The US crackdown on Chinese economic espionage is a mess. We have the data to show it.

Our analysis shows a significant shift in focus toward academics beginning in 2019 and continuing through 2020. In 2018, none of the cases were about research integrity. By 2020, 16 of the 31 (52%) of newly announced cases were. (One research integrity case in 2020 also included a charge of violating the EEA.)

At least 14 of these research integrity cases began due to suspicions arising from links to “talent programs,” in which Chinese universities provide financial incentives for academics to conduct research, teach, or bring other activities back to the sponsoring institution, on a part- or full-time basis. (At least four cases of trade secret theft also involve alleged talent program participation.) 

Federal officials have repeatedly said that participation in talent programs is not illegal—though they have also called them “brain gain programs,” in the words of Bill Priestap, former FBI assistant director of counterintelligence, that “encourage theft of intellectual property from US institutions.”

Cases charged under the China Initiative by year

National security links are sometimes weak.

The initiative’s increasing focus on research integrity has included several cases of academics working on topics such as artificial intelligence or robotics, which may have national security applications. But most of the work in these areas is basic research, and many disciplines in which cases have been brought have no clear links to national security. 

Nine of 23 research integrity cases involve health and medical researchers, including people studying heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and cancer; six of those centered on researchers funded by NIH—a reflection of the institute’s aggressive stance on countering “inappropriate influence by foreign governments over federally funded research,” said a representative of the NIH Office of Extramural Research. NIH’s efforts predate the China Initiative, and the representative referred questions on the initiative to the Justice Department.

Funding agencies allegedly defrauded in research integrity cases

Instead, the national security implications seem to center around concerns that any individuals with links to China could serve as “non-traditional collectors,” which the China Initiative fact sheet describes as “researchers in labs, universities, and the defense industrial base that are being coopted into transferring technology contrary to US interests.” But as our database shows, only two of 22 researchers were ever accused of trying to improperly access information or smuggle goods into China. The charges were later dropped. 

China Initiative cases aren’t as successful as the DoJ claims

Three years after the program’s start, less than a third of China Initiative defendants have been convicted. Of the 148 individuals charged, only 40 have pleaded or been found guilty, with guilty pleas often involving lesser charges than originally brought. Almost two-thirds of cases—64%—are still pending. And of the 95 individuals still facing charges, 71 are not being actively prosecuted because the defendant is in an unknown location or cannot be extradited.

In particular, many of the cases concerned with research integrity have fallen apart. While eight are still pending, seven cases against academics have ended in dismissal or acquittal while six have ended in a guilty plea or conviction. That’s a sharp contrast to the usual outcomes of federal criminal cases, where the vast majority end in a guilty plea, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of federal statistics.

Outcomes for defendants charged under the China Initiative

Nearly 90% of all cases are against people of Chinese origin

One of the earliest and most persistent criticisms of the China Initiative was that it might lead to an increase in racial profiling against individuals of Chinese descent, Asian Americans, and Asian immigrants. DOJ officials have repeatedly denied that the China Initiative engages in racial profiling, but individuals of Chinese heritage, including American citizens, have been disproportionately affected by the initiative. 

Our analysis shows that of the 148 individuals charged under the China Initiative, 130—or 88%—are of Chinese heritage. This includes American citizens who are ethnically Chinese and citizens of the People’s Republic of China as well as citizens and others with connections to Taiwan, Hong Kong, and long-standing Chinese diaspora communities in Southeast Asia.

Defendants of Chinese heritage

These numbers are “really high,” said Margaret Lewis, a law professor at Seton Hall University who has written extensively about the China Initiative. “We knew that it’d be a majority,” she added, but this “just underscores that the ‘but we’re prosecuting other people too’ argument…is not convincing.”

New cases are still being brought under the Biden administration

The initiative was launched under the Trump administration, and while the number of cases explicitly linked to the China Initiative has fallen since President Joe Biden took office, they have not stopped.

For example, Mingqing Xiao, a mathematics professor in Illinois, was charged in April 2021 with failing to disclose ties to a Chinese university on his application for a National Science Foundation grant. And an indictment against four Chinese nationals for hacking dozens of companies and research institutions was unveiled in July.  

Meanwhile, federal attorneys have continued to push prosecutions forward. The trial of Charles Lieber, a Harvard chemistry professor accused of hiding his ties to Chinese universities, is scheduled to begin in mid-December. Prosecutors are planning to go to trial in cases against high-profile academics in Kansas, Arkansas, and elsewhere in the first few months of 2022.  

New China Initiative cases brought in 2021

How it began

Concerns about Chinese economic espionage targeted at the US have been growing for years, with estimates of the cost to the American economy ranging from $20 billion to $30 billion to as high as $600 billion. Enforcement began rising dramatically under the Obama administration: in 2013, when the administration announced a new strategy to mitigate the theft of US trade secrets, China was mentioned more than 100 times. 

In 2014, the Justice Department filed cyberespionage charges against five hackers affiliated with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army—the first time state actors had been prosecuted by the US for hacking. Then in 2015, the United States and China signed a historic agreement committing not to conduct commercial cybertheft against each other’s businesses. 

But it was not until 2018, as part of the Trump administration’s far more confrontational approach to China, that the department formally launched its first country-specific program.

The effort was “data-driven,” according to the former Justice Department official, and ”born out of the intelligence briefings to the attorney general and senior DOJ leaders from the FBI that, day after day, showed that the PRC and affiliated actors across the board [were] deeply involved in hacking, economic espionage, trade secret theft, subverting our export controls, and engaging in nontraditional collection methods.” He said this included Chinese consulates helping to “mask the actual backgrounds of Chinese visa applicants to avoid visa rejection based on their affiliations with the PRC military.” 

Trump, however, had campaigned partly on anti-Chinese and anti-Communist rhetoric— infamously saying at one rally in 2016, “We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country, and that’s what they’re doing.” 

In the months before the initiative launched, Trump reportedly told a group of corporate executives at a closed-door dinner at his Mar-a-Lago estate that “almost every [Chinese] student that comes over to this country is a spy.” 

This was the backdrop when Sessions announced the launch of the China Initiative on November 1, 2018.