Scientists and Spies

The U.S. and China face their first Biden-era encounter after a year of growing tensions.

The tension between China and the United States is hurting science. Some international researchers believe that the U.S. Department of Justice, in its legitimate concern about the surveillance and theft of intellectual property by Beijing, is getting out of hand. The latest example is the arrest of Gang Chen, a professor of nanotechnology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Two months ago Chen was arrested for hiding his ties to the Chinese government when asking for federal funding. Shortly after, he was released on bail, but the news shocked the campus. More than 200 colleagues, some Nobel laureates, signed an open letter to the president of MIT showing their respect and solidarity toward Gang Chen, and highlighting his contributions not only to the U.S., but to global knowledge.

Chen was born in China 56 years ago, but has been a U.S. citizen for the past 20 years. He had been targeted by the China Initiative, a program launched by then Attorney General Jeff Sessions in 2018 in response to data theft and espionage by the Communist Party. The problem is real, it has been documented and it has not only uncovered professional agents. There are what the FBI calls “nontraditional gatherers” of intelligence, and some are in universities. In that gray area is Gang Chen: they do not accuse him of leaking state secrets to Beijing — he does not have access to them either — but of acting as a scout. But some of the alleged evidence against him seems forced. For example, notes that he took at a conference that did not necessarily represent his thoughts. Or talks, invoiced to the Party, that he gave in China. What academic activity there does not go through the CCP?

The investigation has not concluded, and the underlying context is the deep mistrust between the two powers. Of the 5,000 active counterintelligence operations, nearly half involve China. The U.S. is particularly suspicious of the Thousand Talents Plan, with which Beijing has been attracting strategic knowledge since 2008. By offering them generous salaries and well-endowed laboratories, China has brought thousands of Chinese engineers and researchers back home, many from the U.S. While the West laments the brain drain, China hoards them. Is that illegitimate? Aren’t researchers free in a global market?

In the coming months we will see how the White House adapts its strategy with China. In its appearance, it should stand out from Donald Trump’s virulence, although deep down there is not much room for change. The technological and commercial rivalry is only going to get worse. As for researchers, there is talk of amnesty for those who, without bad faith, did not reveal past foreign funding or affiliations they may have had. After all, many of those funds have served American innovation well. Washington knows that science is produced by multicultural groups and international collaborations, and that researchers keep ties to their home countries. Political controversy should not erode everything the university has accomplished. According to the Sciops survey, 61% of foreign-born scientists in the U.S. who wanted to leave the country last year said they no longer felt comfortable because of the tension.

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