Chinese-American Scholars and Sino-U.S. Rivalry: Where Do We Go From Here?

A difficult Phase One has ended on an encouraging note. Phase Two may be worse, and it is right around the corner.

Robert Daly is the director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Woodrow Wilson Center and a former officer of the United States Foreign Service.

Over its one hundred-fifty year history, scholarly exchange between China and the United States has been a bargain in which China attained knowledge of the natural, applied, and social sciences to support its modernization and the United States gained access to a large talent pool.[1] It was not merely a transmission of expertise from master to apprentice, however; from the outset, Chinese who studied in America (and Japan and Europe) became leaders in their disciplines and contributed to American innovation and the advancement of global knowledge. Many of these scholars built successful careers while accurately perceiving themselves as both American and Chinese—culturally, professionally, and politically. This essay asks whether they can still work in the same spirit now that China and the United States are long-term rivals.

The Twilight of Engagement

When President Carter and Deng Xiaoping normalized relations in 1979, they gave implicit permission for ordinary Chinese and Americans to view each other through non-political lenses for the first time in thirty years. The U.S. and China had been estranged since the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, and especially after the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950. American educators, missionaries, executives, and adventurers who had been scattered across China went home in 1949.  Some Chinese academics who had trained in the U.S. traveled back across the Pacific to build the New China. Security concerns—politics—were the sum total of the relationship for most of the Cold War. Then, in 1979, Chinese and Americans were suddenly free to treat each other as scholars, philanthropists, and entrepreneurs again, rather than as pasteboard representatives of enemy states.  Politics did not vanish in the Engagement Era,[2] especially on the Chinese side, but its effective scope in U.S.-China relations was greatly reduced. In this environment, academic exchanges flourished, to the benefit of both nations.

In the first decades of Engagement, Beijing and Washington encouraged the two-way flow of scholars. In the 1980s, the University Affiliations program of the Reagan administration’s United States Information Agency funded Chinese academics whose visits to the United States might spur the creation of joint institutes and laboratories. Chinese scholars who became professors, chairs, deans, and presidents in U.S. universities were rewarded for promoting joint research with Chinese counterparts. Until recently, the U.S. higher educational system’s ability to attract Chinese students was seen in Washington as an index of American soft power and a clear win for the home side.

Beginning from a lower economic baseline, China naturally gained more from Engagement than the United States. Nonetheless, America’s dividend—the influx of a new generation of Chinese-American talent—was immeasurable. The Economist Intelligence Unit and The Committee of 100 teamed up in 2020 to document the impact of Chinese-Americans on American arts and culture, civil rights, public service, entrepreneurship, infrastructure, national security affairs, public health, and science and technology.[3] The Economist report, From Foundations to Frontiers, provides strong validation of U.S. educational exchange policy during the Engagement Era and serves as a warning about what might be lost now that the era is over.      

The cause of Engagement’s demise is widely debated. The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) claim is that the U.S. killed Engagement due to hostility toward a risen China and doomed adherence to the illusion of American primacy. Great power rivalry and America’s fear of decline are part of the story, but there is another explanation for American concerns: Engagement became untenable because China changed.

Since 2013 Xi Jinping’s radical re-politicization of Chinese institutions has required that China’s foreign partners either accept the CCP’s benign self-assessments at face value, or weigh the implications of engaging with China in light of Beijing’s domestic repression and aggression abroad. Under Engagement, the United States helped build China’s academic and scientific capacity for the sake of its modernization, but it has no interest in building China’s global power. Because the CCP now treats education and technology, and Reform and Openness more generally, as instruments of power, other nations must base their engagement with China on judgments about the implications of Chinese power for themselves.[4] Politics is again at the fore.

Chinese Higher Education in the Xi Era

In America, re-politicization of U.S.-China relations has resulted in a wave of prosecutions under the Department of Justice’s China Initiative. The effort has snared a few bad actors, but also harmed the careers of a growing number of innocent academics. The China Initiative’s missteps, including a propensity for racial profiling, are the fault of its American administrators. The core rationale for the program, however, is neither racist nor unreasonable. Like the death of Engagement, the origins of The China Initiative lie in China’s changes under Xi Jinping

On October 18, 2017, in a speech to the 19th Party Congress, Xi proclaimed “In Party, political, military, civil, and academic affairs; North, south east, west, and center, the Party leads everything.” The line has become the iconic expression of Xi’s insistence that the Party control all aspects of Chinese life. It makes clear that education is an existential issue for the CCP, on a par with, and inseparable from, national security.

