“A chilling, hostile environment”: faculty protest China Initiative as tensions continue to disrupt research
In the last three weeks, nearly 100 Yale faculty have signed onto an open letter condemning the Justice Department’s anti-espionage campaign, which they say is invasive and discriminatory. Meanwhile, Chinese researchers and students continue to face visa and administrative barriers, chilling scientific collaboration on campus.
Nearly 100 Yale professors are protesting the U.S. government’s response to worsening U.S.-China relations, denouncing efforts to root out spies on university campuses as threats to scientific inquiry and academic freedom that discriminate against scientists of Asian descent.
Headlines detailing high-profile arrests of Chinese scientists at American universities have accumulated over the last decade, and have ramped up since the Justice Department launched the 2018 China Initiative in the name of “countering unlawful (Chinese) government efforts,” per a spokesperson. But according to an investigation by MIT Technology Review, the initiative ultimately deviated from its goals, focusing prosecutions on the grounds of “research integrity” — usually failures to fully disclose ties to Chinese universities — rather than acts of espionage or technology theft. A majority of cases have had charges dismissed or are largely inactive, but professors have faced heavy professional retaliation, including one who was ultimately acquitted. More than 90 percent of the defendants are of Chinese heritage.
Threats of charges and surveillance loom over Yale’s lecture halls and laboratories, where some faculty say they work in fear. Meanwhile, graduate student researchers face heightened barriers to obtaining visas and in some cases have been forced to conduct more than a year of their scholarship for Yale remotely. In one of the most visible signs of frustration on Yale’s campus so far, 96 faculty members in the last three weeks have signed on to an open letter addressed to the U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, condemning federal anti-espionage efforts and endorsing a Sept. 8 letter signed by 177 Stanford University faculty to that end. Organizers will continue to collect signatures and aim to present the letter at the next Faculty of Arts and Sciences Senate meeting on Dec. 16.
“We have to assiduously avoid basing policies or processes on prejudice — including those that could fuel anti-Asian sentiments or xenophobia,” the Yale and Stanford letters read, quoting the President’s Science Advisor Eric Lander. “We believe that the China Initiative is one such policy,” the letter continues. “We therefore would like to suggest that you terminate the China Initiative and replace it with an appropriate response that avoids the flaws of this initiative.”
The China Initiative “disproportionally targets researchers of Chinese origin” and “is harming the United States’ research and technology competitiveness,” according to both letters. Arne Westad, historian of contemporary East Asian history who teaches in Yale’s history department and the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, called the initiative’s overtones “straightforward[ly] racist.”
A vast majority of the Yale letter’s signatories, which include two Sterling professors and six heads of colleges, come from science departments and the Schools of Medicine and Public Health. Similar letters have been issued by thousands of faculty at universities including Princeton, Temple University and the University of California, Berkeley.
Though the University itself has not publicly acknowledged the letter, Vice President for Global Strategy Pericles Lewis told the News he thinks the China Initiative is “counterproductive.”
Professor of Applied Physics and coordinator of the open letter Yu He invoked a series of high-profile cases of several prominent Chinese scientists who were wrongly arrested for spying for the Chinese government, including University of Tennessee, Knoxville professor Anming Hu and Temple University’s Xiaoxing Xi, the father of Yale graduate Joyce Xi ’15. Another case was filed last January against the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Gang Chen, despite widespread condemnation. These cases, and others like them, Professor He said, leave Chinese researchers uneasy and disrupt Yale’s research efforts.
“There is a pervasive fear that manifests on many fronts,” Professor He said. “This overall societal level of fear, putting up China as the strawman and enemy — I find it very sad. It’s a missed opportunity for the U.S., we’re shooting ourselves in the foot.”
Hu remains fired despite being ultimately acquitted. Xi, whose home was raided by the FBI, also had his charges dropped, while Chen’s case is ongoing despite protests from MIT. Still, Professor He said that despite national attention on high-profile cases, the Justice Department’s lack of transparency have obscured the hundreds of incidents not revealed to the public.
“A huge loss of talent in the U.S.”: The contents of the letter
Professor He said that advocacy was prompted by the similar open letters by faculty at peer institutions. Efforts, he said, began in September but gained steam after a Nov. 19 Yale Daily News op-ed, authored by Alex Liang ’22 and Mirilla Zhu ’23, called for an end to the China Initiative. Both students have since worked with Professor He and a small coalition of science faculty to solicit signatures, largely by word-of-mouth.
“The racial profiling of scientists of Chinese descent is unjust,” wrote Head of Grace Hopper College Julia Adams, who signed the letter. “Also, the development of rigorous scientific research and cross-national academic freedom go hand in hand.”
The letter, which entirely adopts the language of its Stanford counterpart, outlines three perceived flaws of the China Initiative, including its discriminatory potential against Asian and Asian American scientists as well as its prosecution of cases not related to national security threats. It goes on to argue that the Initiative creates a hostile environment for researchers of Chinese origin, discouraging postdoctoral fellows and students from starting careers in the United States and draining the country’s competitive ability.
“The [China Initiative] is creating a chilling, hostile environment that is against any type of collaboration. People regardless of their nationalities don’t want to collaborate with colleagues in China,” said Jing Yan, assistant professor of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology. “More importantly, the initiative creates a huge loss of talent in the U.S., the opposite of its intended effect.”
