Advocates say the China Initiative has become an excuse for racial profiling, part of a long US history of treating Asian-Americans as untrustworthy foreigners. In 1882 the Chinese Exclusion Act barred Chinese immigrants from entering the country for 10 years, and during World War II the federal government detained hundreds of thousands of innocent Japanese-Americans. Under the Clinton and Obama administrations there was a string of failed espionage cases against Chinese-American scientists, including Wen Ho Lee of Los Alamos National Laboratory, Temple University’s Xi Xiaoxing, and the National Weather Service’s Sherry Chen.
“The China Initiative is premised explicitly on the theory that there is an ethnic affinity … on the part of people of Chinese descent—even if they are United States citizens or Canadian citizens—to act in violation of American law for the benefit of Beijing,” says Frank Wu, the president of Queens College at the City University of New York. Under this system, he says, “ordinary behaviors such as scientific cooperation or visiting your mother [in China] suddenly become suspicious.”
It has also had a chilling effect on Chinese-American scientists, says MIT’s Huang. During his regular meetings with the Asian American Scholar Forum, he says, others have expressed fear of being arrested, fear of losing their funding, and fear about the way they might be perceived by their non-Asian colleagues. Young PhD students are no longer looking for professorships in the US, he says, while established scientists are now searching for international options. A number returned to China to prestigious posts—an outcome the China Initiative had hoped to avoid—after their careers in the United States were destroyed.
“It’s pretty bad and pretty pervasive. We’re seeing this climate of fear engulfing Chinese-American scientists,” Huang says. “The US is losing the most talented people to other countries because of the China Initiative. That’s bad for science. That’s bad for America.”
The Hu case played out
To activists and civil society researchers who’ve been following the China Initiative, Hu’s case is anything but surprising.
Hu, a Chinese-born Canadian citizen, is a celebrated researcher in nanotechnology. In 2013, the University of Tennessee recruited him to teach and continue his research. Hu disclosed on multiple occasions that he’d worked part time teaching graduate students and researchers at the Beijing University of Technology, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel.
None of this raised any issues at the time. When Hu began collaborating with NASA, which is legally barred from funding any research that involves “participation, collaboration, or coordination” with “China or a Chinese-owned corporation,” UT administrators assured both him and the government agency that this part-time work didn’t violate the restriction. The law is meant to apply to NASA, not to its research collaborators.
In 2018, however, the FBI identified Hu as a potential spy. During his court testimonial, Agent Sadiku said he had found and made a “rough translation” via Google of a Chinese-language news release and flier that suggested Hu had once received a short-term contract from the Thousand Talents Program. That was evidence enough for Sadiku to open up a formal probe.
During Sadiku’s first visit to Hu’s office, Hu says, the agent tried to get him to admit to involvement in a talent program.
“They said, ‘You are so smart. You should be in the Thousand Talents Program,’” he recounted during his trial. “I say, ‘I’m not that smart.’”
Sadiku also tried to persuade him to become a spy for the US government, using his Beijing University work as a cover. Hu declined via email after Sadiku’s visit. After this, Sadiku doubled down on his investigation, placing Hu and his son—then a freshman at UT—under surveillance.
But after nearly two years, Sadiku turned away from the espionage claims and instead started building the fraud case that Hu ended up being charged with. The evidence rested on a form that the university requires academics to fill out, disclosing any outside work that earns them more than $10,000. Hu did not disclose his part-time job because it earned him less than $2,000. Sadiku says this is evidence that Hu intentionally hid his China-affiliated work to defraud NASA. The jury, however, could not decide, and the deadlock triggered a mistrial.
FBI under pressure
Observers say the details of the case echo those of others brought as part of the China Initiative: a spy probe on an ethnically Chinese researcher is opened with little evidence, and the charges are later changed when no sign of economic espionage can be found.
According to German, the former FBI agent, this is due to the pressure “on FBI agents across the country, every FBI field office, [and] every US Attorney’s office to develop cases to fit the framing, because they have to prove statistical accomplishments.”
