The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion America’s new — and senseless — Red Scare

A woman pops confetti during a cultural festival last month to mark the first day of the Lunar New Year in New York’s Chinatown neighborhood. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

In early 1951, federal authorities removed 11 Chinese students in handcuffs from the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and locked them in a Chicago jail. As I wrote in my book, ultimately, they (along with five other students) were deported because they belonged to a Chinese Christian group that authorities believed had been infiltrated by the Chinese Communist Party.

In response to the expulsions, Arthur Hamilton, who supervised foreign students at Illinois, made a simple observation to The New York Times: “We are making a gift to our enemies, the present Government of China, of trained technicians, steeped in American know-how,” he said. Hamilton called the deportations “criminal.”

Flash forward almost 70 years, and federal authorities appear to be repeating the same mistake. In their eagerness to stem significant intelligence losses to Chinese spies, law enforcement officials in the United States are frantically prosecuting Chinese scientists, and again making a gift to China of “trained technicians, steeped in American know-how.” FBI Director Christopher Wray recently told Congress that dealing with Chinese espionage with America demanded a “whole-of-society” response — an unwitting throwback to the Red Scare days of the 1950s.

Exhibit A in prosecutorial overreach is the case of Chunzai Wang. One of the world’s leading experts on climate change, Wang worked for 17 years for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. His papers, some of which focused on the interplay of El Nino and global warming, have been cited thousands of times. In 2012, Wang won NOAA’s Research Employee of the Year Award for “personal and professional excellence,” followed in 2013 by its Scientific Employee of the Year Award, for “professional excellence and exceptional productivity.” He was indisputably the most prolific scientist on NOAA’s staff.

In 2016, agents from the Commerce Department executed a search warrant at Wang’s home and office in Florida. Wang spent a day being interrogated, according to his lawyer Peter Zeidenberg. The focus of the probe was the belief that Chinese The focus of the probe was the belief that Chinese organizations had paid Wang while he was on vacation in China.

Hounded by the Commerce Department, Wang left the United States in 2016 and got a job as a research professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. His wife and children, however, remained in the United States. Returning to the United States on a family visit in September 2017, Wang was arrested and charged with eight felonies that basically accused him of double dipping. In all, it appears that Chinese institutions paid Wang $2,100 over the course of three years for helping students there on research involving climate change.

In some ways, Wang’s activities in China actually fell neatly within the purview of NOAA’s mission which is, according to NOAA’s official website, “to understand and predict changes in climate, weather, oceans and coasts” and “to share that knowledge and information with others.” [italics mine]

Last week, Wang agreed to a deal with federal prosecutors. In exchange for pleading guilty to one felony charge of accepting payment by someone other than his employer, he would be allowed to go free and avoid an expensive trial. He has since returned to China and was unavailable for comment. At court, Judge Cecilia Altonaga questioned the idea of prosecuting Wang, noting that her only regret “is that I have to adjudicate” his case. The judge also noted that “given the nature of Wang’s contributions to an area that is at the forefront of our daily review of news, climate change, given the nature of the research he conducts and — and the information he supplies and how valuable it is,” she found it “regrettable” that Wang should end up a felon.

Wang’s case is just one of several in recent years that have involved ethnic Chinese being charged with crimes that have barely held up in court. In October 2014, the same investigator who investigated Wang was involved in the arrest of another Chinese scientist at NOAA on charges of illegally accessing information for Chinese officials. That case fell apart, and the scientist was not prosecuted, although she lost her job. In 2015, a Chinese physicist from Temple University was charged with providing proprietary information owned by a U.S. company. That case collapsed when it was discovered that the material was actually not owned by an American company. In January 2017, a nuclear engineer from Taiwan was prosecuted for providing civilian nuclear technology to China even though the policy of the U.S. government is to help China build safe nuclear power plants.

Some defenders of these prosecutions argue that the United States and China are locked in an intelligence war and that these men and women are simply unavoidable collateral damage. The collapsed prosecutions are actually a sign, they argue, that the American legal system is functioning properly.

The problem, however, is that in pursuing cases such as these, the federal government, as it did in the 1950s, is giving extraordinarily talented scientists no option but to market their talents elsewhere. Wang’s departure to China reminds me of a case in 1955 when federal overreach contributed to the expulsion of Hsue-Shen Tsien, one of the world’s greatest rocket scientists, to China. Tsien went on to build China’s first intercontinental ballistic missile.

In bungling through investigations that don’t involve classified information and barely meet any prosecutorial smell test, federal authorities hurt themselves in another way. They weaken their ability to convince the Chinese American community that China’s very real intelligence-gathering operations constitute a threat. As Wang’s lawyer Zeidenberg told me of federal law enforcement’s obsession with China: “Their cure is worse than the disease.”