Academic Panel Warns of Impacts of Counter-Espionage Surveillance on US-Chinese Scientific Collaboration

December 14, 2021

Fissures in US-China relations remain entrenched, with no clear path to mending political differences in sight. Concerns within the US about Chinese espionage have come to a head, and, despite the change in US administrations at the beginning of 2021, lawmakers and the federal government continue to pursue and actively enforce measures to confront China and Chinese influence. Two policies in particular, the China Initiative and the US Innovation and Competition Act (formerly the Endless Frontier Act), have drawn the ire of academics who note dire consequences for scientific and academic collaboration being undertaken in good faith–both present and future–and report a climate of fear and racial profiling.

In an interdisciplinary discussion on December 2 titled “Open Science: Sino-US Collaboration in an Age of Surveillance,” panelists drew from personal experience and professional expertise, from the fields of science, law, and journalism, to consider the implications of these policies.


Real World Consequences

On May 21, 2015, armed agents in bulletproof vests burst into the home of Temple University physics professor Xiaoxing Xi, ordering him and his family out of the house and arresting him on charges of espionage. The FBI alleged that Xi shared sensitive company technology with China, found in email exchanges sent from his university email address. Yet, as was later proven, no illegal activity had taken place–the contents contained in the emails were based entirely on the results of his own research and did not include information about sensitive technology. After four months, the charges were dropped. For Xi, it was an ordeal that evoked memories of the Cultural Revolution.

Xi is not the only scientist of Chinese descent to be subject to false charges, as the Department of Justice continues to crack down on what it views as potential espionage and IP theft cases. These include dropped cases against Anming Hu of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville; Sherry Chen, a National Weather Service hydrologist from Ohio; and Guoqing Cao and Shuyu Li, senior biologists at Eli Lilly and Company. The result, Xi says, is a de facto criminalization of Sino-US collaboration, that “attaches a target on the back of anyone who has academic collaborations with China.” Since his release, Xi has been an outspoken critic of the DOJ’s China Initiative and has been vocal about the need for fellow scholars to speak up.

“To me it is crystal clear that this country is moving towards the direction where there will be no academic exchanges with China; there will be few, if any, graduate students from China; anyone who collaborates with Chinese colleagues will be severely punished; and professors like me who come from China will become an extinct species,” Xi said, adding, “The only way to prevent this from becoming the reality is to convince the American public that this is bad for America and to convince the policymakers that this does not protect America’s research security, rather, it makes the US less competitive in innovation, and less attractive to talents around the world.”


Legal Concerns

Benjamin Liebman, head of the Columbia Law School’s Hong Yen Chang Center for Chinese Legal Studies and Professor of Law, provided legal context for the current situation. He noted that while historically there have been cases of espionage and IP theft, the number of proven cases is “tiny compared to the number of investigations.” He cited a recent New York Times article, which noted that zero cases of proven IP theft came out of the China Initiative, and added that few cases that have gone to prosecution actually involve faculty or students.

Liebman suggested one common thread in these problematic cases of apparent profiling is a lack of knowledge about science and China, which leads to overreach. He noted that fortunately, the US system contains checks and balances to ensure that false accusations result in acquittals, “but not until after real damage has been done.” Liebman also considered challenges within China for US academics, which is similarly made difficult by scrutiny, oversight, and suspicion from the Chinese government.

Bringing a unique perspective from outside of academia, Aruna Viswanatha, a reporter from the Wall Street Journal, also presented her experience to the panel of covering the Department of Justice and China Initiative as a journalist. She noted that a major issue in some of these espionage cases stems from a misunderstanding surrounding what information scholars with ties to China need to disclose. Viswanatha noted the case of Professor Anming Hu, who omitted connections to China on his tenure application at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. This raised a red flag for FBI officials, despite the fact that he was not asked to include such information on his application by the university.


Scholarship in an Age of Surveillance

In introductory remarks to the panel, X. Edward Guo, Chair of Columbia’s Biomedical Engineering Department and President of the Columbia University Asian Faculty Association (CUAFA), highlighted the sense of concern shared by members of the Columbia academic community of Asian descent. Guo shared the results of a survey conducted by the CUAFA in which 48.8% of academics of Chinese origin reported that they do not feel safe, and only 21.4% affirmatively reported a sense of safety. In the same study, 95% of respondents expressed worry about the future of Sino-US academic collaborations.

Robert Mawhinney, Professor of Physics and Dean of Science in the School of Arts and Sciences at Columbia, called to attention the implications of restrictive policies for foreign scholars. He noted embargoes against the use of certain technologies by non-US citizens. These limitations, Mawhinney said, resulted in a number of extremely talented students being barred from participating fully in conducting research.

Representing the Columbia School of Arts and Sciences Committee on Equity and Diversity, Jennifer La’O, Associate Professor of Economics, noted also the current context of anti-Asian hate and discrimination that necessitates such discussions on the challenges faced by people of Asian descent in academia.

Weatherhead East Asian Institute Director and Professor of History, Eugenia Lean, who moderated the event, reaffirmed the importance of continuing conversations that address anti-Asian discrimination, in the vein of the December 2 “Open Science” event. The issue of challenges faced by people of Asian descent is critical topic of concern for the Institute’s Asia in Action initiative, Lean noted. More information about Asia in Action can be found on WEAI’s website at


“Open Science: Sino-US Collaboration in an Age of Surveillance” took place on December 2, 2021 and was cosponsored by the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, the Office of the Provost, the Columbia University Asian Faculty Association, the Department of Biomedical Engineering, the Center for Science and Society, the A&S Committee on Equity and Diversity, the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, the Hong Yen Chang Center for Chinese Legal Studies, and Columbia Global Centers | Beijing.