The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

China Initiative aims to stop economic espionage. Is targeting academics over grant fraud ‘overkill’?

Qing Wang, 56, at his home in Cleveland on Aug. 18. (Dustin Franz for The Washington Post)

CLEVELAND — Qing Wang was born in rural China, came to the United States to study and worked his way into the elite ranks of American science, becoming a respected heart-disease researcher — and, in 2005, a citizen of his adopted country.

Then one morning last year, an FBI agent knocked at his door in a suburb here.

Within hours, Wang was in handcuffs, charged with concealing ties to the Chinese government on a federal grant application. The prestigious Cleveland Clinic, where he had worked for 21 years, fired him the same day.

To federal investigators, Wang, now 56, was an example of China’s growing effort to co-opt scientists in the United States — part of a vast campaign to steal American secrets and technology. Over the past several years, the Justice Department has broadened its focus from company insiders, hackers and suspected Chinese agents to scrutinize researchers at universities and hospitals under a marquee law enforcement program called the China Initiative.

But a string of dismissed cases has amplified concerns among some lawmakers and activists about whether prosecutors have been overzealous in pursuing researchers of Chinese descent.

The issue goes beyond whether the government is bringing prosecutions it can win. Critics say the cases raise the question of whether a program designed to address a national security threat posed by the Chinese government has strayed, targeting researchers on lesser allegations of fraud without compelling evidence that they pose a danger to the United States.

In July, federal prosecutors dropped all charges against Wang, who was accused of hiding ties to a Chinese university while securing millions of dollars in U.S. research grants. In September 2020, a court dismissed a case against a visiting Chinese researcher at the University of Virginia, who turned out to have authorized access to the proprietary software code he was accused of stealing.

And Sept. 9, 12 weeks after a jury deadlocked on whether a Chinese Canadian researcher at the University of Tennessee had defrauded NASA, a federal judge acquitted the scientist on all counts.

The Justice Department separately dropped five other cases in a single day this summer, each involving Chinese nationals doing research in the United States and accused of falsely denying links to the Chinese military on visa applications. Officials said the dismissals were not for lack of evidence, but defense lawyers said the government overreached.

In many of the cases, the Justice Department is “using language akin to spycraft, but that’s not substantiated by the charges they are bringing,” said George P. Varghese, a former federal prosecutor in Boston who is a partner at WilmerHale advising universities on China-related cases.

“It’s the Al Capone analogy: ‘We got you on taxes, but we know you’re a bootlegger,’ ” Varghese said. Having a mistrial and six cases dismissed within several weeks “is extraordinary,” he added. “It really undermines the credibility of the initiative.”

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For the 20 or so academics prosecuted in the past three years and linked to the China Initiative, most charges related to lack of candor — making false statements or failing to disclose ties to Chinese institutions — rather than intent to spy. All but a few of the researchers are of Chinese descent.

Their defenders include prominent scientists who have written open letters in support of professors at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology charged in cases that involved federal grants and alleged foreign financial conflicts of interest. MIT is paying for the legal defense of Gang Chen, a Chinese American researcher accused of concealing the foreign source of his funding, and the university publicly declared that it, not Chen, had accepted the funds from a Chinese university. This month, nearly 200 Stanford University academics signed an open letter expressing concerns that the initiative disproportionately targets researchers of Chinese origin and urging the program be terminated. Former Justice Department officials say losing the trust of the universities where researchers are based risks undermining the initiative’s success.

Critics of the prosecutions say they have chilled scientific research and fueled the perception that Chinese American scientists are disloyal to the United States at a time of rising anti-Asian sentiment. Congressional Democrats want Attorney General Merrick Garland to investigate the initiative for racial profiling.

“I didn’t do anything illegal,” Wang said in an interview. “But the China initiative is still going on. . . . It creates such a fear in the community.”

Justice Department officials defend their effort, noting there is no government comparable to China in scope and scale of policies designed to undercut the United States’ technological edge, including through economic espionage and trade secret theft. They say the cases against scientists and researchers represent a small portion of the program.

Of more than 80 cases related to the China Initiative, most involved allegations of economic espionage, trade secret theft, espionage or illegal export of military-use items. Some are aimed at deterring Beijing’s targeting of Chinese dissidents in the United States.

Officials said the initiative extends into academia because China’s efforts go beyond traditional spying to recruit researchers whose work — even if unclassified and eventually published — can benefit the Communist-led government. In May, for instance, an Ohio State University professor was sentenced to 37 months in prison after he admitted he lied on grant applications to develop China’s expertise in the areas of rheumatology and immunology.

Justice Department officials said they are committed to ensuring that their actions do not violate civil rights or spur anti-Asian discrimination.

“The department is dedicated to countering unlawful PRC government efforts to undermine America’s national security and harm our economy,” spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle said in a statement, referring to the People’s Republic of China. “[W]e are also mindful of our responsibility to combat another serious threat: the substantial rise in hate crimes and bias targeting the Asian American Pacific Islander community.”

