WASHINGTON — The federal government has invoked full legal authority against Anming Hu, a nanotechnology expert at the University of Tennessee.
According to court documents, investigators secretly watched him for more than a year. They confiscated his electronic devices. They roasted him and his employers. And in February 2020, the FBI arrested him, took him to jail, and charged him with six crimes that could have landed him in prison for decades.
But the Justice Department’s attempts to convict Hu as part of its program to crack down on illegal technology transfer to China failed — spectacularly. A judge acquitted him last month after a lengthy trial yielded little evidence of anything other than a misunderstanding over the paperwork, according to the local newspaper. It was the second trial, after the first ended in a hung jury.
Anming Hu declined to speak to NBC News. “The scars and painful memories are still in my heart for now, so I prefer to be silent,” he said in a YouTube video.
The Hu case is just the latest in a series of setbacks from what the Justice Department called “the China Initiative,” an effort to thwart China from stealing groundbreaking research that critics say has derailed. For years, the government encouraged American scientists to collaborate with their Chinese counterparts, paying no heed to required disclosures. With relations between the US and China becoming tense, rule violations have been prosecuted. But many of those charges don’t hold.
The Justice Department dropped six cases in July, including one against a Cleveland Clinic researcher who had discovered genes that cause heart disease but is now looking for a job in China. Last year, prosecutors abruptly ended a case against a visiting Chinese scientist at the University of Virginia after the school admitted he had access to some of the material he was accused of theft.
“The China initiative has delivered very little through obvious espionage and the transfer of really strategic information to the PRC,” said Robert Daly, a China expert at the Wilson Center, referring to the country by its formal name, the People’s Republic of China. from China. “It’s mostly process crimes, disclosure issues. A growing number of voices are calling for termination of the China initiative because it’s seen as discriminatory.”
The China initiative began in 2018 under President Donald Trump’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions, but concerns about Chinese espionage in the United States — and the transfer of technology to China through business and academic relationships — are twofold.
As NBC News reported last year, U.S. intelligence and law enforcement have been concerned for years about China’s efforts to recruit professors and researchers — some, but not all, Chinese-Americans — into so-called “talent programs,” which secretly pay them. . share research.
A 2019 bipartisan Senate report on China’s “Thousand Talents” program said it “encourages individuals engaged in research and development in the United States to transfer the knowledge and research they gain here to China in exchange for salaries, research funding, lab space and other China is unfairly using US research and the expertise it acquires for its own economic and military gain.”
Such schemes are usually not covered by espionage statutes, so the Justice Department began to sue cases of subsidy fraud, citing laws requiring investigators to disclose foreign ties.
The government has won a number of major cases, including a professor of medicine at Ohio State University who was sentenced to 37 months in prison in May after admitting he lied about federal grant applications about his ties to China.
Prosecutors last year indicted Charles Lieber, the chair of Harvard’s Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, who pleaded not guilty to charges of lying to researchers about a relationship with a Chinese university that the government says paid him $50,000 a month. .
But critics say federal law enforcement may be the wrong tool to combat the problem. Not every U.S. academic with ties to a Chinese university is at fault, they say, even if they came up short in filling out disclosure forms. In the past, academics were encouraged to collaborate across national borders, but as US-China relations have deteriorated in recent years, any relationship with China is now fraught.
“The ground shifted beneath them,” Daly said. “The nature of the relationship between the US and China has changed. Cooperation with China, which was encouraged, is suddenly very suspicious.”
Peter Zeidenberg, a lawyer who has assisted several professors and researchers charged under the China Initiative and related cases, says the Justice Department seems to misunderstand the nature of academic research.
“The goal is to publish,” he said. “There are no secrets.”
Mark Cohen, a former trade adviser at the US Embassy in China and now a distinguished senior fellow at the University of California at Berkeley, agreed.
Cohen told NBC News he is very concerned about technology transfer to China, but “The FBI is going too far. There are a lot of problems prosecuting these cases in universities. They are an open environment, exempt from export controls.”
The Justice Department does not support the China initiative, noting on its website that 80 percent of all economic espionage cases are related to China. Of the 12 cases brought under the initiative involving academic or grant-granting institutions, four have ended in pleas or convictions, according to DOJ statistics.
In a statement to NBC News, DOJ spokesman Wyn Horbuckle said the department is “committed to countering illegal efforts by the Chinese government to undermine U.S. national security and harm our economy,” but also “seriously raise concerns about discrimination.” takes and is committed to working with affected communities to build on and improve the department’s efforts.”
John Demers, who left in June as head of the Department of Justice’s National Security Division, said in an interview that the problem of technology transfer to universities is real. But he also said he believes conflicts of interest and disclosure rules were not strictly enforced for years. For that reason, he recommended an amnesty program that would give academics with secret foreign ties a chance to get clean and avoid fines. So far, the Biden administration has not implemented such a program.
According to court testimony, the FBI began investigating Hu based on suspicions that he was a Chinese agent, but found no evidence of this. The government eventually filed suit for subsidy fraud, claiming that he had not disclosed a relationship with a Chinese university while conducting research in the US with a NASA grant.
In a Sept. 9 ruling, U.S. District Judge Thomas Varlan found Hu not guilty and said he saw no evidence that Hu intended to defraud NASA. In fact, the judge ruled, the NASA Inspector General found that the agency had suffered no harm. The lead FBI agent in the case was not familiar with the federal grant process and the university’s disclosure requirements, the judge found. The FBI’s Knoxville office declined to comment.
The University of Tennessee last week offered to hire Hu back.
Another failed prosecution was Qing Wang, who spent 20 years at the Cleveland Clinic researching genes that cause heart disease. He said he planned to retire there. But last year the FBI knocked on his door.
Before he knew it, he was under arrest, charged with crimes and locked up in a cell.
“I was completely shocked,” Wang told NBC News. “I thought, you know, it’s all over. My science career is all over, and my life is probably over too… it felt like, you know, it’s the end of the world.”
Wang led a research project into the genetic causes of heart disease, funded with more than $3.6 million in federal grants from the National Institutes of Health.
In an indictment, the FBI said he failed to tell the NIH, as required, that he was part of the Thousand Talents program, was dean of a Chinese university, and received nearly half a million dollars in Chinese government grants for research that overlapped with his US funded work.
Zeidenberg said he was willing to prove that Wang disclosed his position and research in China to the NIH, even if he didn’t fill out the forms correctly.
“I have disclosed my Chinese positions and the subsidies,” Wang said. “I haven’t done anything wrong. I haven’t done anything illegal.”
In July, the Justice Department dropped the charges.
“It was the best day of my — whole life, you know? Because (on) that day I saw my hope, I guess, in my scientific career.”
But Wang is now in Shanghai, looking for work. America seems to have lost a renowned genetic researcher.
“They create such a fear in the scientific community,” he said. “I’m pretty sure a lot of people will move back to China. So basically they’re doing the Chinese government a favor.”