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Arrested under a Trump-era China initiative, Franklin Tao heads to trial

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

A University of Kansas professor goes on trial in federal court today. His name is Franklin Tao. He was arrested under a Trump-era Department of Justice program called the China Initiative. It was meant to root out Chinese spies. Last month, though, the DOJ ended it. But as NPR China affairs correspondent John Ruwitch reports, it didn't end existing cases, like Tao's, nor put to rest concerns about racial bias.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: In a whirlwind of preparation and stress for his trial, Franklin Tao and his wife, Hong Peng, made time for church.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED CHURCHGOERS: (Singing in non-English language).

RUWITCH: There, they held hands with members of the congregation at the Lawrence Chinese Evangelical Church and prayed...

UNIDENTIFIED CHURCHGOERS: (Praying in non-English language).

RUWITCH: ...For faith, for strength and for justice to prevail in the courtroom. Tao's wife, Peng, remembers how it began 2 1/2 years ago. It was their twins' first day of high school. Tao was on his way back from a trip. And she was home alone.

HONG PENG: Around 9 o'clock, I heard loud pounding on the door.

RUWITCH: She opened it and saw more than a dozen FBI agents.

PENG: So they searched every corner of our house, took all the electronics away.

RUWITCH: Tao was arrested shortly after. What neither Peng nor Tao can remember, she says, is whether they even noticed when, nine months earlier, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions launched the China Initiative.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEFF SESSIONS: Thank you for being here. And we have, I think, an important announcement for today.

RUWITCH: It was the first country-specific crime-fighting campaign of its kind. And it came just months after President Trump kicked off his trade war with China as suspicion increased and relations between the two countries deteriorated.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SESSIONS: This initiative will identify priority trade theft cases, ensure that we have enough resources.

RUWITCH: But the scope was amorphous. And soon, the program expanded beyond pure trade theft. Take Tao, for example. He's a Princeton-trained expert in something called nanoparticle catalysis. It's obscure. And he conducted what's known as basic research several steps away from real-world applications. But he was the first of many scholars to be arrested. And that set off alarm bells about the China Initiative.

EILEEN GUO: Almost immediately, there was this fear about the potential for racial profiling.

RUWITCH: Eileen Guo is a journalist with the MIT Technology Review. She and a colleague trawled through court filings and the DOJ website to compile one of the clearest pictures yet of the China Initiative. They identified 77 cases and over 150 defendants. And Guo says the vast majority of those charged were of Chinese heritage. Many have been untouchable because they're overseas. A lot, though, like Tao, are at U.S. universities.

GUO: All of the research integrity cases - again, primarily of academics - have been moving forward.

RUWITCH: To be clear, Tao is not going on trial for spying or handing sensitive information to China, where he's still a citizen. He's charged with fraud and making false statements - essentially, failure to disclose affiliations with a Chinese university and a government-run talent program. Tao pleaded not guilty at his arraignment. The DOJ declined to comment on the case. In academia, the China Initiative has had a chilling effect, according to Ann Chih Lin, an associate professor of public policy at the University of Michigan.

ANN CHIH LIN: The casualty is Chinese American faculty in general because it's creating a climate of fear.

RUWITCH: A survey she conducted across five U.S. universities found that nearly a quarter of Chinese American researchers don't feel safe in America or feel uncertain about whether they'll be safe here in the future, many because of these government investigations.

LIN: I think the prospect of having your life destroyed in that way is terrifying to faculty, you know, even if they know they have done nothing wrong.

RUWITCH: She says, 1 in 4 of those she polled have considered avoiding federal grant applications altogether, a step that could jeopardize their research. MIT mechanical engineering professor Gang Chen is with them. He came under suspicion from the federal government in 2020 and was arrested under the China Initiative a year ago on charges similar to Tao's. Prosecutors dropped his case in January.

GANG CHEN: I'm not going to apply for government funding. I can't see how I can overcome the fear every time I fill a form.

RUWITCH: And that fear is also pushing would-be students, postdocs and professors away from American universities, he says.

CHEN: So this is really harmful to U.S.

RUWITCH: Despite the official end of the China Initiative last month, critics worry about the continuing possibility of civil rights abuses as the DOJ pursues bad actors helping other countries, including from China, which the FBI says is America's biggest threat. Maggie Lewis is a professor of law at Seton Hall University.

MAGGIE LEWIS: The name China Initiative is archived. It's no longer being used. But what remains to be seen is how material, how substantive, that name change will be in practice.

RUWITCH: The DOJ says academic integrity and research cases will essentially be treated more carefully going forward. But it's letting existing cases play out.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED CHURCHGOERS: (Singing in non-English language).

RUWITCH: For Tao, that means his saga continues. He's been suspended from teaching and locked out of his lab. Hong Peng, his wife, has worked three jobs to keep the family afloat. But they've burned through their savings. And friends started a GoFundMe page to help with their debt. Tao declined to talk to NPR so close to his trial. Peng says, it's been a nightmare. And she's had moments of regret about ever coming to the United States.

PENG: We came here 20 years ago for American dream, to pursue our passions, to contribute to this country, to make a better life for ourselves and our children. We don't want to give up.

RUWITCH: And soon, she says, she hopes her husband's name will be cleared.

John Ruwitch, NPR News, Lawrence, Kan.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: University of Kansas professor Franklin Tao goes on trial Monday, in a case that critics say highlights how problematic and damaging the Justice Department's now-defunct "China Initiative" has been.]

(SOUNDBITE OF TESK'S "GREEN STAMPS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: March 21, 2022 at 8:00 PM AKDT
This story incorrectly states the number of Chinese American researchers polled who feel unsafe now or uncertain about their safety in the future as nearly a quarter. In fact, the survey showed it's nearly three-quarters – 71% — of Chinese American researchers in America.