With the mid-January arrest of Massachusetts Institute of Technology engineering professor Gang Chen, the outgoing Trump administration’s Department of Justice handed its successors a firestorm of controversy to reckon with, including relentless criticism from academic institutions and Asian American advocacy groups. Chen’s case, part of a Trump-era Department of Justice program known as the “China Initiative,” centers on allegations that the celebrated professor, a Chinese-born American citizen, solicited millions in research funding from the U.S. government without properly disclosing that he was simultaneously working as a talent scout and subject matter expert for the Chinese government. As the Biden administration undertakes a review of Trump’s policies on China, the initiative’s approach is overdue for rethinking and recalibration.
The incoming Biden administration should reform and rebuild the effort from the ground up to better reflect the highest values of the American justice system.
The China Initiative was launched in November 2018 as a prosecutorial response to China’s persistent, pervasive, and well-documented campaign of economic espionage and illicit knowledge transfer. The core mission is both justified and necessary. Many of its prosecutions clearly serve the public good, including bringing charges against state-sponsored hackers for targeting American biomedical companies working on treatments for COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus. However, outright economic espionage is only one component of China’s overall innovation strategy. The Chinese government also relies heavily on modes of knowledge transfer that don’t align with traditional definitions of espionage, such as targeted start-up acquisitions and talent recruitment. Such activities are often challenging to prosecute but nevertheless can damage the U.S. national interest. In response to these expansive knowledge transfer efforts, the China Initiative has moved beyond prosecuting straightforward cases of intellectual property theft and into “gray areas,” such as Chen’s case.
Read the full article from Lawfare.
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