On Thursday, June 17, shortly after news of the mistrial, members of the House Judiciary Committee wrote to the inspector general of the Department of Justice requesting that the DOJ investigate whether there was adequate evidence unrelated to race or ethnicity for the FBI to open the case, whether the bureau had used false information and made false statements, and whether the China Initiative resulted in “untoward pressure” to engage in ethnic and racial profiling.
This follows increasing demands to investigate whether the initiative has led to such profiling—and calls to end that program altogether.
“The DOJ doesn’t need a special initiative targeting China to go after spies,” says Alex Nowrasteh, the director of immigration studies and the Center for Trade Policy Studies at the Cato Institute. “They should be able to use their normal methods and procedures.”
Hu’s trial suggests “that the scope of Chinese espionage is probably a lot less than people think,” he adds. “If there was a lot more of it, you’d think it’d be a little bit easier to find, and they wouldn’t have to make up cases.”
As for Hu, his nightmare is far from over.
He is still under house arrest, pending a decision from either the Department of Justice to renew the case or drop it, or the judge to dismiss the government’s charges entirely. He has been jobless since his US work visa expired, but he has also not been granted leave from house arrest so he can return to Canada to renew it. Doing so could put him in the crosshairs of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to his lawyer.
All he can do is wait for the US government to make its next move.
A pro-China online influence campaign is targeting the rare-earths industry
China has come to dominate the market in recent years, and by 2017 the country produced over 80% of the world’s supply. Beijing achieved this by pouring resources into the study and mining of rare-earth elements for decades, building up six big state-owned firms and relaxing environmental regulations to enable low-cost and high-pollution methods. The country then rapidly increased rare-earth exports in the 1990s, a sudden rush that bankrupted international rivals. Further development of rare-earth industries is a strategic goal under Beijing’s Made in China 2025 strategy.
The country has demonstrated its dominance several times, most notably by stopping all shipments of the resources to Japan in 2010 during a maritime dispute. State media have warned that China could do the same to the United States.
The US and other Western nations have seen this monopoly as a critical weakness for their side. As a result, they have spent billions in recent years to get better at finding, mining, and processing the minerals.
In early June 2022, the Canadian mining company Appia announced it had found new resources in Saskatchewan. Within weeks, the American firm USA Rare Earth announced a new processing facility in Oklahoma.
Dragonbridge engaged in similar activity in 2021, soon after the American military signed an agreement with the Australian mining firm Lynas, the largest rare-earths company outside China, to build a processing plant in Texas.
The U.S. only has 60,000 charging stations for EVs. Here’s where they all are.
The infrastructure bill that passed in November 2021 earmarked $7.5 billion for President Biden’s goal of having 500,000 chargers (individual plugs, not stations) around the nation. In the best case, Michalek envisions a public-private collaboration to build a robust national charging network. The Biden administration has pledged to install plugs throughout rural areas, while companies constructing charging stations across America will have a strong incentive to fill in the country’s biggest cities and most popular thoroughfares. After all, companies like Electrify America, EVgo, and ChargePoint charge customers per kilowatt-hour of energy they use, much like utilities.
Most new electric vehicles promise at least 250 miles on a full charge, and that number should keep ticking up. The farther cars can go without charging, the fewer anxious drivers will be stuck in lines waiting for a charging space to open. But make no mistake, Michalek says: an electric-car country needs a plethora of plugs, and soon.
We need smarter cities, not “smart cities”
The term “smart cities” originated as a marketing strategy for large IT vendors. It has now become synonymous with urban uses of technology, particularly advanced and emerging technologies. But cities are more than 5G, big data, driverless vehicles, and AI. They are crucial drivers of opportunity, prosperity, and progress. They support those displaced by war and crisis and generate 80% of global GDP. More than 68% of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050—2.5 billion more people than do now. And with over 90% of urban areas located on coasts, cities are on the front lines of climate change.
