Frank Wu: China Initiative and Chinese American Scientists

The US-China Perception Monitor’s student journalists YuXuan Chen and Xiaoyi (Baker) Lu recently conducted an in-depth Zoom interview with Professor Frank Wu on a range of issues related to Chinese Americans and US-China relations.  Wu is president of Queens College, City University of New York. He previously served as the William L. Prosser Distinguished Professor and Chancellor & Dean at University of California Hastings College of the Law. Wu was the first Asian American to serve in those positions at Queens College and UC Hastings.

USCPM: You’ve been advocating in cases such as those of Sherry Chen and Xiaoxing Xi, two Chinese American scientists who were wrongfully accused by national security related charges. Living in an era of China Initiative, do you have some reflections or thoughts when you look back at those two cases?

Wu: Starting about three years ago, I have been contacted constantly by people of Chinese descent, foreign nationals, naturalized citizens, or even native born citizens who believe that they are victims who have been racially profiled.

I always start with this: There are real cases. By that I mean, there are bad people doing bad things, who happen to be of Chinese descent. There are bad people doing bad things who are white or black or Latino. There are bad people doing bad things of every type of background. But just because somebody has done something that violates our laws does not mean that everyone else who looks like them has a propensity to do the same bad thing. In America, it is easy for us to accept individuals as individuals when you are part of the majority, but when you are in the minority, whether you want to or not you end up being the representative. If you’re a bad driver, it’s, “Look, all the Asians are bad drivers.”

We generalize, and we are all doing that because our brains are hardwired for pattern recognition. You can’t get through the day if we don’t do mental shortcuts. When we walk down the street, you make a judgment about who is friend, who is foe, which of these strangers is dangerous. I’m guilty too. But we exaggerate and we distort. We take little bits of truth and we blow them out of proportion. That’s what a stereotype is. It’s taking one or two real cases, and extrapolating and generalizing until it’s no longer quite true. Indeed, it’s mostly inaccurate. We do that with everything, but with race it is especially volatile, dangerous, highly susceptible to errors. We miss the wrong doers who don’t look like they are wrong doers, because we think we can see who will transgress. We want the wrongdoing to be obvious, and we want criminals to be visibly ugly, to have a sign of their sin. And then we want false positives, people who did nothing wrong, but because they fit a profile, since our brains see a pattern, we assume that this person there we need to pay attention to and they are is suspicious.

You can be in favor of the American national interest and enforcement of the American laws, as I am, and also say but you shouldn’t stereotype. I never want anyone to think I would be trying to help Beijing bring spies to the US to steal military secrets and trade secrets. Why would I want to do that? I don’t want to do that! I am an American. I line up on the American side of the table.

There are other categories of cases. There are people like Sherry Chen and Xiaoxing Xi where the person didn’t do anything wrong. There are so many others, not just one or two. They are just ordinary people. But because of how they look, they fall under suspicion and then they are investigated. The New York Times wrote multiple articles about them. Sixty Minutes did a program about them. And it’s really clear that it is a factual truth that in both those cases, they are accused of terrible crimes, and the government dropped all the charges, meaning that this isn’t my opinion. This is verifiable.

Then there is a third category where people did something wrong, but it’s closer to the parking ticket range than to the first degree murder range. Parking illegally, not paying the meter or in a loading zone, is a violation of the law, and killing someone in a premediated manner, by shooting them or stabbing them, is also illegal. Most people looking at this would say these are not the same. Both break the law, but one is way bigger. We have a sense of proportionality. There are some folks, they who did something wrong. They’re not spies. They are perhaps greedy. It’s moonlighting or double-dipping. They may get paid twice for the same project, didn’t disclose that they have two jobs, or didn’t pay their taxes. They were sloppy in accounting. That’s bad. I am not condoning them. But they are not spies trying to take nuclear weapons secrets on behalf of a foreign government and carry them out of the United States across the Pacific Ocean. 

There are a set of cases where the standards have a changed, a whole category of cases. There has been a massive change in attitudes. This is easy to find. I always make sure people can verify what I say. Nobody has to believe me. I want my claims of fact to have evidence. Just Goggle for this. Ten years ago, the NIH, the NSF, and others, which gave out many of these federal grants to Chinese scientists are now at issue. The NIH on their website bragged about collaboration with China. Every major or minor American university and college wanted to have a program with China to bring students, exchange scholars, visiting professors, and they wanted to find partners, set up articulation agreements. They were wildly enthusiastic ten or even five years ago. And then this collaboration entered a phase where well it’s not as enthusiastic, then neutral, then frowned upon, prohibited, and even criminal. 

This is astonishing given the type of engagement that was being touted has gone from that to if you do this, you will be deported, your career being ruined, you won’t be able to set foot in America ever again, and being vilified in the press. 

