Justice for Sherry Chen
In recent years, the US government has focused its attention on Chinese espionage. Here is one example:
Chen was arrested in 2014 and charged with espionage by the FBI, which alleged that she illegally accessed a government database to share sensitive information about American dams with Chinese scientists. Further investigation revealed that what Chen had actually done was use a shared password, widely known within her office, to access a database for her work. The lack of evidence led the Justice Department to drop its charges five months after filing them. Still, Chen was fired from her job—for the same now-discredited reasons that led to the FBI charges.
In 2018, the US government announced the China Initiative, aimed against Chinese spying in the US. The program was a product of the deep suspicion regarding the loyalty of ethnic Chinese people residing in the US. Here’s Politico:
At one point during the dinner, Trump noted of an unnamed country that the attendee said was clearly China, “almost every student that comes over to this country is a spy.”
(I wonder if that includes my wife?)
The FBI program targeted ethnic Chinese residents, gradually drifting away from its original goal of national security. It’s hard to get accurate information on the program, as the federal government appears to be engaged in covering up the fact that it targeted Chinese researchers for very minor technical violations, and many of the cases were thrown out:
Two days after MIT Technology Review requested comment from the DOJ regarding the initiative, the department made significant changes to its own list of cases, adding some and deleting 39 defendants previously connected to the China Initiative from its website. This included several instances where the government had announced prosecutions with great fanfare, only for the cases to fail—including one that was dismissed by a judge after a mistrial.
Rather than improving US national security, it has probably hurt our security by discouraging highly talented researchers from migrating from China to the US.
Fortunately, there are signs the government may be pulling back a bit:
The faulty information came from the Commerce Department’s Investigations and Threat Management Service (ITMS), an internal security unit that a July 2021 Senate investigation found had engaged in broad patterns of unfounded, discriminatory investigations aimed at Chinese-American and other employees—and which named Chen’s case as an example of misconduct. ITMS was disbanded shortly after the report was published.
The Biden Administration ended the program in February. And Sherry Chen is finally receiving justice:
Chen’s settlement—$550,000 up front, followed by $1.25 million to be paid out over the next 10 years—is the culmination of those efforts. In addition to the monetary damages, Chen’s lawyers say that the Commerce Department will also host a private meeting with the scientist and provide a letter acknowledging her record and accomplishments as a government hydrologist.
Unfortunately, anti-Chinese bigotry is still a part of our political system. Top politicians routinely mock Chinese names in a way that would be unthinkable if aimed against other ethnic groups (here and here and here and here). A Senate committee is engaged in a witch hunt aimed at showing that Covid-19 escaped from a Chinese lab, even going to the point of using false evidence. Our top universities have informal quotas limiting the admission of Asian-American students. If these quotas were applied to any other minority group, there would be outrage.