Justice Department spokesperson Wyn Horbuckle has responded to criticism, saying that officials “take seriously concerns about discrimination.”
Chair of the FAS Senate Valerie Horsley confirmed that Professor He has been granted speaking time at the Senate’s meeting next week.
Westad — who had not read the letter when he spoke to the News — advocated for completely replacing the China Initiative and emphasized the need for the plight of Chinese researchers to become more visible.
“I think we need to repeat over and over again that [researchers] from China are here legitimately and have been contributing very significantly to the life and work of the University,” Westad said. “We want to increase, not limit.”
“A loss to our mission to improve human health”: Science stalls
The China Initiative and other policies intended to counter China’s government have been executed and applied so broadly that day-to-day scientific activities are disrupted, Professor He told the News. Research groups, for example, must think twice about reaching out to any collaborators with Chinese ties, and Chinese researchers themselves face higher scrutiny of the types of funding and grant proposals that they can write.
Professor He cited one incident where he was invited to an international conference hosted by China’s Fudan University and Shanghai Jiaotong University to discuss superconductivity. Though the talk would have been held entirely on Zoom, required no travel and covered fairly basic research, He said that the Department of Energy did not approve. Since then, Professor He and others he knows have largely avoided giving conferences talks outside of North America.
“There’s just no clear definition as to what would fall under the concerns of the China Initiative,” He said.
Scientific work at Yale and other American universities is almost invariably non-classified, he added.
Meanwhile, a survey conducted by the University of Arizona, Tucson found that Chinese researchers’ collective fear of racial biases has surged, with half reporting “considerable” fear.
Among those most affected by worsening relations are Chinese graduate scholars, many of whom have had their studies delayed by visa issues or are barred from entering the country altogether. Proclamation 10043, which was issued by Former President Donald Trump and has remained in effect during the Biden administration, continues to restrict entry to certain researchers who attended or are linked to Chinese universities.
When he came to campus from Berkeley last fall, two of three researchers in Professor He’s lab group were still in China because of delays obtaining visas.
“The anxiety accumulates day to day because you don’t want to fall behind,” said Yizhi Luo GRD ’23, a graduate student in applied physics. “It makes me wonder what it’s all for — we spent so much time trying to get into these American universities just to then get blocked by visa issues.”
Luo was visiting family in China after his junior year at Yale when administrative delays on his visa application and the pandemic left him unable to re-enter the U.S.
Because U.S. consulates in China remained closed from February 2020 until the summer of this year, Luo and other researchers were forced to travel to other countries like Singapore to apply for visas. That is cost-prohibitive, he said, because some visa applications, particularly those for Chinese nationals, can take upwards of two months to be processed and therefore require applicants to live in foreign countries for extended periods of time.
Graduate student Jinming Yang GRD ’26 said that even once they have entered the country, researchers are often unable to return home to visit family. Though many international graduate students can receive visas for up to five or six years, most Chinese nationals must renew their visas yearly and cannot return home without risking being barred from re-entry to the U.S. Some acquaintances who did return home, Yang said, have had to defer or simply terminate their studies.
Entire programs, in fact, have been upended. The China Scholarship Council-Yale Global Scholars Program, which selects and funds top Chinese scholars for research in Yale’s Biological and Biomedical Sciences, or BBS, program, saw five of its scholars last year be rejected for visas.
Though visa rejections were not directly attributed to the China-based China Scholarship Council, which funds the first two years of its scholars’ studies, program director and associate professor at the Yale School of Medicine Craig Roy attributed the rejections to Proclamation 10043 and told the News that admissions for the 2022-23 academic year have been canceled, decreasing BBS’s graduate student class by 20 percent. He fears that talented graduate students will be entirely deterred from pursuing studies in the United States.
“We will be directly affected not just by having a smaller class size, but those investigators working on cancer, immunology, neurobiology, etc. will be indirectly affected by the loss of these particularly talented students,” Roy said. “It’s a loss to our mission to improve human health and cure diseases.”
“The world is not a segmented place”: Public outcry and eyes to the future
Whether the letter and others like it will prove successful remains unclear.
Stephen Roach, senior fellow at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs and a senior lecturer at the Yale School of Management, suggested that visible “broadbase support” from academics could “force some change.”
Roy, meanwhile, said that his program was canceled after University contacts at federal agencies indicated that the Biden administration would not rescind Trump-era policies. Lewis said that he and University President Peter Salovey have expressed the importance of open scientific collaboration to government leaders.
As long as policies like the China Initiative remain in place, Roach said, both the United States and China will suffer, unable to collaborate on global goals like combating climate change and global pandemics.
“This is an appalling, highly-politicized initiative that strikes at the scapegoat-mentality that the United States has had for all too long,” Roach told the News. “The world is not a segmented place and to create these barriers for political reasons I think is counterproductive.”
“The young generation — they are actually the best way to tie these countries together and avoid a horrible situation,” Yan added. “The more you cut the exchange of the next generation, the more likely that things will get worse.”
Yung Wing, class of 1854, was the first Chinese student to graduate from an American university.
Correction, December 9. This article has been updated to reflect that Mr. Luo is not in Professor He’s research group.