What next for US-China research ties post-Lieber case?

Biden signalled new approach to scientific engagement with Asian superpower, but scholars say Trump’s China Initiative is continuing under new guises

May 2, 2023
Chinese man camouflaged with painted masks on his body to illustrate What next for US-China research ties post-Lieber?
Source: Getty

The sentencing of former Harvard University nanoscientist Charles Lieber represented the final chapter of Donald Trump’s crackdown on research ties with China – but many scientists are still awaiting clarity on what US scientific engagement with the world will look like in future.

At his final court appearance, more than a year after the Biden administration formally distanced itself from Mr Trump’s tactics, Professor Lieber – perhaps in sympathy for his diagnosis of an incurable lymphoma – was spared three months in jail.

“We are thankful for the court’s sentencing determination,” Professor Lieber – the esteemed chairman of Harvard’s chemistry department until he was caught taking an undisclosed salary from China – said in a brief statement through his lawyer after the hearing.

But the underlying political sentiment that drove the Trump administration effort, which started in November 2018, still alarms many in academia who regard the alleged violations behind dozens of researcher arrests as relatively minor compared with the significant risks of over-enforcement, and who do not see the government under President Biden clearly understanding that.

“The tone has changed; the message has not,” said Yoel Fink, a professor of materials science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose colleague, Gang Chen, was one of the other high-profile faces of the so-called China Initiative. Among other evidence, Professor Fink said, there seemed to be no let-up in the practice of FBI agents visiting US university campuses to warn about the Chinese threat. “If anything,” he said of the Biden approach, “the level of suspicion and fear has become more widespread and accepted as a fact of life.”

Dozens, if not hundreds, of academics were caught up in the China Initiative’s sweep, getting arrested or fired from their jobs, largely on the basis of evidence or suspicions that they had professional relationships in China that they did not fully disclose on mandatory paperwork filings. Many others are believed to have just left the US quietly or reconsidered the idea of coming in the first place.

US government agents have insisted that their response was necessary, given the dire threat to national economic and military security they saw from a Chinese government determined to exploit, legally or otherwise, any vulnerability for a competitive advantage.

University scientists and administrators have acknowledged the concern, but warned that the US would suffer far greater damage if the approach was so heavy-handed – as it appeared to them to have been – that it scared away the thousands of Chinese nationals who played critical roles in US research labs, and ripped apart global ties between researchers that were essential to scientific progress in both countries.

The case against Professor Lieber was just one measure of the mistaken trade-offs underlying the overall China Initiative, Professor Fink said. Professor Lieber’s work in China was publicly known at the time of his arrest at Harvard in January 2020. But he hid his Chinese salary and expense payments because, his defenders argued, he was concerned about the political controversy surrounding such relationships.

Either way, Professor Fink said, it hardly seemed worth millions of dollars in federal investigative resources to claw back the $34,000 (£27,000) in missed tax payments that Professor Lieber was convicted of evading. “When law enforcement is chasing political ghosts, real people are left without adequate protection,” Professor Fink said.

The arrest of Professor Chen, in the final days of the Trump administration, stands for many academics as even more troubling. A Chinese-born naturalised US citizen, Professor Chen is a mechanical engineer with expertise in nanotechnology. He was accused by federal prosecutors of hiding his own professional ties to China while receiving a research grant from the US Department of Energy.

The case raised widespread protests from his MIT colleagues, and federal prosecutors dropped the charges about a year later after realising the Energy Department rules had not formally required the disclosure of ties to China.

It was one of several prosecutions that the Biden administration dropped once it took office in early 2021. But Biden officials persisted with several others, including that of University of Tennessee researcher Anming Hu. Dr Hu was put through a jury trial before a judge finally intervened and concluded that his paperwork problems did not represent an attempt to deceive the government.

The Biden administration still has not offered a full public accounting of how many cases were involved in the China Initiative, or the degree to which the cases were warranted. Nor has it outlined any steps to reverse the harm done to the individual scientists.

And when the Biden administration did formally abandon the Trump-era policy, in February 2022, it did so with qualifications. The announcement was left to Matthew Olsen, the top national security prosecutor in the Justice Department, who reiterated the fear of Chinese intent that drove the Trump approach and complained that the particular approach of the previous administration “helped give rise to a harmful perception” that it involved racial bias against the Chinese.

That perspective appears to remain intact. The day after Professor Lieber was sentenced, President Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, addressed a forum at the Brookings Institution at which he reiterated a protective stance with regard to scientific cooperation with China.

“Every country having a stable functioning economy that’s delivering for its people is good for overall global stability and national security,” Mr Sullivan said in response to a question about the US approach to China's geopolitical ambitions. “But at the same time, we have also been equally clear that there is a slice of technology that we believe is used for the gaining of military advantage that the United States needs to protect, and has taken steps to protect under this administration – and we will continue to do that.”

Studies of the situation, however, have questioned whether the US policy balance is working out in the nation’s best interests. In terms of the arrests under the China Initiative, attempts to tally the cases using publicly available information suggest they uncovered few if any acts of actual espionage. One analysis by Bloomberg News of 50 indictments under the initiative found the accused might have handed China some beneficial information, but it characterised the main motivations of those accused as the pursuit of personal profit or career advancement.

Another, by the MIT Technology Review, counted 77 cases and more than 150 defendants, the vast majority of Chinese heritage. The National Institutes of Health was an especially active participant in the China Initiative, saying it was guarding against the waste of taxpayer dollars on research projects that the Chinese government was also funding. But NIH officials, in interviews, declined to explain why they were not giving an equal level of effort to stopping budgetary waste outside the context of China.

And a survey published recently by researchers at the University of Arizona, also aimed at assessing the costs of the initiative, found that faculty across US higher education now harbour high levels of anti-Chinese sentiment. The survey of about 2,000 scientists in top US research universities was conducted by Jenny J. Lee, a professor of higher education at Arizona, and a doctoral student, Xiaojie Li, and published in the journal The Review of Higher Education. Nearly 40 per cent of the academic scientists questioned for the survey acknowledged that they were intentionally distancing themselves from work with China.

Another recent analysis, by Clarivate’s Institute for Scientific Information, adds to the sense of loss. The Clarivate experts studied research publications and concluded that China had largely caught up to the US in terms of the quality of its work. They blamed the relative US decline on factors that included the US making tepid investments in science and retreating from global collaborations.

The Biden administration appeared just as determined as its predecessors to keep US and Chinese research communities apart from each other, Professor Lee said, though it did so in a different style from that of its predecessor, emphasising the need for US dominance rather than preaching overt Chinese exclusion. “The methods,” she said, “are different.”

Others closely watching the years-long episode include the Committee of 100, a group of prominent Chinese-American leaders. Its members have been appealing for leaders from both major US political parties to avoiding acting out of fear and to remember that most ethnic Chinese scientists in the country are genuinely interested in being helpful.

“We must not, in the name of national security, give up our fundamental values and liberties,” said Zheng Huang, former Intel executive and official of the US Agency for International Aid, who serves as president of the Committee of 100. “Fear-mongering and false prosecutions only lead talent to leave this country.”


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