Global tensions between US and China deepen at Yale
A prominent professor’s suspension heightened faculty outrage over the Justice Department's “anti-espionage” China Initiative. Meanwhile, the Yale Investments Office re-evaluated its Chinese investments.
Anasthasia Shilov, Senior Illustrator
Strained relations between the United States and China have made their mark on Yale’s campus.
Haifan Lin, a professor of cell biology and director of Yale’s Stem Cell Center, was placed on administrative leave in late January 2022 following an ongoing criminal investigation into the professor by the U.S. Department of Justice and a related internal University investigation.
Lin’s colleagues expressed deep concerns about the suspension and the lack of clarity around the case. Many connected the suspension to the DOJ’s China Initiative, though it is unclear whether Lin’s case is connected to the Initiative. The Department of Justice launched the China Initiative in 2018 to allegedly “counter unlawful (Chinese) government efforts.” Since then, the initiative has focused its prosecutions on the grounds of “research integrity” — usually failures by professors to fully disclose their ties to Chinese universities.
While Lin returned to the lab in April, faculty have expressed their concerns about the investigation’s damage to the university research environment and violations of due process given the lack of apparent evidence of wrongdoing. The Faculty of Arts and Sciences Senate, meanwhile, issued a resolution calling on the University to provide greater detail on its policies relating to professors under investigation.
“Haifan is a super careful person who follows all rules,” one School of Medicine professor said, who requested anonymity for fear of professional retaliation. “A lot of us junior Asian American scientists basically see, how could we do better than Haifan? Basically, this is what’s going to happen to us next, right? If Haifan can be disappeared, we can be disappeared, easily.”
“We have to assiduously avoid basing policies or processes on prejudice — including those that could fuel anti-Asian sentiments or xenophobia,” the faculty letter 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.”
Professor of applied physics Yu He applauded Yale administrators, who he said have protected the University’s researchers to a greater degree than counterparts at peer institutions. Several prominent Chinese scientists have been wrongly arrested for spying for the Chinese government, including the University of Tennessee, Knoxville professor Anming Hu and Temple University’s Xiaoxing Xi.
Chinese graduate students, meanwhile, have faced difficulties with visas amid both rising geopolitical tensions and the pandemic. Many have had their studies delayed by visa issues or are barred from entering the country altogether due to Proclamation 10043. The decree, issued by former President Donald Trump and in effect during the Biden administration, restricts entry to certain researchers who attended or are linked to Chinese universities.
“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.”
Issues with obtaining visas have impacted research programs at Yale. Five participants in 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, were rejected for visas last year. The director of the Global Scholars Program attributed these rejections to Proclamation 10043.
Reviews and possible sanctions have come from outside and within Yale. At the Investments Office, the Chinese government’s human rights violations against the Uyghur Muslim population in western China have prompted the Yale Investments Office to re-evaluate Yale’s investments in Chinese companies. Outside Yale, the Department of Justice’s China Initiative, an effort to counter alleged Chinese espionage in American universities, prompted backlash from Yale students and professors.
Since 2017, the Chinese government has been engaged in a process of systemic oppression of the Uyghur Muslim population in western China, drawing widespread condemnation. Jackson Institute of Global Affairs World Fellow Rayhan Asat led a protest for Uyghur freedom at the Harvard-Yale Game in November 2021.
In response to these developments, the Yale Investments Office began probing its investments in Chinese companies to determine whether some may be ineligible for investment due to human rights violations against the Uyghurs. The Office allocates 6.5 percent of its investment portfolio, or just over $2 billion, to emerging markets, which include China.
“We’re in the process of [probing possible Chinese investments],” law professor Jonathan Macey LAW ’82 said. “We’re going to be starting to do that early in the semester.”
The University’s Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility, or ACIR, ensures that Yale allocates its investments in accordance with social and political standards. Macey chairs the ACIR, which determines grounds for investment or divestment based on the principles outlined in the 1972 book “The Ethical Investor” written by Yale professor John Simon and former Yale professors Charles T. Powers and Jon P. Gunnemann.
The Yale letter to the DOJ had 192 signatories.