The centrality of education to Xi’s agenda was evident early in his tenure. On January 19, 2015, after the Seven Proscribed Topics (七不准) of Document 9 made combatting liberalism a Chinese national security priority,[5] the Party issued Document 30, Opinions Concerning Further Strengthening and Improving Propaganda and Ideology Work in Higher Education Under New Circumstances. Document 30 contained the text of speeches given by Xi in 2014, in which he demanded, “strengthened party control and the cleansing of Western-inspired liberal ideas from universities.”[6] For Chinese academics, who had created a surprising amount of space for critical thinking and open discussion during the twenty-five years since Tiananmen, Document 30 marked the end of an era.   

On January 20, 2015, China’s Minister of Education, Yuan Guiren, met with university leaders to give them guidance for propaganda work under the “New Circumstances.” He urged them to “strengthen management of the use of original Western teaching materials”—meaning they should eschew Western texts—and to “by no means allow teaching materials that disseminate Western values in our classrooms.” He told academic administrators to “never allow teachers to grumble and vent in the classroom, passing on their unhealthy emotions to students,” and to make sure that the ideas of Chairman Xi “enter teaching materials, enter classrooms, and enter minds” of students.”[7]

A few scholars pushed back, briefly. Shen Kui (沈岿), of the Peking University Law School, wrote a Frontiers of Law blog asking Yuan Guiren three questions: How could Western and Chinese values be distinguished when Marxism came from the West? How could academics tell the difference between “attacking and slandering the Party’s leadership and blackening socialism,” which was forbidden, and “reflecting on the bends in the road in the Party’s past and exposing dark facts,” which was encouraged? Under what laws and constitutional provisions would the new rules be implemented?[8] In the February 10, 2015 edition of the People’s Daily, Gong Ke (龚克), President of Nankai University, wrote, “Recently, I’ve read people on the Internet saying that the ranks of academics must be cleansed, purified, and rectified. I cannot agree with this. This was the mentality of 1957 or 1966.” The dates referred to Mao Zedong’s Anti-Rightist Campaign and Cultural Revolution, during which thousands of Chinese academics were persecuted and killed.

Scholars like Shen and Gong were attacked by the CCP’s theoretical journal, Qiushi and by Zhu Jidong (朱继东), Deputy Director of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ State Cultural Security and Ideology Construction Research Center, who wrote that, “China’s socialist universities absolutely cannot allow such speech to appear in university classrooms and we cannot allow it to appear in any form anywhere on our campuses.”[9] The state-run Global Times wrote: “The transmission of negative political energy on campuses should be despised. Those who speak with positive energy but whose behavior is ugly are in fact ‘extremely black’.”[10] Positive energy (正能量) is a Xi-ist slogan connoting enthusiastic support for the Party. Calling faculty “black” associated them with the Five Black Categories of the Cultural Revolution—people who could be righteously murdered for their beliefs.   

By 2016, Xi’s control of China’s universities was complete. No critiques of his educational policies have been published in China for several years. China’s intellectuals, long honored as the conscience of the nation, have been co-opted or cowed into silence. In 2019, Shanghai’s Fudan University, one of the top three schools in China, dropped guarantees of “academic independence and freedom of thought” from its charter.[11] China was no longer part of the free and open global system of intellectual exchange.

Xi’s insistence that universities serve not only the nation’s development, but its comprehensive national power (国家综合实力) as well, did not escape the notice of American security agencies. Americans had already been alarmed by China’s rapid military buildup, its buildout and militarization of islands in the South China Sea, and its flouting of the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s 2016 finding that PRC territorial claims in the region had no merit. Against this background, they were not inclined to see the Red educational wave as a harmless development. Washington’s suspicion of the role of China’s universities and technologists in building China’s national power was exacerbated by a series of CCP policies, including the Indigenous Innovation agenda launched in 2006,[12] the Made in China 2025 program announced in 2015, the buttressing of Military-Civil Fusion policies that dated back to the 1990s, and a series of National Intelligence Laws[13] that required Chinese entities, including universities, to give the Chinese state any information it requested.

