Amid Renewed Controversy, Penn Scholars Defend Opposition to China Initiative to Catch Spies

Revelations that President Joe Biden kept classified federal documents at his University of Pennsylvania office in Washington, D.C., have brought renewed scrutiny to his relationship with the university — and the role many Penn professors had in persuading his administration to kill a Justice Department project combatting Chinese espionage.

In December 2017, former President Donald Trump approved a National Security Strategy that led to the creation of the China Initiative the following year. His administration said the prosecutorial endeavor would focus on “identifying and prosecuting those engaged in trade secret theft, hacking, and economic espionage” as well as “protecting our critical infrastructure against external threats through foreign direct investment and supply chain compromises….” The initiative also targeted China’s “covert efforts to influence the American public and policymakers without proper transparency.”

Last winter, about 200 members of the University of Pennsylvania faculty signed and publicized a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland asking that the Biden White House kill the initiative. On February 23, 2022, Assistant Attorney General for National Security Matthew Olsen announced that the project would cease. Olsen said the Justice Department would instead pursue civil penalties in many cases when U.S. researchers fail to disclose foreign funding sources.

The Penn scholars rebuked the Trump administration for initiating an effort they asserted “disproportionally targets researchers of Chinese origin.” They further characterized the project as harmful to the scientific research community. Many say they still see it that way. 

“The petition I signed was aimed at protecting Chinese academics from ungrounded racial profiling,” English professor Nancy Bentley told The Pennsylvania Daily Star. “As with any other foreign nationals, Chinese scholars should not be punished or surveilled without cause. As far as I know, no one has called for the end to reasonable security investigations or actions by the FBI or other agencies.”

Supporters of the China Initiative, however, point to numerous prosecutorial victories it secured during its three years of implementation. Those convicted under its aegis include Chinese intelligence officer Yanjun Xu for attempting to steal trade secrets, Ohio State University rheumatology professor Song Guo Zheng for committing research fraud, and Harvard University chemistry professor Charles Lieber for lying about his relationships with Chinese entities, including the Wuhan University of Technology.

“The China Initiative was significant because it offered an emphasis for law enforcement, for counterintelligence communities in the United States, to begin targeting the pernicious aspect of this intelligence collection directed against the U.S.,” explained Bradley Thayer, China policy director at the D.C.-based Center for Security Policy. “Ending it of course hurts U.S. counterintelligence efforts, firstly; secondly, it hurts the emphasis that was placed on combatting these elements; and thirdly, it works to undermine the ability of the U.S. to offset Chinese… efforts to target Chinese dissidents in the United States and other individuals who are opponents of the Communist Party of China.” 

Backers of the dead initiative are also concerned about the copious flow of money from Chinese academic and corporate organizations to American universities — particularly Penn.

Like the Penn professors, groups of academics at other elite schools, including Harvard and Princeton, voiced their opposition to the China Initiative in writing in late 2021 and early 2022. But Penn has drawn particular notice because the establishment of the Penn Biden Center in 2017 and the hiring of Biden as a professor around the same time coincided with a cloudburst of donations and contract fees from Chinese institutions to the Philadelphia university. 

In the three years following the creation of the center, a nominal think tank that Biden used as his main D.C. office after retiring from the vice presidency and before becoming president, financial support from institutions based in communist China nearly tripled over the previous three-year period to $61 million. Of that amount, $22 million came from organizations the school has refused to name. The U.S. House Oversight and Accountability Committee is now pressing the Ivy League school to identify the anonymous Chinese funding sources.

The Daily Star contacted each of the Penn professors named as signatories to the letter against the China Initiative. Five of them declined to comment. Chemistry professor Abraham Nitzan meanwhile said that while the document “evidently includes my name…, I did not sign a letter to Attorney General Garland on this or any other issue.”

Those who did comment largely echoed Bentley’s contention that the initiative was improperly focused and racially discriminatory. Jeremy Wang, who said he remembers growing up in China under the oppressive Cultural Revolution, called the project “the American version of Cultural Revolution” targeting educators.

“Many scholars of Chinese decent were wrongfully accused under this initiative,” he insisted. “Such wrongful accusations not only ruined people’s life and career but posted [sic] a threat to research and innovation in [the] U.S.”

Wang cited the failed prosecutions of Temple University physics professor Xiaoxing Xi and Massachusetts Institute of Technology mechanical engineer Gang Chen as evidence that the federal government has pursued Chinese scholars unfairly. Penn political science professor Rogers Smith also cited Xi’s case, though the physicist’s federal investigation began in 2015 when Barack Obama was president, three years before the China Initiative started. 

“I supported that letter not because I am not concerned about Chinese policies and practices endangering American security and intellectual properties — I am — but because of excesses, like the mistreatment of Temple physics professor Xi Xiaoxing,” Smith wrote in an email. “My signing was not an effort to defend China but to express concern that investigations be conducted responsibly.”

Penn physicist Gary Bernstein likewise observed that a number of China Initiative investigations did not result in a conviction. 

“Prosecutions like this do nothing to improve our security, indeed quite the opposite,” he wrote.

Penn neuroscientist Konrad Körding said the project suffered from “crappy implementation.” 

Thayer said the groundswell of opposition at the university to the counterintelligence endeavor suggests the peril of Chinese corporations bestowing financial resources on Western educational institutions.

“It’s a huge concern not only for this instance, but it also is a symptom of a much larger problem of how the Chinese wage information warfare around the world,” he said. “The tactics are usually the same, and that is that they use their money to buy influence — with media, with universities, with politicians, with financiers, with tech firms. So it’s in some respects, a cookie cutter in terms of what they’re doing; they’re trading their wealth to buy influence….”

Thayer disputed the idea put forth by the professors that some failed prosecutions mean the China Initiative was clumsily executed or racially discriminatory. He noted that Lieber was among numerous defendants who were not of Chinese extraction but who were pursued under the initiative.

He also said securing a conviction on espionage charges is difficult in a free society and should be. Miles Yu, now the director of the China Center at the nonprofit Hudson Institute who served as an advisor to the Trump administration, concurred. 

“You win some, lose some,” he said. “This is not a political persecution of a particular minority; this is the American system. But the overwhelming majority of cases actually withstood the process of the court of law. You cannot just say that a few cases there may not be handled properly [and therefore] say, listen, the entire project is not worthy. That’s not right.”

Yu said the extent of American schools’ failure to report Chinese donations properly is “staggering” according to an analysis the Trump administration performed when Yu was advising Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The administration concluded, he recalled, that payments from China to various U.S. universities that were not accurately disclosed were estimated to total over $1.3 billion. 

“The Chinese government has poured in enormous amounts of money to American higher education facilities… for the sole purpose of influencing the universities,” he said.

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Bradley Vasoli is managing editor of The Pennsylvania Daily Star. Follow Brad on Twitter at @BVasoli. Email tips to [email protected].
Photo “Joe Biden” by Joe Biden. Background Photo “University of Pennslyvania Campus” by University of Pennsylvania



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