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A knock at the door

In the weeks leading up to his arrest, Wang was interviewed by the Cleveland Clinic and the National Institutes of Health about his grants. He got no indication he was under criminal suspicion.

“I was shocked,” he said about his early morning arrest in May 2020. “At that moment,” he said, “I felt that my life was over.”

Wang was the lead investigator on a research project on the genetics of cardiovascular disease, funded by more than $3.6 million in NIH grants.

He allegedly neglected to disclose to NIH that even as he was a professor at Cleveland Clinic’s Lerner College of Medicine, he was a beneficiary of the Thousand Talents Program, through which the Chinese government recruits academics in the West whose expertise might benefit Beijing.

In an affidavit, FBI agent John Matthews alleged that through the program, Wang was made dean of the College of Life Sciences at Huazhong University of Science and Technology. The agent said Wang concealed receiving Chinese government grants totaling $480,000 for research that overlapped with his U.S.-funded work. In particular, Matthews alleged, citing NIH information, “the families used in both studies were mostly the same.”

Wang’s lawyer, Peter Zeidenberg, disputed the allegations, saying Wang disclosed his research in China as part of the NIH application and did not use American families for the Chinese study. Wang also disclosed to the Cleveland Clinic that he was affiliated with the talent program, said Zeidenberg, a former federal prosecutor and a partner at Arent Fox in Washington.

“Ultimately this came down to whether the grant forms were filled out correctly,” Zeidenberg said. “The information was all there. It just wasn’t where the NIH was looking.”

Over 34 years of research in the United States, including 21 at the Cleveland Clinic, Wang led a team that discovered the first gene for Brugada syndrome, a disorder causing irregular heart rhythm, which can be fatal — especially in young people.

He wanted to stay in the United States because it “has the best environment for science in this area,” and because he thought he would have the most impact in a country where heart disease is the leading cause of death.

The arrest terrified Wang, his wife, Qiuyun Chen, and their two daughters.

“We worked so hard day and night just trying to understand how to prevent human disease,” said Chen, who also came to the United States in 1986 to study and was a member of Wang’s Cleveland Clinic research team. “And you never think this would be criminal.”

A growing confrontation

Several years ago prosecutors dismissed charges against four other scientists of Chinese descent, including a Temple University professor charged with sharing sensitive technology with China. These cases were brought during the Obama administration, which was becoming more aggressive in pursuing cases of Chinese economic espionage.

The dismissals, defense lawyers said, showed the challenge of bringing criminal cases based on scientific technology that FBI agents and prosecutors are ill-equipped to understand. In the case of Temple’s Xiaoxing Xi, leading physicists attested that contrary to the federal charges, schematics he sent to Chinese counterparts were not related to restricted superconductor research.

As a result of the missteps, the Justice Department in 2016 instituted guidelines directing prosecutors in the field to coordinate with senior officials in Washington on cases that affected national security. But that has not always happened when the charges relate to grant fraud, current and former officials said.

At the same time, there has been growing political consensus toward greater confrontation with Beijing. Lawmakers in both parties have pushed for stronger measures to blunt China’s increasingly aggressive theft of American intellectual property, which the U.S. government estimated to cost $225 billion to $600 billion a year.

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In November 2018, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions launched the China Initiative at a news conference heralding a major indictment of a Chinese state-owned company, a Taiwan company and three Taiwanese nationals. They were charged with conspiring to steal sensitive U.S. semiconductor technology to benefit China.

His announcement came amid a Trump administration trade war with Beijing. The heightened tension was reflected in the language some officials used to frame the cases, with one FBI official calling China “a country bent on economic espionage against the United States” and one U.S. attorney saying the MIT case “was not just about greed, but about loyalty to China.”

Since 2018, prosecutors have brought more and more cases against researchers involving allegations of grant fraud, rather than trade secret theft. The grants are from a variety of agencies — the Energy Department, the National Science Foundation, NASA and NIH among them. NIH says it has opened 222 compliance reviews since 2018. So far, 85 scientists — including Wang — resigned, retired or have been fired as a result.

Just this month, Zeidenberg was contacted by three professors over two days from different institutions in different states, saying the FBI had searched their homes, taken their electronics and indicated that the scientists were suspected of engaging in NIH-related grant fraud.

The academics have not been charged or arrested, Zeidenberg said, but “they were shellshocked.”

Michael Lauer, NIH deputy director for extramural research, said these types of fraud investigations are important because undue foreign influence — a government enticing scientists with financial and other rewards to illicitly transfer information, for instance — affects research integrity.

“We should not be paying for research if somebody else is paying to do the exact same research,” he said. But Lauer said he thinks such fraud, when it exists, is motivated primarily by financial and professional self-interest, not espionage.

“At NIH, we don’t deal with national security,” he said. “None of our projects are classified. Our issue is an integrity issue.”