The strategic logic of these programs was explained to the satisfaction of many American lawmakers, especially on the Republican side of the aisle, by Michael Pillsbury’s The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s secret strategy to replace America as the global superpower. Published in 2015, the book claimed that China had a secret plan to eclipse the United States and dominate a new global order.[14] Everything Xi did advanced that agenda.[15]   

Beijing’s rhetoric added fuel to the fire simmering in DC. In 2014, during the Seventh Conference on Friendship with Overseas Chinese Associations, Xi Jinping said, “There are tens of millions of overseas Chinese in the world, and every one is a member of the Chinese family. For a long time, generation after generation of overseas Chinese have upheld the great traditions of the Chinese nation and have not forgotten the motherland, their ancestral homeland, or the blood of the Chinese nation flowing in their bodies.”[16] He has called on ethnic Chinese to contribute to the rejuvenation of the great Chinese nation, regardless of their countries of citizenship, many times since. In the spring of 2017, Premier, Li Keqiang, said, “It is the duty of all people of Chinese descent to help achieve the investment, technological development, and trade goals of the People’s Republic of China.”[17] 

After Li’s speech, the U.S. Congress and national security agencies paid greater attention to Chinese talent re-recruitment efforts, like the Thousand Talents Program.[18] These programs, which had been around for a decade and were not illegal, offered monetary and reputational incentives to American academics, including Chinese-Americans, who agreed to lend their expertise to Chinese universities either full-time or during summer and winter breaks.

The stage was set. Washington’s knowledge of Chinese intelligence methods, the hyper-politicization of education under Xi Jinping, and Chinese statements that put a target on the backs of Chinese academics worldwide were about to cause a tempest on U.S. campuses.

America Panics

The September 2017 publication of Anne Marie Brady’s Magic Weapons[19] raised alarm bells in the U.S. about the means by which Beijing attempted to influence public opinion and overseas Chinese communities. Arriving five years after the ascent of Xi Jinping and one year after the victory of Donald Trump, who campaigned on the claim that China had “raped” the United States, Brady’s warnings about Chinese infiltration fell on ready ears. Had she written Magic Weapons ten years earlier, when her analysis of China’s United Front would have been equally apt, she would have been ignored as a Cassandra. In 2017, she was hailed as Paul Revere.

Brady’s message was amplified by the December 2017 publication of the National Endowment for Democracy’s, Sharp Power: Rising Authoritarian Influence, which convinced many readers that Chinese and Russian influence operations were more insidious than traditional soft power campaigns.[20] Later the same month, Donald Trump’s 2017 National Security Strategy named China and Russia as revisionist powers and China as the United States’ greatest strategic challenge—a threat more concerning than terrorism.[21] 

The implications for American universities and the hundreds of thousands of Chinese students, faculty, researchers, and visiting scholars who toiled in them were signaled on February 13, 2018, in FBI director Christopher Wray’s testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee. When Senator Marco Rubio asked him to comment on “the counterintelligence risk posed to U.S. national security from Chinese students, particularly those in advanced programs in the sciences and mathematics,” Wray answered:

“… the use of nontraditional collectors, especially in the academic setting, whether it’s professors, scientists, students, we see in almost every field office that the FBI has around the country … And I think the level of naïveté on the part of the academic sector about this creates its own issues. They [the Chinese government) are exploiting the very open research and development environment that we have, which we all revere, but they’re taking advantage of it. So one of the things we’re trying to do is view the China threat as not just a whole-of-government threat but a whole-of-society threat on their end, and I think it’s going to take a whole-of-society response by us. So it’s not just the intelligence community, but it’s raising awareness within our academic sector, within our private sector, as part of the defense.”

