Two Chinese-American scientists at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston were fired from their posts the same day last month, raising concern among colleagues that they might be from the aftermath of the controversial China Ministry of Justice initiative.
The two scientists, both of whom are US naturalized citizens working in the biomedical sciences, were notified of their resignation at the same time on the morning of August 30, according to three sources and a document reviewed by The Intercept. One scientist declined to comment; the other did not respond to a request for comment.
The China Initiative was launched in 2018 under then Attorney General Jeff Sessions to combat industrial espionage, technology transfer and hacking from China, but has stalled, leading to criticism from civil rights activists and Asian-American activists. Despite the ongoing hype from the Justice Department, charges have recently been dropped in several cases. Earlier this month, a federal judge acquitted former University of Tennessee-Knoxville scientist Anming Hu after a miscarriage of justice. A juror sitting at the trial had told The Intercept that “it was the most ridiculous case.”
The China initiative was accompanied by an effort by the US National Institutes of Health, which administers federal biomedical research grants, to investigate hundreds of researchers suspected of failing to disclose foreign relations. In a presentation in June 2020, Michael Lauer, NIH deputy director for extramural research, said that nearly a third of the investigations up to that date concerned the FBI, while 93 percent concerned undisclosed links with Chinese institutions.
Among other things, Baylor cited potential problems with compliance with federal grants as the reason for the scientists’ dismissal. But two Baylor faculty members told The Intercept they fear the school will punish people for their spouses’ work. The two scientists who have been terminated are married to scientists who have held positions in China. Faculty members asked to remain anonymous as they were not allowed to speak to the press.
Houston was the site of an extensive 17-month FBI investigation in 2018 that sent shock waves through the scientific community. The investigation involved FBI agents working with administrators from the NIH and the MD Anderson Cancer Center, whose campus is adjacent to Baylor’s. For months, agents tracked ethnic Chinese scientists, gained access to the network accounts of 23 MD Anderson employees and, in one case, installed a surveillance camera near a researcher’s office. In 2019, MD Anderson announced that three scientists were ousted as a result of the investigation, but none were ultimately charged with a relevant crime. A scientist was charged with child pornography possession in the district court and defamed in the local press only to see charges against him dropped.
A Baylor spokesman declined to comment, saying the college was not discussing personnel matters. A spokesman for the NIH said the agency is “not discussing any internal regulatory reviews of” [grant] Recipient institutions or their affiliated researchers, regardless of whether such reviews have taken place or are in progress. âThe FBI did not respond to a question as to whether it had investigated the two scientists.
The China initiative has attracted widespread attention. A recent Justice Department bulletin stated that efforts are aimed at reducing “non-traditional” [information] Collectors (e.g. researchers in laboratories, universities and the defense industry) who are involved in technology transfer against US interests. âCivil rights activists fear that the labelâ non-traditional collector âwill be interpreted to mean that everyone is Chinese Descent.
“Either what the FBI and other intelligence agencies say about this enormous threat from non-traditional collectors is true and they are just really bad at finding it, or the rhetoric is exaggerated and we have to be much more critical,” said Michael German , a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice and a former FBI agent. In an interview with The Intercept, he called for “ensuring that resources devoted to industrial espionage are actually directed at people run by the Chinese government.”
In the past few decades, many US institutions have launched joint programs and projects in China, often sending ethnic Chinese researchers to build connections. These scholars now say that their institutions have sent mixed messages about international cooperation. MD Anderson, for example, received an award from the Chinese State Council in a ceremony attended by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2015. Two years later, a vice president from MD Anderson flew to Beijing to meet with the director of the agency that manages China’s Thousand Talents program, a frequent FBI target.
Baylor also had several partnerships in China and, according to the faculty, had encouraged researchers to work in the country. One of these efforts was a formal partnership at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, which includes joint research projects and academic exchanges. On its website, Baylor advertises the work as a strong example of cross-border collaboration. And in 2014, the Chinese Consulate in Houston released photos of a signing ceremony involving a Baylor center and a Beijing University biomedical company. (In July 2020, the Trump administration abruptly closed the Houston consulate, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claiming it was “a center for espionage and intellectual property theft.”)
Baylor did not answer questions about his China work. It is unclear whether the partnerships are still active.
Photo: Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg via Getty Images
Although the China Initiative was launched under the Trump administration, the profile of ethnic Chinese scholars went back a long time before that. The FBI’s counter-espionage department set up its own industrial espionage unit under the Obama administration in 2010. The Justice Department says over 80 percent of its industrial espionage cases have to do with China, and FBI Director Christopher Wray has repeatedly claimed that the office opens a new case with China every 10 hours. But civil rights activists and legal scholars say the Justice Department has few successful law enforcements. “I’m tired of being told, ‘There are big problems out there and you just don’t have the security clearance,'” said Margaret Lewis, a law professor at Seton Hall University whose research focuses on law in China and Taiwan . “That’s not enough for me. I cannot be told, ‘Just trust us, we are the government.’ “
In both China Initiative investigations and previous cases, Justice Department officials have argued that US scientific research and corporate knowledge, regardless of the subject, are important to national security. Prosecutors have brought cases involving GlaxoSmithKline pharmaceuticals, genetically modified Monsanto corn seeds, and a DuPont whitener used in paints and Oreo biscuits. Sometimes agents have resorted to extreme tactics. On a 2012 case involving the insulation of blocks of glass, the FBI launched both an elaborate stab operation and a stinker of a film releasing his work.
Since 2018, the office has also been tracking cases of unreported connections to China that were reported by the NIH – an ongoing problem in science, but which, according to critics, does not necessarily equate to technology theft.
Baylor administrators had previously given NIH-marked scientists the opportunity to correct potential grant reporting violations rather than subjecting them to criminal investigation. This approach had earned the institution praise among Asian-American activists nationally as well as from local faculties. But the administrator who oversaw these efforts recently left Baylor.
“Baylor is not the same anymore,” said Steven Pei, an engineering professor at the University of Houston and co-organizer of the APA Justice Task Force, which works to help Asian-American scientists wrongly charged with crimes. “The faculty is just as confused, frustrated and scared now as it was two to three years ago.”