China spying case ends as US judge acquits Anming Hu

Former Tennessee researcher wins first court trial of Trump-era crackdown, while Biden stance remains unclear

September 10, 2021
Ayres Hall at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville
Source: iStock
University of Tennessee, Knoxville

A federal judge has acquitted former University of Tennessee researcher Anming Hu of fraud charges, ending the first attempted prosecution under a Trump-era crackdown on academic scientists with ties to China.

The judge, Thomas Varlan, concluded that Dr Hu was caught in a confusing set of procedural rules regarding his work in China and had made no definitive attempt to deceive the government over the matter.

Judge Varlan ruled three months after a jury split on the question of convicting the engineer. The Biden administration, despite showing other signs of scepticism toward the Trump policy, then announced plans to try him again.

Dr Hu is among at least 16 academic scientists arrested under the initiative that the Trump administration portrayed as an attempt to battle Chinese espionage but was seen in academia and beyond as a prosecutorial overreach with clear racial undertones.

Such cases also have created divisions between universities, with some institutions standing by their faculty and others distancing themselves. The latter instances include the University of Tennessee, which cut ties with Dr Hu shortly after he was charged.

The government struggled during a six-day trial in June to prove its case against Dr Hu, who it accused of fraud for allegedly working secretly with the Beijing University of Technology while he was performing contract work for the US space agency Nasa.

During the trial – the first stemming from the Trump initiative – the FBI admitted that it put Dr Hu, a Chinese-born expert in nanotechnology, under surveillance for two years after he refused its request to spy for the US government.

Jurors declined to unanimously convict him on any of the six counts of wire fraud and making false statements.

Judge Varlan, in ending the case, said some of the government’s own evidence showed that Dr Hu was making no effort to hide his work in China.

“There is ultimately no evidence that the defendant intended to deceive Nasa about the nature of the bargains involved in the research grants at issue, and thus, no evidence that defendant had a scheme to defraud Nasa,” the judge wrote.

Dr Hu's attorney, Phil Lomonaco, said Judge Varlan recognised the reality. “My take is the FBI was driven by the directive to seek out economic espionage being committed by China and they concocted a crime where one did not exist,” Mr Lomonaco told Times Higher Education.

Advocates of Asian American scientists were among the first to celebrate the judge's decision.

“Today’s order recognises reality: no rational jury would find Dr Hu guilty based on the government’s evidence,” Linda Ng, the national president of OCA-Asian Pacific American Advocates, said.

The Biden administration’s Justice Department had dropped charges in several other cases arising from the Trump crackdown, yet expressed disappointment with Judge Varlan’s decision to acquit Dr Hu.

The Biden administration has also announced a three-month internal review, due to finish by November, aimed at clarifying for universities exactly what foreign research activities need to be reported to the government.

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