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New York Times Reports on Chilling Effects of “China Initiative” and Dr. Anming Hu

On November 28, 2021, the New York Times published As U.S. Hunts for Chinese Spies, University Scientists Warn of Backlash.  According to the report, a chilling effect has taken hold on American campuses, contributing to an outflow of academic talent that may hurt the United States while benefiting Beijing.  The trial of Dr. Hu, who worked at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, is being held up as a clear example of government overreach. He was under house arrest for 18 months during the investigation with no job or income, reliant on GoFundMe donations for his legal defense fees. Neighbors and church friends delivered groceries and took out his garbage. While the university has since offered to reinstate his job, Dr. Hu, a naturalized Canadian citizen, said his immigration status remains in limbo.

“It was the darkest time of my life,” Dr. Hu said in his first in-depth interview since being acquitted.  “My basic human rights were invaded, my reputation was destroyed, my heart was deeply hurt, my family was hurt,” he said. “This is not fairness.”

The “China Initiative” is supposed to aim at preventing the Chinese government’s theft of American trade secrets and other acts of espionage. But scholars, scientists, civil rights groups and lawmakers have asked whether it has gone too far in targeting academics, especially since most research done at universities is unclassified and eventually published.

Behind the recent scrutiny of academics is a problem years in the making.

Over the past two decades, as federal funding for basic scientific research at universities stagnated, scientists sought alternative sources of money. Eager to expand their global footprint, American universities promoted collaborations with international peers, including in China. Beijing, which has set its sights on becoming a science and technology superpower, was happy to oblige.  Many scientists have expressed frustration over what they say are shifting and overlapping disclosure guidelines from universities and funding agencies that make it hard to avoid getting caught in the F.B.I.’s web. During Dr. Hu’s trial, for example, it emerged that both NASA and the University of Tennessee at Knoxville had provided unclear rules on how he should disclose foreign ties.

Yiguang Ju, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Princeton and a naturalized U.S. citizen, said it had been the honor of a lifetime in 2010 when NASA asked him to help develop a plan for the future of American rocketry.  If he were to receive the same invitation today, he would decline, he said. The spotlight on Chinese scientists at academic institutions was too great, and the pride of working with the agency not worth the possible risk to him and his family. “It’s not because I don’t want to serve,” he said. “I’m scared to serve.”

That fear comes as China has started to experience a reverse brain drain. Over the last decade, a growing number of Chinese scientists have been lured back to the country by the promise of ample funding, impressive titles and national pride. More recently, scientists returning to China have cited a hostile environment in the United States as a factor.

Dr. Hu would rather stay in the United States to contribute not just to science, his first love, but also to his new passion: promoting justice. “I have no interest in politics and know almost nothing about it,” he said. “But I know that targeting Chinese and Asian Americans — that will not make the United States strong.”

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