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In January 2021, I was wrongfully indicted under the China Initiative launched in 2018 by the US Department of Justice. The indictment contained a laundry list of normal activities for a university professor, such as reviewing proposals and writing recommendation letters. Thankfully, MIT — where I’m a professor of mechanical engineering — and the scientific community came to my defense , with a rallying cry “ We are all Gang Chen .” After a year of grueling legal proceedings, the DOJ finally dropped my case.
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Despite the harm the initiative created, the House Fiscal Year 2024 Appropriations bill, H.R. 5893, seeks to mandate the DOJ to reinstate the China Initiative.
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The proposal is another stab at a deep wound in my heart that has yet to heal. Despite the warm welcome back to campus from colleagues at MIT, my wrongful prosecution has done irreversible damage to my family, my career, and the United States.
At 6:30 a.m. on the day I was arrested, my wife thought she was dreaming when she heard “police, police.” She then awoke to an FBI agent shouting beside the bed. For many nights after, I would wake up to my wife crying in her nightmares. I no longer seek federal research funding for fear of checking a wrong box on increasingly complex disclosure forms, where if I made even a minor mistake I could be accused of lying to the federal government. I have completely halted my previous research to avoid topics that could potentially be viewed as politically sensitive. In particular, I discontinued work on a novel semiconductor, which was chosen as one of the top 10 breakthroughs in 2022 by the journal Physics World. My research group has dropped from 18 students and postdocs to just four people.
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Politically motivated, racially biased criminal justice initiatives lead to wrongful prosecutions. The China Initiative led to numerous wrongful prosecutions of scientists of Chinese origin. When catching real spies proved to be difficult and time-consuming, federal agents turned their attention to straw man targets — university professors. Espionage is the antithesis of open science — one operates in the shadows, shrouded in secrecy, and the other seeks truth and consensus through exploration and collaboration. Researchers at universities in the United States do not conduct classified research on campus. We carry out basic research and publish our findings for all to see.
Some of the cases prosecuted under the China Initiative are laughable. In the case of Anming Hu, an associate professor at the University of Tennessee, an FBI agent used Google Translate to interpret the abstract of a public seminar as a basis for an investigation. Hu was fully acquitted and reinstated by his university. “It was the most ridiculous case,” a juror on Hu’s trial said. Of the FBI agent, the juror said, “If this is who is protecting America, we’ve got problems.” The FBI used emails written by a disgruntled lab member sent from multiple fake email accounts to open a case against Feng “Franklin” Tao, then a professor at the University of Kansas, even after that lab member allegedly admitted to lying. Tao was found not guilty on all charges except for one, failing to disclose a job offer from a Chinese university, a charge he is appealing. Such scapegoating destroys lives and wastes federal resources and taxpayer money. Tao’s family is still more than $1 million in debt due to legal expenses, his wife told me.
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The US government’s record related to the China Initiative tells an appalling story. MIT Technology Review reported in December 2021 that among the China Initiative cases, only 25 percent were related to espionage — none of them involving academics. Just a quarter of cases launched under the China Initiative led to convictions, in stark contrast to the 99 percent conviction rate for federal criminal cases. Racial bias is not just a “perception” but a reality. About 88 percent of those charged were of Chinese heritage. Despite that, we too are American, with the same constitutional rights as every other citizen of this country. Yet the government continues to push discriminatory policies that undermine and harm Chinese American academics and scientists. It’s not only wrong but actively harming the country.
Some initiatives by the government, such as the China Initiative and the National Institutes of Health’s investigation into academics’ collaborations with China, weaken rather than strengthen US national security. American scientific prowess has been built on the United States’ ability to attract the best and the brightest minds from around the world.
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These capricious charges have created widespread chilling effects, deterring scientists from pursuing their research and careers in the United States. According to a recent national survey published in 2023 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on 1,304 faculty members of Chinese origin working at US universities, 72 percent of respondents felt unsafe, 61 percent considered leaving the United States, and 45 percent intended to avoid government funding for research. There has been a sharp increase of researchers leaving the United States since the start of the China Initiative.
Passage of the House’s appropriation bill as it’s currently written would once again push out talent and human capital at the expense of scientific advancement and national security. The China Initiative harmed Americans and failed our national interests miserably. Let us not repeat history with the same mistakes.
Gang Chen is the Carl Soderberg Professor of Power Engineering at MIT and director of the Pappalardo Micro and Nano Engineering Laboratories.

web-intern@dakdan.com

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