Sophie Henry

A month after Yale faculty members signed a letter decrying the U.S. Justice Department’s China Initiative, two high-profile court cases have brought fresh scrutiny to the anti-espionage campaign.

In December, 100 members of Yale’s faculty signed an open letter to the Justice Department condemning the initiative, which they saw as an invasive and discriminatory campaign to root out Chinese spies at American universities. Since then, the federal district court of Massachusetts has heard two cases tied to the controversial program. The first, decided by a jury on Dec. 22, found Harvard chemistry professor Charles Lieber guilty of lying about ties to China, marking a win for the Justice Department. Meanwhile at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, charges against mechanical engineering professor Gang Chen were dismissed

Though the Justice Department’s legal efforts have not come to New Haven, professor of applied physics Yu He, one of the letter’s co-organizers, said that the letter, along with the two cases, has raised awareness on campus of both the initiative’s discrimination against scientists of Chinese descent as well as its chilling effect on academic research.

“This [initiative] has been silently taking funding away from faculty, all done beneath the table,” He told the News. “It is very heartwarming and encouraging to see this many faculty at Yale voicing their support to the values that we all cherish.””

The Yale letter was sent to Attorney General Merrick Garland as well as local members of Congress on Jan. 10. It ultimately garnered nearly 200 signatures, many from the School of Medicine and engineering departments. Signatories also included three Sterling professors and six heads of colleges, as well as several prominent scholars of Asian American studies and U.S.-China relations. Garland has not responded to the letter.

Though only one of the recent Massachusetts cases resulted in a dismissal, both have been held up as examples of the advocates’ main criticisms of the China Initiative as ineffective and discriminatory. In Lieber’s case, charges were brought for false statements and tax offenses, rather than the initiative’s stated target on espionage. Chen’s year in court, meanwhile, greatly damaged his research activities at MIT, he wrote in a recent op-ed in the Boston Globe, and further stoked an environment of fear for scientists of Chinese descent across academia. 

Since 2018, the Justice Department has declared a string of victories related to the China Initiative, convicting multiple Chinese nationals of academic and economic espionage. The initiative began due to concerns that the Chinese government would use non-traditional methods to spy and steal information from companies and laboratories in the U.S., including targeting universities.

But in far more cases, the MIT Technology Review’s data analysis found, cases were not brought to court due to espionage charges. Instead, many scientists like Lieber were arrested on charges of “research integrity” for failing to disclose ties to universities on applications for federal grants. A majority of cases remain pending or have had charges dropped.

Meanwhile, however, research on university campuses has become “collateral damage”, according to He. The News previously spoke to several graduate students of Chinese nationality who described an environment of anxiety and difficulties accessing education at Yale.

“The anxiety accumulates day to day because you don’t want to fall behind,” Yizhi Luo GRD ’23, who studies applied physics, told the News in December. “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.”

Professor He added that numerous “deeply impacted” Chinese students reached out after the letter was published asking for help. He noted that he and other faculty often feel “helpless” in addressing the administrative barriers those students face, which he says demonstrates a need to further support international researchers, both at Yale and elsewhere.

Calls against the China Initiative piled up from academic institutions around the country, including Stanford, Temple and Princeton Universities. Colleagues at Harvard have voiced support for Lieber, and Chen saw an outpouring of support during a webinar held by the Asian American Scholar Forum on Jan. 30. 

He said that he anticipates an announcement from the Justice Department on the China Initiative soon. The Biden administration is expected to announce changes to the China Initiative “in the coming weeks,” the New York Times reported on Jan. 20, with the Justice Department “considering steps such as retiring the name and reclassifying the pending cases.”

But that may not be enough to resolve fears about lingering discrimination.

“At the end of the day, everybody is worried that nothing of substance changes,” He said. “We want to take this opportunity and look forward to a time when these policies are based on facts and sufficient communication with experts instead of typecasting or tying a problem to a group of people based on nationality.”

He applauded Yale administrators, who he said have protected the University’s researchers to a greater degree than counterparts at peer institutions. 

Vice President for Global Strategy Pericles Lewis wrote in an email to the News that Yale advises faculty on complying with China-related regulations. He also noted that Yale has “lobbied various government agencies for clear and fair interpretation of such policies as they affect university researchers and students,” and added that both he and University President Peter Salovey believe in a “broadly open attitude towards academic exchange.”

For now, He said that he, as well as the Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology professors Yongli Zhang and Jing Yan, will continue outreach efforts to lawmakers and University affiliates. Alex Liang ’22 and Mirilla Zhu ’23, two students whose November op-ed kicked off the recent round of advocacy, said that they are encouraged by the show of support and look forward to both the China Initiative’s end and to further advocacy at the intersection of research and equity.

“We’re mobilizing and coming together from a Yale community standpoint,” Liang said.

The Yale letter to the Justice Department has 192 signatories. 

Isaac Yu was the News' managing editor. He covered transportation and faculty as a reporter and laid out the front page of the weekly print edition. He co-founded the News' Audience desk, which oversees social media and the newsletter. He was a leader of the News' Asian American and low-income affinity groups. Hailing from Garland, Texas, Isaac is a Berkeley College junior majoring in American Studies.