chinese–owned companies.”

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The court debate centered on whether the prohibition also applies to Chinese universities. But the root of the matter, which cannot be adjudicated in a legal setting, is why US-China collaboration in space science should be restricted in the first place. That the hierarchies and divisions on Earth extend into the final frontier blocks possibilities for a world where the skies rightfully belong to all.

Hu was wrongfully accused. Yet there have been serious cases of misconduct in scientific collaborations with China. In these cases, much of the prosecutorial attention has been on instances of nondisclosure, where researchers failed to mention their appointments at Chinese institutions to their US employer or in federal grant proposals, leading to potential conflicts of financial interest or time commitment. In other instances, researchers broke confidentiality during peer review, improperly exposing other people’s work-in-progress to Chinese counterparts. These violations concern the integrity of the scientific process and should face academic discipline. Treating them as a crime—and casting them through the lens of national security—infringe on the autonomy of the academy and limit its ability for self-governance.

The latest guidelines from the White House on disclosing foreign ties have taken a step back from the blunt-force, carceral approach in the China initiative, where mistakes in grant applications were routinely charged as wire fraud. Nevertheless, these guidelines still require academic institutions and funding agencies to share information with law enforcement, which in turn risks criminalizing academic behavior and further legitimizes state surveillance of university research. The emphasis on “foreign” also subjects academia to the whims of geopolitics. According to the Department of Defense’s new risk rubric, connections to a “strategic competitor” receive high threat ratings; engagement with “a US ally” does not.

What the financial disclosure requirements do not address is the nature of the research itself and the potential social cost. Before bilateral relations soured, many US-based scientists and university administrators were eager to partner with China. Out of an ignorance of Chinese politics, hunger for funding, or a naive faith in the cosmopolitan ideals of science, few paused to ponder the pesky questions of ethics. Their version of “open science” has little to do with contesting existing structures of power for a truly egalitarian future. Just as saying that one does not see race means staying willfully ignorant of and hence perpetuating racism, claiming that science is apolitical is a way to deny social responsibility and yield agency to the state.

For these scientists, the current hope is that by filling out the correct forms and checking all the necessary boxes, they can protect their relationship with the federal government—the most important source of funding—and largely continue their work without further scrutiny. This focus on procedural compliance betrays a moral apathy in the academic community. Retired Yale geneticist Kenneth Kidd helped Chinese state security build a DNA database to profile and track the Uyghur population. Computer scientists at Michigan State University contributed to facial recognition technology used for ethnic oppression in Xinjiang. There’s nothing explicitly illegal in what they did, but the law, again, is a poor measure for matters of morality.

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In many other areas of research, the ethical implications are less stark than in genetics or artificial intelligence, but that does not excuse researchers from their moral obligations. No intellectual pursuit is “pure” when the environment is tainted by money and power. Lucrative deals with Chinese entities give Beijing leverage to potentially censor speech on US campuses. Can a scientist carry on business as usual with a government that has been banning books and jailing scholars, simply because the crackdowns are taking place in another discipline?

Such issues of research ethics and academic freedom have little to do with intellectual property theft, the focal point for policymakers in the US, but they cause much more lasting harm—not to individual interest or corporate gains, but to the safety of the marginalized and the moral character of a society. The problems are not unique to China or its political system. Similar technologies of biometric surveillance have been deployed in Europe and North America, perpetuating discrimination and facilitating state violence. In the US, dozens of state legislatures have put forth bills to monitor classrooms and limit teaching on racism. Instead of reckoning with global systems of injustice and one's complicity in them, it's politically expedient and self-absolving to fixate on alleged threats from a foreign other. The narrative of national competition gives greed and technological arrogance the shiny cover of patriotism.

The border, again, finds its use. Erect a barrier and put on the cloak of democracy. Paint China as the embodiment of authoritarian evil and prove one’s own innocence by contrast. The fear of confronting the truth about oneself is projected into upholding the partition. If the line is breached and the veil is torn, one might have to face the reality that the two sides are not so different after all. Both governments are driven by the desire for power and see science and technology as means to achieve it.

This past January, a year after his arrest, the US government dropped charges against Gang Chen, an MIT professor and naturalized US citizen who was accused of concealing income in his birth country. The same age as my parents and hailing from the same province, Chen came to the US in the late 1980s to pursue his doctorate in engineering. As China emerged from the long isolation of the Mao years, he was among the first generation of Chinese students who could go abroad for study. Two decades later, I would embark on the same narrow but by then well-traveled path, my identity straddling two countries that now appear locked in competition.

The federal prosecutor had claimed that Chen’s alleged crime was “not just about greed, but about loyalty to China.” Over 200 MIT faculty signed an open letter defending their colleague, “a prominent citizen of our country, a loyal American.”

“Questioning his loyalty is an outrage,” the authors of the letter wrote as an explanation for their advocacy.

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I wonder how the letter writers would feel about a Chinese scientist swearing unabiding allegiance to China—if the many abuses of the Chinese government might give them pause. What, then, makes loyalty to the US different? I reckon the choice of words in the letter may be tactical, but questions of loyalty—what it is, what for, and to whom—are exactly the ones we as scientists, as intellectuals, as responsible members of society and as conscientious human beings, should be asking ourselves.

What kind of authority do we allow to lead us, to inform our identity, to dictate the terms of our work? What visions of the future are we denying ourselves if we surrender the answers to national governments? Those of us who have faced the menace of a border and bear the scars of crossing understand that state power is not indisputable and is often unjust. If the purpose of science is to extend our understanding of nature into new realms, the work of the scientist must resist social hierarchies and transcend the bounds of the state.


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