Photo of MIT Campus
MIT’s campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Gang Chen served as a professor of engineering since 2001. Image Source: Edward Mao

On the morning of January 14, 2021, in the waning days of the Trump administration, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) arrested Gang Chen, 56, a professor of mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The government accuses Chen of failing to disclose his affiliations with Chinese government institutions in order to secure $19 million in U.S. federal grants.

Chen is the latest example of the federal government’s coordinated efforts that has targeted Chinese American scientists and researchers based on their ancestry rather than suspected criminal activity through the DOJ’s China Initiative. The program, which began in November 2018 under then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, aims to curb the theft of American intellectual property.

Since it began, the DOJ has brought numerous cases against Chinese American researchers, professors, U.S. intelligence officials, and Chinese nationals working in the U.S. 

However, the vast majority of these researchers have not been accused of theft or espionage, but of minor offenses, such as failing to fill out disclosure forms correctly.

These overzealous and racially biased prosecutions are ruining the careers and lives of Asian American scientists and scholars.

Fig 1. (left): Geng Chen in his office at MIT. Image Source: MIT

CAA denounces the China Initiative for its discriminatory investigations and prosecutions of Asian Americans and Asian immigrants. Earlier this year, CAA joined other organizations and individuals in sending a letter to Joe Biden urging his administration to end the China Initiative and to take steps to combat the pervasive racial bias and targeting of Asian American and Asian immigrant scientists, researchers, and students by the federal government. 

The letter calls for an immediate end to the China Initiative and a complete review within 100 days of all prosecutions and investigations closed prior to prosecution under the initiative. It also urges the Biden administration to take measures throughout the federal government to combat racial bias against Asian American and Asian immigrant scientists, academics, and federal employees.

Read the full text of the letter and recommendations here.

The U.S. Government’s history of profiling Asian Americans

The China Initiative is just the latest racist policy rooted in longstanding prejudice and state-sanctioned discriminatory laws against Asian Americans. From the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to the incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII, to the targeting of Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim, and South Asian (AMEMSA) communities after 9/11, to the unjust prosecutions of Chinese Americans happening right now, Asian Americans are living in the midst of the latest wave of resurgent xenophobia.

False accusations and wrongful prosecutions began before the Trump era in cases against Asian American scientists such as Wen Ho Lee, Guoqing Cao, Shuyu Li, Sherry Chen, and

Xiaoxing Xi. All were falsely accused of economic espionage. The charges against them were eventually dropped, but not before they suffered both personal and professional consequences as a result of the accusations. They did not receive apologies or any redress. 

Gang Chen, the MIT professor, has not been accused of any theft or espionage, but of not disclosing his ties to Chinese entities in paperwork. In a letter to the university’s president, 160 MIT faculty members protested the government’s accusations against Gang Chen as “deeply flawed and misleading” and said that Chen’s actions were routine academic activities. Chen has been released on a $1 million bond and MIT is paying for his legal defense.

CAA has a long history of opposing the government’s racial profiling of Asian scientists and researchers, including the 1999 arrest of scientist Wen Ho Lee, who was jailed in solitary confinement without bail for nine months, and the 2015 arrest of Xiaoxing Xi. CAA supported the Xi family with strategic communications to raise awareness of Xi’s case and organized a speaking tour for him at Bay Area college campuses. CAA has also formed a coalition called End National Scapegoating with Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus and the Chinese Progressive Association to combat the racial profiling of Asian Americans.

CAA will continue to monitor Chen’s case as well as others, such as Feng “Franklin” Tao, an engineering professor at the University of Kansas, and urge the Biden administration to reverse these blatant efforts to criminalize Asian Americans and Asian immigrants.

Cynthia Choi, CAA’s co-executive director, says the government’s actions not only violate the civil rights of individuals but damages the community at large. 

“We have worked with directly impacted people and their families who have suffered irreparable harm both personally and professionally so there is no denying that the China Initiative has created a climate of fear and distrust of government which ultimately undermines our multiracial democracy,” she says.