Chen declined an interview request from MIT Technology Review but said through her lawyer that she’s “currently thinking through [her] next steps.” But her friend Gang Chen, an MIT scientist who has also been wrongfully accused of spying for China (and is not related to Sherry Chen), tells us he feels her pain.
“Despite the victory, it is important to remember that this was a decade of Sherry’s life,” Gang Chen says. “I reflect on the years that so many have lost, including myself, and the trauma that lingers on for those directly impacted and for their families. Victories, such as this, alone do not fully compensate for what has been lost.”
Secondly, Sherry Chen’s case is an anomaly—in that a broad pattern of misconduct by her accusers was proven definitively. One of the biggest criticisms of the China Initiative is that law enforcement casts doubt on activities that certain ethnic groups engage in every day, like traveling back home. It’s usually hard to prove racial bias in court. But in Chen’s situation, the Investigations and Threat Management Service (ITMS), an internal security unit at the Commerce Department that started investigating Chen in 2012, was found to be particularly blatant in its racial profiling practices.
A 2021 report from the Senate Commerce Committee revealed that ITMS “ran ethnic surnames through secure databases,” targeted an employee “purely because of her ethnic Chinese origin,” and “broadly targeted departmental divisions with comparably high proportions of Asian-American employees.” This led to an internal investigation of ITMS, and the unit was shut down in September 2021.
Obviously, not all government malpractice is revealed in heavyweight Senate reports, and much more is certainly swept under the rug. “You rarely get a smoking gun such as that, breaking open a case,” says Frank Wu, a lawyer, activist, and president of Queens College at the City University of New York. (Wu consulted on Chen’s case but never acted as her lawyer.)
And even though Chen won her settlement and the DOJ ended the China Initiative, that doesn’t mean the implicit bias that set in motion such discriminatory prosecutions has gone away. It may have just become more covert.
Lastly, Chen’s win doesn’t necessarily mean others in her situation will have an easier time getting justice. Yes, Chen’s settlement was the first of its kind for a wrongfully accused Chinese-American scientist, and people certainly hope it will set a precedent. But the reality is likely not that straightforward.
“I have not seen the settlement, but I fully expect that it is worded to make clear that this is specific to this particular case,” says Margaret Lewis, a professor of law at Seton Hall University who focuses on criminal justice and human rights. “I am confident that the government was careful to avoid any indication that it was setting a broader precedent.” That would mean other scholars fighting their own wrongful prosecution cases couldn’t just point to Chen’s case and argue that the same decision should apply.