A focus on building “smart cities” risks turning cities into technology projects. We talk about “users” rather than people. Monthly and “daily active” numbers instead of residents. Stakeholders and subscribers instead of citizens. This also risks a transactional—and limiting—approach to city improvement, focusing on immediate returns on investment or achievements that can be distilled into KPIs.
Truly smart cities recognize the ambiguity of lives and livelihoods, and they are driven by outcomes beyond the implementation of “solutions.” They are defined by their residents’ talents, relationships, and sense of ownership—not by the technology that is deployed there.
This more expansive concept of what a smart city is encompasses a wide range of urban innovations. Singapore, which is exploring high-tech approaches such as drone deliveries and virtual-reality modeling, is one type of smart city. Curitiba, Brazil—a pioneer of the bus rapid transit system—is another. Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, with its passively cooled shopping center designed in 1996, is a smart city, as are the “sponge cities” across China that use nature-based solutions to manage rainfall and floodwater.
Where technology can play a role, it must be applied thoughtfully and holistically—taking into account the needs, realities, and aspirations of city residents. Guatemala City, in collaboration with our country office team at the UN Development Programme, is using this approach to improve how city infrastructure—including parks and lighting—is managed. The city is standardizing materials and designs to reduce costs and labor, and streamlining approval and allocation processes to increase the speed and quality of repairs and maintenance. Everything is driven by the needs of its citizens. Elsewhere in Latin America, cities are going beyond quantitative variables to take into account well-being and other nuanced outcomes.
In her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs, the pioneering American urbanist, discussed the importance of sidewalks. In the context of the city, they are conduits for adventure, social interaction, and unexpected encounters—what Jacobs termed the “sidewalk ballet.” Just as literal sidewalks are crucial to the urban experience, so is the larger idea of connection between elements.
Truly smart cities recognize the ambiguity of lives and livelihoods, and they are driven by outcomes beyond the implementation of “solutions.”
However, too often we see “smart cities” focus on discrete deployments of technology rather than this connective tissue. We end up with cities defined by “use cases” or “platforms.” Practically speaking, the vision of a tech-centric city is conceptually, financially, and logistically out of reach for many places. This can lead officials and innovators to dismiss the city’s real and substantial potential to reduce poverty while enhancing inclusion and sustainability.
In our work at the UN Development Programme, we focus on the interplay between different components of a truly smart city—the community, the local government, and the private sector. We also explore the different assets made available by this broader definition: high-tech innovations, yes, but also low-cost, low-tech innovations and nature-based solutions. Big data, but also the qualitative, richer detail behind the data points. The connections and “sidewalks”—not just the use cases or pilot programs. We see our work as an attempt to start redefining smart cities and increasing the size, scope, and usefulness of our urban development tool kit.
We continue to explore how digital technology might enhance cities—for example, we are collaborating with major e-commerce platforms across Africa that are transforming urban service delivery. But we are also shaping this broader tool kit to tackle the urban impacts of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution.
The UrbanShift initiative, led by the UN Environment Programme in partnership with UNDP and many others, is working with cities to promote nature-based solutions, low-carbon public transport, low-emission zones, integrated waste management, and more. This approach focuses not just on implementation, but also on policies and guiderails. The UNDP Smart Urban Innovations Handbook aims to help policymakers and urban innovators explore how they might embed “smartness” in any city.
Our work at the United Nations is driven by the Sustainable Development Goals: 17 essential, ambitious, and urgent global targets that aim to shape a better world by 2030. Truly smart cities would play a role in meeting all 17 SDGs, from tackling poverty and inequality to protecting and improving biodiversity.
Coordinating and implementing the complex efforts required to reach these goals is far more difficult than deploying the latest app or installing another piece of smart street furniture. But we must move beyond the sales pitches and explore how our cities can be true platforms—not just technological ones—for inclusive and sustainable development. The well-being of the billions who call the world’s cities home depends on it.
Riad Meddeb is interim director of the UNDP Global Centre for Technology, Innovation, and Sustainable Development. Calum Handforth is an advisor for digitalization, digital health, and smart cities at the UNDP Global Centre.