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House bill aims to restart controversial DOJ program that targeted Chinese academics

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Department of Justice ended a controversial program nearly two years ago called the China Initiative, which targeted mostly ethnic Chinese academics and their links to China. The program was stopped after criticism of racial profiling. Now, a proposed House spending bill wants to bring the initiative back. NPR's Emily Feng has this report.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Gang Chen is a preeminent engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and he says he is a changed man.

GANG CHEN: I'm no longer the same. I can never go back to the same as I was before.

FENG: That's because in 2021, the FBI investigated him for past affiliations with Chinese institutions, affiliations that were previously encouraged by academia. It was an important case under the Justice Department's China Initiative, an effort to prosecute Chinese espionage in the U.S. Ultimately, the charges against him were dismissed - Chen had done nothing wrong. But the damage has been lasting on him and his wife.

CHEN: I very often woke up in her crying during night because she was dreaming, and then in her dream, she was crying. So I understand her fear.

FENG: And though absolved, Chen has abandoned award-winning research in semiconductor materials because that's now a point of U.S.-China tech competition and he feels it's too sensitive.

CHEN: Why should I get into this? If I check a wrong box somewhere, made a mistake, I could be accused. Why should I risk this?

FENG: About 90% of the more than 70 cases prosecuted under the initiative involved people who were ethnically Chinese. Just about a quarter were convicted and usually for much lesser charges. In February 2022, the Department of Justice ended the China Initiative, citing in part racial and ethnic bias, though the FBI says it still has more than 2,000 cases related to China. The DOJ did not respond to a request for comment. And now a proposed House spending bill wants to restart the initiative.

CHEN: The China Initiative has fundamentally harmed the U.S. competitiveness. The biggest competition is on talents. And that really deterred a lot of talents coming to the U.S.

FENG: Asian American rights groups are also alarmed. Here's Gisela Perez Kusakawa, director at the Asian American Scholar Forum.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GISELA PEREZ KUSAKAWA: How are we going to be tackling disclosures moving forward in a way where there isn't a disproportionate impact on Asian American scholars, or a chilling effect within the Asian American scholar community? These are tough questions.

FENG: John Yang, president of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, would like to see more training of U.S. law enforcement and employers when pursuing China-related cases.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN YANG: Training with respect to the Asian American community and our contacts, our natural contacts with friends and family in China, and how that might present itself.

FENG: And learning to differentiate between normal contact with loved ones or colleagues in China, and something more pernicious - that inability to distinguish is what got a New York police officer named Baimadajie Angwang in trouble. In September 2020, he was arrested and charged in New York with being an unregistered foreign agent for China.

BAIMADAJIE ANGWANG: Then I can see five, six FBI SWAT team members jump out their car with rifles pointing to my face. And I still remember until this day, one of the agent asked me, do you speak English?

FENG: He did, because he'd moved to the U.S. as a 17-year-old refugee from his native Tibet, and he'd polished his English as a U.S. marine. But an attempt to return to Tibet and see his family after years away was misinterpreted, and his case was grouped under the China Initiative.

ANGWANG: I was still wrongfully accused for something I didn't do.

FENG: Last year, the charges against him were dropped for a complete lack of evidence. By that point Angwang had spent months in solitary confinement in jail, and he's still on suspended leave with pay. But despite all the heartache, working for the NYPD is still on Angwang's dream job.

ANGWANG: It's my American dream. Imagine an immigrant coming from another country - you are able to become a police officer in the biggest city in U.S. and serve the people.

FENG: That's if he can get his job back. When reached for comment, the NYPD only said the disciplinary proceedings against him were ongoing. And with the China Initiative potentially swinging back into action Angwang and Chen at MIT fear there could be more cases like theirs.

Emily Feng, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Emily Feng
Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.