The US Crackdown on Chinese Economic Espionage is a Mess

The US government’s China Initiative sought to protect national security. In the most comprehensive analysis of cases to date, MIT Technology Review reveals how far it has strayed from its goals. Technology Review: A visiting researcher at UCLA accused of hiding his connection to China’s People’s Liberation Army. A hacker indicted for breaking into video game company servers in his spare time. A Harvard professor accused of lying to investigators about funding from China. And a man sentenced for organizing a turtle-smuggling ring between New York and Hong Kong. For years, the US Department of Justice has used these cases to highlight the success of its China Initiative, an effort to counter rising concerns about Chinese economic espionage and threats to US national security. Started in 2018, the initiative was a centerpiece of the Trump administration’s hardening stance against China. Now, an investigation by MIT Technology Review shows that the China Initiative has strayed far from its initial mission. Instead of focusing on economic espionage and national security, the initiative now appears to be an umbrella term for cases with almost any connection to China, whether they involve state-sponsored hackers, smugglers, or, increasingly, academics accused of failing to disclose all ties to China on grant-related forms.

To date, only about a quarter of defendants charged under the initiative have been convicted, and about half of those defendants with open charges have yet to see the inside of an American courtroom. Although the program has become a top priority of US law enforcement and domestic counterintelligence efforts — and an unusual one, as the first country-specific initiative — many details have remained murky. The DOJ has not publicly defined the initiative or answered many basic questions about it, making it difficult to understand, let alone assess or exercise oversight of it, according to many civil rights advocates, lawmakers, and scholars. While the threat of Chinese intellectual property theft is real, critics wonder if the China Initiative is the right way to counteract it. Today, after months of research and investigation, MIT Technology Review is publishing a searchable database of 77 cases and more than 150 defendants. While likely incomplete, the database represents the most comprehensive accounting of the China Initiative prosecutions to date. Our reporting and analysis showed that the climate of fear created by the prosecutions has already pushed some talented scientists to leave the United States and made it more difficult for others to enter or stay, endangering America’s ability to attract new talent in science and technology from China and around the world.