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Former University of Tennessee professor Hu Anming, whose case has given fresh momentum to calls for the China Initiative to be investigated over whether it has targeted Asians. Photo: AP

Biden urged to pause and review China Initiative for racial profiling

  • Advocacy groups add their voices to nearly 100 lawmakers who say the programme unfairly targets Asian-Americans based on race and ethnicity
  • The initiative was established to investigate threats to national security and has charged scores of scientists and scholars
More than 20 Asian-American advocacy groups sent a letter to US President Joe Biden on Thursday, urging the administration to pause its China Initiative and review whether the programme unfairly targeted individuals based on their race and ethnicity.
The China Initiative was established by the Justice Department in 2018 to investigate trade secret theft and economic espionage activities considered threats to national security. Since then, the agency has charged scores of scientists and scholars, mostly of Asian descent, with spying for China, fraud, and other crimes.

The US government recently dropped a number of cases because of lack of evidence and that has led to an increasing outcry that the investigations into these scientists and researchers were based on their being Chinese or from other Asian countries.


US President Biden addresses ‘vicious’ hate crimes against Asian-Americans during pandemic

US President Biden addresses ‘vicious’ hate crimes against Asian-Americans during pandemic

The Initiative “subjects Asian-American and Asian immigrant scientists and others – particularly those of Chinese descent – to racial profiling, surveillance and wrongful prosecutions, where no evidence of economic espionage or trade secret theft exists,” the letter said.

“We believe you should pause the initiative’s work, pending the results of an independent review to determine whether it unfairly targeted individuals based on their race, ethnicity, or ancestry,” the groups said.

The letter followed a meeting two weeks ago of AAPI community leaders, Biden and vice-president Kamala Harris at the White House to discuss the rise in anti-Asian sentiment. It also came on the heels of a group of nearly 100 senators and House representatives urging attorney general Merrick Garland to investigate the China Initiative programme.

In a letter to Garland last month, the lawmakers said they were “deeply troubled” about whether the programme had been used to target people based on their race, ethnicity, or national origin.

Time to stop the Asian racial scapegoating that’s rife in US politics

Last week, Eric Lander, director of the Office of Science and Technology, said the US had to “assiduously avoid basing policies or processes on prejudice – including those that could fuel anti-Asian sentiments or xenophobia.

“Prejudice is fundamentally unacceptable, and will backfire because it will make it harder to attract the best scientific minds from around the world,” Lander said. “We must affirm the integral role of Asian-Americans, Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders, and people of all national origins in this country; welcome international students and scholars; and avoid casting aspersions on people because of their identity or origins.”

The case against former University of Tennessee professor Hu Anming, the first non-espionage case under the programme, ended in a mistrial in June after the jury split on whether to convict the defendant.

The Justice Department first investigated Hu, a tenured professor at the university’s department of mechanical, aerospace and biomedical engineering, on the premise that he had spied for China. When the US government brought charges against Hu in February 2020, it dropped the espionage case and instead charged him with wire fraud and making false statements for hiding his relationship with the Peking University of Technology in grant applications he had made to Nasa.


Chinese-American scientists fear US racial profiling

Chinese-American scientists fear US racial profiling

After the mistrial, the US government said at the end of last month it would pursue a retrial. Human rights group the Committee of Concerned Scientists – a non-government organisation which advocates for the protection of human rights and scientific freedom of scientists and scholars – and Carl Patton, professor emeritus at Colorado State University, sent letters earlier this month to presiding judge Thomas Varlan calling for the dismissal of the case.

The Justice Department’s decision to retry the case gave fresh momentum to the effort to investigate whether the agency has used the programme against Asians.

The letter sent by the 100 lawmakers said the US government has brought charges against researchers and scientists of Asian descent over the years.

“Multiple people who happened to be of Asian descent have been falsely accused by the Department of Justice of espionage,” the letter said, citing cases of Taiwanese-American scientist Wen Ho Lee, the National Weather Service hydrologist Sherry Chen, and Temple University physicist Xiaoxing Xi.

Thursday’s joint letter, spearheaded by Stop AAPI Hate and the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans, also called on the Biden administration to ramp up its efforts to protect the AAPI community ahead of the planned release of the results of the investigation on the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic, warning that it could be used to legitimise racist language and scapegoating.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Groups urge Biden to pause racial profiling initiative