On January 20th of this year, the Justice Department dropped all of its charges against Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Gang Chen, conceding that their evidence no longer met the burden of proof. Dr. Chen had been arrested in January of last year on charges of “defrauding the Department of Energy in getting a grant” by hiding his affiliations with Chinese institutions. He and his defense attorney have maintained his innocence throughout the ordeal, and his story serves as a signal of the failure of the “China Initiative” and of a small but noteworthy erosion to American democracy.
Despite the reversal, Dr. Chen feels as though the damage has already been done to his academic and research work, and he is unsure if he will ever feel comfortable applying for future funding from the U.S. government. He also describes the emotional distress he has gone through, saying the experience was “traumatic” and “deeply disillusioning.” Dr. Chen’s arrest is just one of many stories of false or insufficient allegations of espionage and fraud made under the “China Initiative.”
In 2018, then President Donald Trump began the China Initiative to “crack down on economic and scientific espionage by China.” Since then, the Justice Department has prosecuted dozens of people, specifically scientists, for their alleged ties, interactions, and support of the Chinese government and Chinese institutions. A part of this program has included increased investigations and surveillance of those applying for government grants and funding. In Dr. Chen’s case, he states that before his arrest, Homeland Security stopped him at Logan International Airport and detained, questioned, and forced him to give up passwords to his devices.
The initiative comes amidst the increasingly tense relationship between the United States and China. China’s economic domination, alleged human rights violations, cybersecurity attacks, “communist” ties, and military arsenal have led the United States to take on a more antagonistic stance towards China. More recently, COVID has also worsened the relationship with China, both related to their response to the virus and the unknown origins of the virus. At the end of January of this year and only eleven days after the charges against Dr. Chen were dropped, FBI Director Christopher Wray said in a speech that “there is just no country that presents a broader threat to our ideas, our innovation, and our economic security than China.”
Although national security concerns are compelling, we should be cautious of even those policies which serve to protect us. Ozan Varol states in his article “Stealth Authoritarianism” that the desire to “curb foreign influence on the domestic political process” is one justification that governments give for anti-democratic policies. While he was speaking about campaign finance laws specifically, we can see this argument throughout the United States’ response to the “China Threat,” Director Wray’s speech, and the stated policy goals of the “China Initiative.”
Critics of the China Initiative have claimed that it has created a “pervasive atmosphere of fear” among scientists of specifically Chinese descent. The ACLU argues that the program is “dangerous” and “overbroad,” and has encouraged racial profiling toward those of Asian and specifically Chinese descent. In a letter sent to Attorney General Merrick Garland, 192 Yale Professors urged the Justice Department to review and terminate the China Initiative, claiming that the program disproportionately targets those of Chinese descent and fails to accomplish its stated mission by focusing on small infractions rather than serious national security concerns. In turn, they argue, this has created an “increasingly hostile atmosphere for Chinese-Americans, visitors, and immigrants of Chinese origin” and deteriorated the academic community in the United States.
These critiques and the stories of those charged under the initiative suggest a small but noteworthy erosion to democracy. Although the initiative does not change any of the major institutional features of democracy, such as the constitution, term limits, or election procedures, it has nonetheless eroded civil society and academia. Freedoms of association, equal application of the law, and freedom in academia have all been weakened as a result of the initiative.
First, there is the concern that the initiative has been excessively focused on those of Chinese descent and has led to charges against Chinese researchers despite a lack of substantial evidence. This has created a “chilling effect” around scientists of Asian and Chinese descent applying for grants, meaning these individuals will heavily restrict or censor themselves out of fear of legal action. Another cause for concern is the “overly wide net” of the law and its treatment of possible misconduct and research issues as espionage.
Furthermore, it is important to note that this is not the only policy that has been critiqued for its disproportionate application toward those of Chinese descent. A 2018 law review article found that since 2009, 62% of all individuals charged under the Economic Espionage Act have been of Asian heritage, and 52% of all individuals charged were of specifically Chinese descent. While this may serve as proof that simply more people of Asian descent are committing espionage, the data may also suggest that the Justice Department is disproportionately focusing more of their attention on and charging those of Asian descent.
Although the China Initiative does not mark a significant erosion to democracy and has since been put under review, we should continue to be skeptical of future counter-China policies. As US-China relations continue to grow tense and as public opinion toward China has become more negative, the likelihood of more policies that pose a potential threat to democracy is of concern. On the other hand, there is also the FBI’s concern of China seeking to “undermine our democratic process by influencing our elected officials.” Whether either of these threats to democracy will materialize is unknown, but China should not be viewed as the only agent of democratic erosion.