Gang Chen’s case and the future of the China Initiative

The Trump administration capped off its two-year-old China Initiative with the indictment of MIT professor Gang Chen. As I argue in this op-ed for SupChina, Professor Chen’s case should be the end of the Department of Justice’s China Initiative, not because there are not legitimate concerns about illegal transmission of intellectual property to PRC-linked entities, but rather because the China Initiative is a flawed response: a key challenge awaiting attorney general nominee Merrick Garland is “addressing the threats from the PRC party-state that go beyond traditional spying while ending the harmful suspicion attached to people of Chinese nationality or ethnicity.”

As I discuss at length in a forthcoming article, in addition to concerns about how a focus on “China” is creating an overinclusive conception of the threat and attaching a criminal taint to people associated with the PRC through ethnicity and/or nationality, there are also questions whether use of severe criminal penalties best serves the ultimate goal of protecting the United States’ status as “the world’s top innovator” (to use former Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s phrasing).

Earlier this week, the Biden administration’s messaging sounded consistent with the Trump administration’s stance. Press Secretary Jen Psaki warned, “China has been willing to do whatever it takes to gain a technological advantage—stealing intellectual property, engaging in industrial espionage, and forcing technology transfer.” Again, these concerns are real.

Yet, especially given the Biden administration’s strong condemnation of racism and xenophobia, there will hopefully be room to craft a modified response that mitigates bias (e.g., eradicating language like US Attorney Andrew Lelling‘s comment regarding Professor Chen that “[t]he allegations of the complaint imply that this was not just about greed, but about loyalty to China”), draws on expertise from academic and research communities, and creates a more bounded use of harsh criminal penalties.