John Hemann, a former federal prosecutor in San Francisco, worked the flagship China Initiative case: the 2018 indictment of Chinese state-owned Fujian Jinhua. He said the department was successfully prosecuting China-related economic espionage cases long before Sessions’s announcement.

But pressure to demonstrate the initiative’s success — to “show statistics,” he said, “has caused a program focused on the Chinese government to morph into a people-of-Chinese-descent initiative,’’ including Chinese-born scientists working in the United States.

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Officials said critics have misjudged the initiative’s goals because of the complex nature of China’s efforts to steal cutting-edge know-how nurtured on American campuses, including through talent programs that bestow large financial awards on U.S.-based academics.

John Demers, former assistant attorney general for national security, said the Chinese government generally advises the scientists to hide their involvement in these programs. Grant fraud, he said, is a legitimate target of national security prosecutors who want to defend “core academic values of integrity and transparency.”

“No initiative to defend against the Chinese government’s malign activities in the United States could turn a blind eye to such efforts,” said Demers, who left the Justice Department in June.

Calls for amnesty

Anming Hu, a professor of nanotechnology at the University of Tennessee, was the first grant fraud defendant charged under the China Initiative to stand trial. In February 2020, prosecutors accused Hu, a naturalized Canadian citizen, of hiding his ties to a Chinese university while receiving funding from NASA.

The June mistrial in a Knoxville courtroom raised questions about the government’s case.

An FBI agent testified that he validated a tip that Hu was a spy by performing a Google search, which turned up a flier written in Chinese that included Hu’s picture. The agent determined that Hu had agreed to a short-term teaching position at a Beijing university in 2012 through the Thousand Talents Program, according to trial testimony — a position the government alleged Hu failed to disclose years later.

Juror Wendy Chandler said in a phone interview that before the trial began she assumed the government would have a strong case. Instead, she said, she was “pretty horrified by the lack of evidence.”

Hu “made a series of clerical errors,” said Chandler, who says she has written to Garland urging him to investigate the prosecution. “He’s a scientist — not a human resources man. I didn’t see any sign of his hiding anything.”

In a ruling released Sept. 9, U.S. District Judge Thomas Varlan agreed, writing he’d found no evidence that Hu “had specific intent to defraud NASA by hiding his affiliation” with the Chinese university.

Varlan also said that wire fraud, which was the statutory charge lodged against Hu, requires a “tangible harm” to the victim. NASA, he said, received the research it paid for. “There is simply no evidence that NASA did not receive something of value, and specifically, the benefit of its bargain,” he wrote.

Justice officials have mulled offering an amnesty to those who voluntarily disclose ties to Chinese military and government institutions, to encourage transparency while avoiding costly and time-consuming prosecutions. Despite support from the FBI and the department’s national security division, inspectors general at the grant-making agencies have opposed the idea, former officials said.

Justice Department officials declined to comment on the matter.

Demers, in an interview, said in cases that involve only grant fraud, “the government should consider incentivizing self-disclosure by granting immunity from prosecution and limiting administrative penalties, like debarment.”

That approach, Demers said, “would provide the government even more of what it most wants — visibility into and disruption of a Chinese government program, while avoiding accusations of overcriminalization and maintaining the trust of academic institutions.”

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Andrew Lelling held a news conference to publicize charges against Chen, the MIT professor, when he was the U.S. attorney from Massachusetts eight months ago. But Lelling, now in private practice, said in a recent interview that he thinks the initiative has achieved a level of deterrence by alerting universities to the importance of disclosure. He said he would not halt prosecutions already underway but thinks that pursuing academic grant fraud is “nearing the overkill stage.”

“If I were in the department today,” Lelling said, “I’d tell the field, ‘Okay, slow down on new cases. Let’s set the bar higher now.’ ”

Wang was never indicted by a grand jury, which would have started the clock toward a trial. By July, prosecutors determined that they did not have sufficient evidence to proceed.

“With all matters, we evaluate facts as we learn them to determine if we can prove federal charges beyond a reasonable doubt,” said Thomas P. Weldon, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Cleveland. “In the event we do not reach such a conclusion, we do not proceed to indictment.”

Zeidenberg said the government was “overeager to arrest and charge” Wang. But, he said, the outcome was “ultimately just.”

NIH declined to comment.

In a statement, the Cleveland Clinic said Wang was fired for violating the policies of the clinic and NIH, and the medical center has put “additional safeguards into place” to help prevent similar problems.

Wang said he is relieved that his case was dismissed. But his taxpayer-funded research is frozen, the genetic samples he collected in limbo.

He said he fears that the U.S. government’s initiative “will drive talented Chinese-born scientists back to China, which is a big loss for the USA.”

Still, Wang, who has lived most of his life in the United States, said he will try to rekindle his career in the hopes of making more “breakthrough” discoveries, and will consider leaving the country if he has to.

“It will be difficult,” he said of restarting his research. “But I think I can do it.”

Nakamura reported from Washington. Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.