A US congressional body warned on Wednesday that the US laws are ill equipped to halt an alleged flow of Chinese state-sponsored technology transfer that has improved Beijing‘s military capabilities at the expense of American businesses and academic institutions, a concern that has led to scores of charges against Chinese researchers over the past year.
“US law permitting the legal transfer of [scientific and technical] knowledge is predicated on potentially outdated assumptions that do not consider the increasingly close involvement of both US and Chinese academia in sensitive research,” the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC) said in a report.
“Because Beijing has promulgated a strategy of ‘military-civil fusion’ and dictated that those with [science and technology] expertise should serve the cause of national rejuvenation, state-affiliated institutions likely absorb and leverage this expertise to improve China’s military capabilities and further the interests of the” Chinese Communist Party (CCP), according to the report, titled “Overseas Chinese Students and Scholars in China’s Drive for Innovation”.
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Export controls and intellectual property laws do not cover most of the technical data that Beijing acquires through programmes that support Chinese researchers in the US, including those run by China’s People’s Liberation Army because much of this material is “fundamental research or general management expertise such as laboratory design”, the report said.
The transfer of lab designs figured into the high-profile case of Wang Xin, a Chinese military officer, who was arrested in June while trying to leave the US with government-funded research from University of California.
As Wang prepared to depart from Los Angeles International Airport on a flight to Tianjin, he told US customs agents that he “had been instructed by his supervisor, the director of his military university lab in [China], to observe the layout of the UCSF lab and bring back information on how to replicate it in China”, according to a Justice Department announcement.
Wang was charged with visa fraud for allegedly attempting to hide his status as a suspected active PLA member, and faces 10 years in prison if convicted. He pleaded not guilty to the charges in August.
The USCC report referenced Wang’s case, explaining that charges of visa fraud, making false statements or other secondary charges are often used in these matters because the transfer of such information does not violate any US laws.
Suspicions that China’s consulate in Houston had been helping researchers and other Chinese academics in the US acquire information that could advance Beijing’s warfare capabilities prompted the US government to order the diplomatic outpost to close in July.
The USCC’s warning came as administration officials said this week that Beijing was relying on information collected by researchers in the US to work towards its goal of a world-class military by 2049.
Briefing reporters on the “insidious” effects of China’s military-civil infusion strategy on American institutions, State Department spokesman Richard Buangan said on Tuesday that Beijing was abusing “vulnerabilities that naturally exist within an open educational system like our own”.
But tightening scrutiny of Beijing’s efforts has prompted a corresponding wave of concern from lawmakers and rights groups that the government is racially profiling Chinese, Chinese-American and Asian-American scholars and researchers in the US.
“I’ve heard from so many individuals who are afraid of pursuing a career in science or academia, because they fear being falsely accused of spying and worry that they may be racially profiled simply because they are Chinese,” said California Representative Judy Chu, a Democrat, on Tuesday during a virtual event hosted by Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC).
Rights groups say that Chinese and other Asian-American groups have faced discriminatory prosecutions for many years, but that their targeting has increased during the Trump administration, particularly following the launch in 2018 of its “China Initiative”, a Justice Department programme bringing criminal cases related to economic espionage.
As one such group, AAJC announced on Tuesday it will start providing lawyer referrals to those affected by what it called the government’s “increased efforts to target and profile Asian-American and Asian immigrant scientists, researchers and scholars”.
The move was welcomed by members of the Chinese-American community, including Xi Xiaoxing, a Temple University physics professor who in 2015 was charged with – and ultimately cleared of – sending US technology to China.
Compared to the “limitless resources” of the federal government, scientists like himself were at a significant disadvantage, Xi said during the AAJC event on Tuesday. “Often people hesitate to help those who are accused.”
Even in the years before the Trump administration and its signature China Initiative, economic espionage cases against defendants of Chinese descent were already sharply increasing.
From 2010 to 2015, ethnic Chinese defendants accounted for 52 per cent of those charged with economic espionage, up from just 17 per cent for the period of 1997 to 2009, according to analysis conducted by legal scholar Andrew Chongseh Kim and published in the Cardozo Law Review.
Moreover, defendants of Chinese descent were almost twice as likely as other suspects to be acquitted of economic espionage or other serious crimes. The Justice Department, concluded Kim, was more likely to file charges based on weak evidence when the case involved an Asian-American defendant.
But even when defendants are cleared of wrongdoing, the reputational and personal consequences can be long lasting, said Xi.
“The cumulative stress was so extreme that it has left permanent marks in our mental and physical health that we are still experiencing today,” Xi said. “We are now living under constant concern that the government is still reading my emails and listening to my phone calls.”
The USCC cautioned against portraying all Chinese researchers in the US as part of Beijing’s efforts to obtain information meant to boost its military prowess.
“The idea that the United States must either bar all Chinese students from studying STEM fields or welcome them into every laboratory is a false choice,” the report said, calling for policy options that “guard against the most pernicious programmes enabling China’s technology transfer ambitions while minimising the collateral damage done to foreign students and scholars”.
“The United States can embrace Chinese students and scholars who choose to come here for their studies while systematically severing the ties that bind them to China’s technology transfer ecosystem,” it said.
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