In late 2018, the United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the highest law enforcement official in the nation, in one of his very last acts, had a big press conference to announce the ‘China initiative.’ It is a new initiative. This is not my interpretation that this is new. The Justice Department itself held a press conference saying that we have a new initiative. They are saying it’s new. Let’s think about what that means. If they are saying that in 2018 it is new, that means they weren’t doing it in 2017, 2016, 2015, or before. They took laws that were on the books, some are new and some are old. It is true, this is American policy and it has been. The prosecutors will say that it is always the law, but it wasn’t an enforcement priority. Every prosecutor and every police chief, they decide all the time in what is called “exercise of prosecutorial discretion” which crime are they going to make the most serious that I’m going to go after in every case, use all my resources and put the budget; then which are ordinary; and finally which are we not going to bother with. There’s no criminal law that’s one hundred percent enforced. For one thing, you don’t always apprehend your suspect. Until late 2018, these laws about foreign influence were not enforcement priorities. Then they became enforcement priorities as to one nation, but there is another piece to it, as to one nation, one source: China. They didn’t announce we’re going to start enforcing this to everybody, but they targeted specifically at China. The director of the FBI, Christopher Wray, then characterized this as a “whole of society threat,” meaning that all of the Chinese society presents a threat to all of American society. He has given multiple speeches to this effect. President Trump assumes that almost all Chinese students are spies. He said so expressly. Nobody paid any attention. The story just vanished as people shrugged it off.

Let’s talk a moment to talk about scale. As a Chinese American, I only visited mainland China as an adult. I have a hypothesis of why it is so easy to stereotype, why we are susceptible, which is about math. Racial prejudice is about mathematical misunderstandings. You can only comprehend China if you grasp the scale of the “Middle Kingdom.” (Wu used the Mandarin and said, “Central is a better translation, central kingdom – like the Greeks; in antiquity, every civilization thought of itself as the center.)

Most Americans – that includes me — are not accustomed to the scale of China. I’ll explain. When you land Beijing airport, the furthest runway, on a flight landing at midnight and you’re really tired, and then you get on a bus and it goes on for about an hour, what seems to be an unbelievably long ride. Same in Shanghai. You can take the busiest American counterparts and stick the whole thing inside one terminal of the Chinese airport and even its runways would fit inside since everything scales up in an unbelievable way. People have always known this. They have always talked about it.

Carl Crow, a man who really popularized trade with China a century ago and was considered a friend with China wrote a book called “400 Million Customers” in English for Americans and it represents an unimaginable population. And here you get the idea of “Yellow Peril,” massive hordes, popularized by Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, which is that Asians, specifically Chinese, can overwhelm Europe with numbers. Yellow Peril has it backwards. What I mean is it emphasizes Asians as all indistinguishable, a faceless mass. If you think about it, the numbers of Asians means what is true of any one person might or might not be true of the next person who happens to look like them. The chances are lower, not higher, that the stereotype is true. This negative image depends on the belief that Asians are like a colony of ants, a collective that acts as if it was a single organism.

Take Covid-19 as an example, many Americans never heard of Wuhan before, but it has at least 11 million inhabitants. That is the city supposedly the source of the pandemic. The Chinese government ranks cities. Wuhan isn’t even first tier. Yet it is more populous than New York City. The city which by Chinese standards is not first tier is by American standards gigantic. That’s scale at work. Let’s take the perspective of Europeans. Germany which is the most economically powerful European nations has a population of 80 million (approximately), France has a population of less than 70. Guang Dong has more than 100 million inhabitants. Its version of Silicon Valley, Shenzhen, across from Hong Kong, allowed to experiment with capitalism early on, has at least 12 million people. Germany as a nation doesn’t even come close in size the Guang Dong, a province of Chinese. Most Americans – most people – can’t grasp this scale. People are bad at scale. It’s why we have trouble calculating risk.

Let’s apply this to the issue of the allegations that Chinese are spies. When Wray testified before congress, he said that China is sending “unconventional collectors” of intelligence data. We’re not talking James Bond, Jason Bourne, “cloak and dagger,” the term used for spy novels such as by John le Carre. Wray was saying, no, no, the spies are graduate students, maybe real graduate students working on a Ph.D in biology, and, secretly, on the side they are “unconventional collectors.” The US has a “grains of sand” theory, that all these Chinese people each had got little tiny pieces of intelligence that by itself doesn’t mean anything, but because there’s so many, if you add it all up, then you get a picture of secret. That’s the hypothesis.

Let’s think about how this works. Before the pandemic, there were about 350,000 Chinese coming to the US to study every year, in that range; it could be as many as 375,000. The Chinese American population is an order of magnitude, 10x greater than that. Let’s say there are 350 criminals, spies That is terrible. That would indeed a huge problem to the US. It would mean every American university with scientific research has a spy on campus. That’s bad. The US has to do something about that.

Yet think about it proportionally. 350 is one tenth of one percent of the total number of Chinese people coming every year to the US to study. That means 99% are innocent. It can be true that there are significant numbers of “wrong doers,” and also true that overwhelmingly almost all are innocent, because of these scales and proportions. 

Yuxuan is a college student majoring in International relations at New York University. Baker is a student in master’s program at School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.