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US universities secretly turned their back on Chinese professors under DOJ's China Initiative

March 29, 2024

American universities increasingly distanced themselves from Chinese professors targeted under the China Initiative and similar federal agency investigations, often pressuring them to resign voluntarily or retire early.

At a recent panel discussion on the China Initiative and its aftermath, hosted by the University of Michigan, panelists shared their experiences, insights and lesser-known facts.

"I'm the lucky one," panelist Gang Chen said. "I had support from MIT."

The MIT mechanical engineering professor was arrested in 2021 on charges of hiding his links to China. With the support from MIT, including paying for Chen's legal defense, the charges were dismissed a year later. But Chen's case stands as an exception. Many Chinese professors facing similar accusations have been abandoned by their universities, facing ultimatums to resign or retire prematurely.

Chen was one of the professors charged under the China Initiative, a program launched by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2018 to counter economic espionage from China. Despite the initial purpose, the program primarily focused on cases involving researchers who had failed to disclose ties with China, such as receiving grants, spending sabbaticals or summers, or receiving honorary appointments from Chinese institutions.

According to Peter Zeidenberg, another panelist and lawyer representing scientists and academics accused or suspected of economic espionage, in most cases, universities typically distance themselves from accused professors. Rather than admitting to the U.S. granting agencies that they were aware of these connections with China or acknowledging their failure to provide proper disclosure training to their faculty, universities often deflected blame, telling granting agencies, "It was him. He did it. Go get him," he said.

The National Institutes of Health is the largest funder of academic biomedical research in the United States. Under the China Initiative, NIH started investigating whether federal funds were used properly by faculty. This included examining whether the funds were used to do work in China due to faculty's undisclosed connections with Chinese institutes. As a result of this investigation, 44% of the 255 professors where NIH asked universities to investigate lost their jobs.

"Most of those affected were tenured professors," said Ann Chih Lin, U-M associate professor of public policy and director of the Lieberthal-Rogel Center for Chinese Studies.

According to Lin, NIH made it clear that if they couldn't resolve concerns regarding a faculty member and a grant, NIH would not only require universities to repay the grant, but also investigate universities' entire portfolio of NIH grants. Fearing the loss of grant money, universities often approached the implicated professors and encouraged them to resign voluntarily or retire early. This strategy aimed to avoid a public disciplinary hearing or grievance process, which could bring unwanted attention to the case. Professors involved in such investigations typically refrained from discussing their cases to protect both themselves and the universities, often choosing to depart quietly. 

"In the absence of any evidence of a research security violation, do we really want professors to be forced to resign due to intentional or unintentional noncompliance with disclosure requirements? Especially in cases where neither the NIH nor the universities were clear about what needed to be disclosed?" Lin said.

While the Department of Justice terminated the China Initiative in 2022 amid criticism, the damage has been done. In addition to losing talent, recent research by RuiXue Jia, associate professor of economics at the University of California San Diego, indicates reduced productivity among U.S. scientists with Chinese collaborators, particularly in fields receiving pre-investigation NIH funding. Moreover, the cessation of the China Initiative does not signal the end of repercussions, as federal granting agencies continue their investigations, perpetuating potential harm.

This article was written by Lele Sang of Michigan News.