What the Fear of China Is Doing to American Science

MIT's campus
Charles Krupa / AP

In what is becoming a familiar scene in American higher education, a Chinese-born scientist at a high-profile university was recently arrested for his ties to the Chinese government. About a month ago, Gang Chen, a naturalized American citizen and highly respected professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, was indicted by a grand jury for “failing to disclose contracts, appointments and awards from various entities in the People’s Republic of China.” Authorities say that Chen, who received U.S. Department of Energy grants for his research in nanotechnology, did not properly inform the agency about contracts entitling him to “hundreds of thousands of dollars in direct payments” from entities in China. Chen’s lawyers have responded aggressively, accusing U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling of making “false, highly inflammatory” comments that questioned Chen’s “character and reputation.” MIT has agreed to fund Chen’s defense, and hundreds of his colleagues have signed an open letter testifying to his character.

Chen’s case is part of a broader U.S. government crackdown on scientists that has targeted both Chinese citizens and Chinese Americans—and has challenged the leading role American research institutions play in global science. Trade battles, human-rights abuses in Xinjiang, and the militarization of the South China Sea are what usually come to mind when Americans think about the growing friction with China. But in many ways, U.S. universities are a more immediate battleground. They are centers of basic research—studies about the underlying foundations of natural phenomena conducted without specific commercial or military applications in mind. According to existing U.S. government policy, such research is meant to be kept as open as possible. The concern of many U.S. policy makers is that Beijing is using so-called non-traditional intelligence collectors—students, faculty, and other researchers—to steal secrets from American labs and gain a competitive edge.

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Gang Chen’s case, like the others that have come before it, thus crystallizes a set of questions about the nature of American science. Should U.S. universities foster global collaboration and import foreign talent, or should they be more overtly American in their orientation? Should they forge strong relationships in China, or should they try to “decouple” from it? How can research funded by American taxpayers be protected from bad actors in a setting that is fundamentally open?    

The Trump administration had easy answers to such questions: stop Chinese students from coming to the U.S. in the first place, and crack down on individuals with illicit ties to China. In the fall of 2018, then Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the China Initiative, an effort targeting Beijing-sponsored economic espionage and trade-secret theft at American firms and universities. The administration also took steps to restrict Chinese citizens’ ability to study in the United States, including abruptly canceling visas for Chinese students with academic ties to certain universities and institutions linked to the Chinese military. Some proposed legislation would go even further. The Secure Campus Act, proposed in 2020 by three Republicans—Senators Tom Cotton and Marsha Blackburn and Representative David Kustoff—would bar all citizens of mainland China from receiving student or research visas to the United States for graduate or postgraduate studies in STEM fields. The new administration is widely expected to show more flexibility on immigration matters than its immediate predecessor, but Joe Biden too has often been sharply critical of China.

Although federal investigators have revealed some irregularities, just how much illicit activity is actually happening on U.S. campuses remains unclear. The FBI touts that it has more than 2,000 ongoing investigations tied to China in some way, but to date authorities have made arrests at only a dozen academic institutions. The majority of those cases focus on fraud, not espionage; the researchers in question have allegedly failed to disclose affiliations and funding from Chinese entities. These relationships are generally not illegal in and of themselves, and in some instances are actively encouraged by the American university. Gang Chen’s case fits this mold; the primary accusation against him is that he received millions of dollars of undisclosed funding from China’s Southern University of Science and Technology, although in fact he developed this partnership at MIT’s behest.

The Justice Department’s crackdown appears discriminatory to many Chinese Americans. The Committee of 100, a nonprofit organization comprising prominent members of the community, argues that “the loyalties of Chinese Americans are being unfairly questioned, and the community is being severely maligned by overreaching prosecutions and rush to judgment.” Though discrimination is hard to prove, people of Chinese ethnicity appear to have been differentially targeted in the past. In the mid-2010s, several naturalized citizens of Chinese descent—Xi Xiaoxing, Sherry Chen, Guoqing Cao, and Shuyu Liu—were swept up in accusations of espionage only to be found innocent, their lives and reputations destroyed in the process. An empirical study of cases charged under the Economic Espionage Act from 1997 to 2015 shows that roughly one in five Asian defendants charged with espionage was ultimately acquitted, compared with only one in 10 defendants with Western names.

Even if the China Initiative is being implemented in a nondiscriminatory way and is effective in rooting out a few bad scientists with illicit intentions, the Biden administration should not ignore the downside. How many good scientists are going to be deterred from coming to the U.S.? In a typical year, tens of thousands of Chinese scientists come to the United States, enriching the universities and research communities they join. Across STEM fields, an estimated 41,000 master’s and 36,000 doctoral students in American universities are Chinese citizens. This represents 16 percent of all U.S. graduate students in those disciplines. The overwhelming majority—about 85 to 90 percent—seek to assimilate and gain U.S. citizenship. When they stay, they create companies, jobs, and new technologies that benefit the United States. The attractiveness of American universities is a core comparative advantage of the U.S. in the competition with China.

The Chinese government knows this, and it has scrambled for ways to lure its talented citizens back. By adopting policies that cast aspersions on Chinese-born scientists, the U.S. government might well have solved China’s problem.

American science should be grounded in fairness and transparency, and the Biden administration can use the government’s power to address violations of those values. Many scientists are concerned about the practice of “double dipping”—research about one idea being funded by multiple grants—which is why professors are required to disclose their full funding profiles to their universities and American granting agencies. Some U.S. scientists might indeed have ethically compromising relationships with entities in China. The Justice Department alleges that Charles Lieber, the former chair of Harvard’s chemistry department, received up to $50,000 a month from the Wuhan University of Technology as a “strategic scientist.” According to his charging documents, a Chinese secondary school paid Gang Chen $355,715 in consulting fees. Which services are covered by transactions like these are unclear, but the arrangements do not appear to serve the interests of Harvard, MIT, or the United States. The Biden administration and American universities should revisit which financial arrangements are acceptable with foreign institutions—in China or anywhere else—and how they should be disclosed. The Justice Department is wisely considering an amnesty program that would allow individuals to report foreign ties now and avoid investigation.  

The United States can address past and future conflicts of interest while also welcoming scientists of all backgrounds. A good first step would be a public review of the China Initiative, to allow Congress and the scientific community to understand more about how the initiative is being conducted and how much hard evidence it has collected of espionage and illicit activity on Beijing’s part. Lawmakers should also assess whether the Justice Department’s work includes protections against discriminatory investigation and prosecution. Such a review would be consistent with the Biden administration’s recent rebuke of racism directed at Asian Americans, and would signal to Chinese researchers that they are valued members of the American scientific community.

In confronting the challenges posed by a rising China, U.S. policy makers must remember that the power of the American scientific enterprise lies not simply in the number of citations or patents it generates, but in the number of bright people from every country in the world who want to come here to do research—because of how we conduct science, speak about politics, and provide opportunity regardless of a person’s nation of origin.

In the end, the U.S. government must also accept that some degree of theft, plagiarism, and loss of intellectual property is the price of America’s open approach. Data and computer code are shared, working papers are circulated, research is disseminated publicly, and participation is open to all. The strength of this model is that it is social; by communicating findings broadly, scientists receive feedback, collaborate, and innovate further. This is the philosophy that has propelled U.S. science ahead of the rest of the world. This model can be abused by bad players—perhaps even by spies—but it is still working far better than a more restrictive alternative would. If Americans cordon off our scientific communities in the name of security, we will be sacrificing our greatest advantage, and the core of who we are.