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Washington’s campaign against Chinese-linked academics is under pressure as another case collapses

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Washington's campaign against Chinese-linked academics is under pressure as another case collapses


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.

“The China Initiative is premised explicitly on the theory that there is an ethnic affinity on the part of people of Chinese descent to act in violation of American law for the benefit of Beijing.”

Frank Wu, City University of New York

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.” 

“The DOJ doesn’t need a special initiative targeting China to go after spies. They should be able to use their normal methods and procedures.”

Alex Nowrasteh, Cato Institute

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. 



Tech

The Download: toxic chemicals, and Russia’s cyberwar tactics

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The Download: toxic chemicals, and Russia’s cyberwar tactics


What are chemical pollutants doing to our bodies? It’s a timely question given that last week, people in Philadelphia cleared grocery shelves of bottled water after a toxic leak from a chemical plant spilled into a tributary of the Delaware River, a source of drinking water for 14 million people. And it was only last month that a train carrying a suite of other hazardous materials derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, unleashing an unknown quantity of toxic chemicals.

There’s no doubt that we are polluting the planet. In order to find out how these pollutants might be affecting our own bodies, we need to work out how we are exposed to them. Which chemicals are we inhaling, eating, and digesting? And how much? The field of exposomics, which seeks to study our exposure to pollutants, among other factors, could help to give us some much-needed answers. Read the full story.

—Jessica Hamzelou

This story is from The Checkup, Jessica’s weekly biotech newsletter. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Thursday.

Read more:

+ The toxic chemicals all around us. Meet Nicolette Bugher, a researcher working to expose the poisons lurking in our environment and discover what they mean for human health. Read the full story.

+ Building a better chemical factory—out of microbes. Professor Kristala Jones Prather is helping to turn microbes into efficient producers of desired chemicals. Read the full story.

+ Microplastics are messing with the microbiomes of seabirds. The next step is to work out what this might mean for their health—and ours. Read the full story.

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The Download: sleeping in VR, and promising clean energy projects

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The Download: sleeping in VR, and promising clean energy projects


People are gathering in virtual spaces to relax, and even sleep, with their headsets on. VR sleep rooms are becoming popular among people who suffer from insomnia or loneliness, offering cozy enclaves where strangers can safely find relaxation and company—most of the time.

Each VR sleep room is created to induce calm. Some imitate beaches and campsites with bonfires, while others re-create hotel rooms or cabins. Soundtracks vary from relaxing beats to nature sounds to absolute silence, while lighting can range from neon disco balls to pitch-black darkness. 

The opportunity to sleep in groups can be particularly appealing to isolated or lonely people who want to feel less alone, and safe enough to fall asleep. The trouble is, what if the experience doesn’t make you feel that way? Read the full story.

—Tanya Basu

Inside the conference where researchers are solving the clean-energy puzzle

There are plenty of tried-and-true solutions that can begin to address climate change right now: wind and solar power are being deployed at massive scales, electric vehicles are coming to the mainstream, and new technologies are helping companies make even fossil-fuel production less polluting. 

But as we knock out the easy climate wins, we’ll also need to get creative to tackle harder-to-solve sectors and reach net-zero emissions. 

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Inside the conference where researchers are solving the clean-energy puzzle

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Inside the conference where researchers are solving the clean-energy puzzle


The Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (ARPA-E) funds high-risk, high-reward energy research projects, and each year the agency hosts a summit where funding recipients and other researchers and companies in energy can gather to talk about what’s new in the field.

As I listened to presentations, met with researchers, and—especially—wandered around the showcase, I often had a vague feeling of whiplash. Standing at one booth trying to wrap my head around how we might measure carbon stored by plants, I would look over and see another group focused on making nuclear fusion a more practical way to power the world. 

There are plenty of tried-and-true solutions that can begin to address climate change right now: wind and solar power are being deployed at massive scales, electric vehicles are coming to the mainstream, and new technologies are helping companies make even fossil-fuel production less polluting. But as we knock out the easy wins, we’ll also need to get creative to tackle harder-to-solve sectors and reach net-zero emissions. Here are a few intriguing projects from the ARPA-E showcase that caught my eye.

Vaporized rocks

“I heard you have rocks here!” I exclaimed as I approached the Quaise Energy station. 

Quaise’s booth featured a screen flashing through some fast facts and demonstration videos. And sure enough, laid out on the table were two slabs of rock. They looked a bit worse for wear, each sporting a hole about the size of a quarter in the middle, singed around the edges. 

These rocks earned their scorch marks in service of a big goal: making geothermal power possible anywhere. Today, the high temperatures needed to generate electricity using heat from the Earth are only accessible close to the surface in certain places on the planet, like Iceland or the western US. 

Geothermal power could in theory be deployed anywhere, if we could drill deep enough. Getting there won’t be easy, though, and could require drilling 20 kilometers (12 miles) beneath the surface. That’s deeper than any oil and gas drilling done today. 

Rather than grinding through layers of granite with conventional drilling technology, Quaise plans to get through the more obstinate parts of the Earth’s crust by using high-powered millimeter waves to vaporize rock. (It’s sort of like lasers, but not quite.)

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