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The Big Story

US spying fears spread to academia as tech rivalry with China sharpens

Scientists warn of racial profiling and threats to academic freedom

ALEX FANG, Nikkei staff writer | China

NEW YORK -- As science and technology emerges as a front line of U.S.-China rivalry, America's war on suspected Chinese espionage is rippling through the once-placid waters of academia.

In May, Emory University fired a husband-and-wife duo of neuroscientists, Li Xiaojiang and Li Shihua, for allegedly failing to disclose grants from Chinese institutions. The investigation into the pair -- both naturalized American citizens -- was prompted by a letter from the National Institutes of Health, warning research institutions of "foreign influence" at NIH-funded research labs. Similar firings also happened at MD Anderson Cancer Center, a prominent cancer hospital in Houston which receives NIH funding.

NIH, known as the world's biggest public funder of fundamental research, has long encouraged international collaboration. Its large-scale probe into foreign grants therefore came as a surprise to many in the Chinese scientific community. Its scrutiny on scientists' ties with China -- which it identifies as the main source of foreign influence and intellectual property risks -- echoes Washington's "China Initiative," a program launched late last year by the U.S. Department of Justice, which aims to combat economic espionage.

"Today we see Chinese espionage not just taking place against traditional targets like our defense and intelligence agencies, but against targets like research labs and universities," then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions said when introducing the initiative.

But trade secret theft and breach of confidentiality are alien concepts to scientists, who are used to sharing research within their community and publishing all their findings, according to Peter Zeidenberg, an attorney at law firm Arent Fox and former public prosecutor.

"The notion that they can't send or share or collaborate -- it's a bizarre notion to scientists," Zeidenberg said at a June panel at the China Institute in New York, adding that FBI agents come in with a "different mindset" from researchers.

Meanwhile, some science associations are also having a hard time navigating increased U.S. legal action against personnel with links to China. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, a major publisher of academic journals, in May barred researchers "interacting with" Huawei Technologies from its peer review process, following the U.S. government's restrictions on technology exports to the Chinese company. The IEEE reversed the ban just days later.

Ju Yiguang, an energy professor at Princeton University who also attended the China Institute event, said there is widespread frustration and confusion among Chinese-American scientists.

"You don't know when you cross the line between academic freedom and foreign influence in academia," Ju said, adding that there is "increasing fear" that "as the trade war becomes a technology war and maybe in the end, political war, it will push us to pick a side."

The increasingly hostile atmosphere has also sparked accusations of racism. In a March letter to Science magazine, a group of ethnically Chinese scientists accused the U.S. of engaging in "racial profiling." The Committee of Concerned Scientists, a New York-based lobby group, in June sent a letter to U.S. President Donald Trump, asserting that "ethnic profiling and indiscriminate investigations of Chinese scientists has no place in our country."

In recent years, the U.S. has made high-profile blunders when bringing spying charges against ethnically Chinese scientists. One prominent case was that of Xi Xiaoxing, former physics department chair at Temple University, who was accused in 2015 of sending restricted American technology to China. The case was dropped months later after expert testimony suggested FBI evidence to be misconstrued.

Precedents like Xi's and the recent NIH-related terminations have prompted some Chinese scientists to seek legal advice to protect themselves against potential investigations. The China Association for Science and Technology, for instance, has invited lawyers to address the issue on three different occasions within the last two months.

The NIH's recent crackdown on Chinese-funded scholars also led at least two Chinese-American cancer researchers to move back to Asia. After leaving MD Anderson, where they had spent decades working, Wu Xifeng took up a job as dean of the School of Public Health at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, China, while Taiwanese-born cancer researcher Mien-Chie Hung became president of China Medical University in Taiwan.

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