The FBI agents tracked the professor for nearly two years, following him to work, to the grocery store, and even kept an eye on his school-age son. They told the university where he was tenured that he was a Chinese agent, prompting the school to cooperate with their investigation and later fire him.
But the FBI could find no evidence of espionage, according to an agent’s testimony in court.
Federal prosecutors nevertheless filed charges, accusing Anming Hu of hiding his ties to a Beijing university and defrauding the government over research funding he received from NASA. The trial ended in a hung jury. A juror called the case “ridiculous.” In September, a judge took the rare step of acquitting the Chinese-born scientist on all counts.
“It was the darkest time of my life,” Hu said in his first in-depth interview since his acquittal.
Universities in the United States once welcomed the best and brightest scientific talents from around the world. But government officials have become increasingly suspicious that scientists like Hu are abusing the openness of American institutions to steal sensitive, taxpayer-funded research on behalf of the Chinese government. It has had a chilling effect on all the campuses that scientists and university administrators say has slowed down research and contributed to a flow of talent from the United States for Beijing to benefit from.
In interviews with several scientists of Chinese descent working at American universities, a picture emerged of a community on edge. Some described being humiliated by mandatory training about foreign interference using only examples from ethnic Chinese scientists, and unexplained delays in extending visas. They were all concerned that seemingly anything — a collaboration with another scientist from China, an error on a disclosure form — could provide an opening for federal investigators to knock.
The trial of Hu, who worked at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, has been cited as a clear example of government force majeure. He was under house arrest for 18 months during the investigation with no job or income, depending on GoFundMe donations for his legal defense costs. Neighbors and church friends brought groceries and took out his garbage. Although the university has since offered to reinstate his job, Hu, a naturalized Canadian citizen, said his immigration status remains in limbo.
“My basic human rights have been violated, my reputation has been destroyed, my heart has been deeply hurt, my family has been hurt,” he said. “This is not fairness.”
A recent survey conducted by the University of Arizona and the Committee of 100, an organization of eminent Chinese Americans, surveyed scientists of both Chinese and non-Chinese descent who worked at academic institutions in the United States on issues of race and ethnicity in science and research . About half of the Chinese scientists surveyed – including some US citizens – said they felt they were being watched by the US government. Some have blamed a law enforcement program called the China Initiative, which started during the Trump administration and has continued under President Joe Biden.
The program is aimed at preventing the Chinese government theft of US trade secrets and other forms of espionage. But scholars, scholars, civil rights groups and lawmakers have questioned whether targeting academics has gone too far, especially since most research at universities is unclassified and eventually published.
Nearly 2,000 academics from institutions including Stanford University, the University of California, Berkeley and Princeton University have signed open letters to US Attorney General Merrick Garland expressing concern that the initiative is disproportionately targeted at researchers of Chinese descent and insist that the program be terminated.
“So much of our intellectual technological power comes from immigrants,” said Steven Chu, one of the signatories, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist at Stanford University and a former US Secretary of Energy. “We’re not shooting ourselves in the foot, but in something close to the head.”
Hu was the first academic to stand trial under the China Initiative. So far, in three years, the FBI has launched 12 prosecutions against universities or research institutions, but none have involved economic espionage or theft of trade secrets or intellectual property. Most related to allegations such as fraud, lying to federal investigators and failing to disclose ties to China.
Behind the recent critical gaze of academics lurks a long-standing problem.
Over the past two decades, as federal funding for basic science research at universities stagnated, scientists looked for alternative sources of funding. Wanting to expand their global presence, American universities promoted collaborations with international colleagues, including in China. Beijing, which has its sights set on becoming a science and technology superpower, gladly did.
Researchers took advantage of growing opportunities in China, including talent recruiting programs, lucrative consulting contracts, honors and grants.
The Chinese government already had a track record of stealing or encouraging the transfer of intellectual property from US companies. As the Trump administration stepped up its investigation into espionage by China, it expanded the dragnet to include academic collaboration, prompting federal funding agencies — and some universities — to enforce policies on foreign ties disclosure and conflicts of interest. to feed.
“There is no room for xenophobia or ethnic profiling,” said Anna Puglisi, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology. “But what is lost in the discussion is the bigger question we need to ask, which is, ‘Do we have the system for reducing the behavior and policies of a nation-state’s central government, which are specifically set up to close the seams in our system? ?’”
For some, the tighter control was exaggerated.
Many scientists have expressed frustration at what they believe to be shifting and overlapping disclosure guidelines from universities and funding agencies, making it difficult to avoid getting caught up in the FBI’s web. For example, during Hu’s trial, it was found that both NASA and the University of Tennessee at Knoxville had issued unclear rules about how he should disclose foreign tapes.
“I don’t think anyone has any doubts that the Chinese government and the CCP are engaged in economic espionage and other malicious behavior,” said Michael German, a fellow at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice and a former FBI agent. “So that’s where the US government should focus its resources, rather than trying to achieve simple statistical feats by targeting college professors who have nothing to do with Chinese espionage.”
A Justice Ministry spokesman said the ministry is committed to countering Chinese attempts to undermine national security, but also takes concerns about discrimination seriously.
For now, the unrest is growing. Yiguang Ju, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Princeton University and a naturalized U.S. citizen, said it was the honor of a lifetime in 2010 when NASA asked him to help develop a plan for the future of U.S. rockets.
If he received the same invitation today, he would decline, he said. The spotlight on Chinese scientists at academic institutions was too great, and the pride of working with the agency was not worth the potential risk to him and his family. “It’s not because I don’t want to serve,” he said. “I’m afraid to serve.”
That fear is because China is beginning to experience a reverse brain drain. Over the past decade, a growing number of Chinese scientists have been lured back to the country by the promise of generous funding, impressive titles and national pride. More recently, scientists returning to China have cited a hostile environment in the United States as a factor.
Westlake University, a research university in the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou, has recruited an impressive number of talents, including many who once held faculty positions at top US schools. In August, Westlake announced several new hires, including tenure from Northwestern University and another from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Shi Yigong, a leading molecular biologist and the president of Westlake University, said colleagues have complained about the atmosphere of mistrust in the United States. “For those who have chosen to give up their jobs in the US, I sometimes hear stories of a bitter nature,” Shi said. “I think some of them, not all of them, were singled out for what I think was pretty harsh treatment.”
However, at least one person is determined to stay in the United States: Hu.
The son of a factory worker, he grew up in a poor village in the eastern Chinese province of Shandong and said his interest in science started at a young age. In grade school, he rigged up a simple radio by wiring a speaker with scrap mineral and connecting it to a makeshift antenna that he hung from a tree.
After earning higher degrees in China, he left the country in 1997 with his wife and worked in several countries before earning a second doctorate in physics in Canada. Like countless immigrants before him, he moved to the United States in 2013 with the hopes of a better life and career.
He’s sacrificed too much to give it all up now, he said.
He would rather stay in the United States to contribute not only to science, his first love, but also to his new passion: promoting justice. “I have no interest in politics and know almost nothing about it,” he said. “But I know targeting Chinese and Asian Americans — that’s not going to make the United States strong.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.