Wray’s “whole-of-society” phrase was not unjustified. He was referencing Xi’s 2017 declaration that the CCP led everything in China, north, south, east, west, and center. He knew about Xi’s near-absolute control of Chinese media, think tanks, cultural and entertainment industries, corporations, and universities, and he knew about the national security laws which required all Chinese citizens to work with China’s security services. His testimony was probably also influenced by Xi’s exhortations to ethnic Chinese outside the PRC to contribute to the rejuvenation of the great Chinese nation as a patriotic duty.

Wray’s phrase was also dangerous, as he was deploying the CCP mindset within a free and diverse society. Xi, an efficient totalitarian, can command and orchestrate a while-of-society approach to the United States, but U.S. leaders cannot compel Americans to participate in a whole-of-society response to China, nor can they control all of the actions and attitudes of Americans who heed their call. Against the background of the 2017 National Security Strategy, which came close to labelling China as an enemy, Wray seemed to be calling on Americans to view all Chinese in the U.S., including Chinese Americans, with suspicion, especially if they were engaged in scientific research .

Academia’s concern about the impact of Wray’s warnings was heightened by a letter which National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins sent to 10,000 academic recipients on August 23, 2018.[22] Collins wrote:

“NIH is aware that some foreign entities have mounted systematic programs to influence NIH researchers and peer reviewers and to take advantage of the long tradition of trust, fairness, and excellence of NIH-supported research activities…Three areas of concern have emerged: 1. Diversion of intellectual property in grant applications or produced by NIH-supported biomedical research to other entities, including other countries; 2. Sharing of confidential information on grant applications by NIH peer reviewers with others, including foreign entities, or otherwise attempting to influence funding decisions; and 3. Failure by some researchers working at NIH-funded institutions in the U.S. to disclose substantial resources from other organizations, including foreign governments, which threatens to distort decisions about the appropriate use of NIH funds.”

Collins’s accusation, in a nutshell, was that significant numbers of researchers on U.S. campuses, through stealth or sloppiness, were transmitting commercially valuable or security-relevant knowledge to other nations. One sign that they did so was the filing of incorrect or incomplete grant applications. Collins did not say which countries had mounted influence operations, but there was little doubt that he was focused on China. Two weeks before he sent his letter, a widely discussed Politico story had reported that, at an August 7 dinner, President Trump had said of China, “almost every student that comes over to this country is a spy.”[23]

The China Initiative

If there was any remaining doubt about the focus of U.S. Government concern, it disappeared in November of 2018 when Jeff Sessions’ Department of Justice launched the China Initiative. The DOJ explained that its first-ever program focused on a single, named foreign nation was necessary because “about 80 percent of all economic espionage prosecutions brought by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) allege conduct that would benefit the Chinese state, and there is at least some nexus to China in around 60 percent of all trade secret theft cases.”[24]

There were questions about the Initiative from the outset. Why name a special initiative as opposed to simply prosecuting spies and intellectual property thieves under existing statutes? Was it in order to frighten and deter Chinese and Chinese-American researchers? American universities were confused by the vague definition and mandate of the new program but, by late 2018, the China Initiative was underway, objections notwithstanding.

American universities did not contest DOJ claims about Beijing’s goals and methods or the vulnerability of U.S. campuses. They worried, however, that: (1) the espionage problem was overstated, as most university research was in basic science and all results were published, meaning campuses had few secrets to steal; and (2) policies that reduced campus vulnerabilities might also reduce the ability of American schools to attract the world’s top talent. The American system of higher education, they argued, was the finest in the world precisely because of the openness and internationalization that the DOJ viewed as threats. If the United States surrendered its openness in the name of security, American innovation and the global knowledge system would suffer. If Washington treated international students, especially Chinese students, as criminal suspects, it would be telling members of the world’s biggest talent pool that they were a despised class in the United States.

To date, the China Initiative has launched roughly 77 investigations against 148 suspects. 90% of the people it has charged are of Chinese heritage.[25] The precise number of cases is impossible to gauge because (1) the China Initiative has revised its case list to omit failed prosecutions; and (2) the website seems to give the China Initiative credit for any DOJ activity that captures Chinese criminals. Even so, the Initiative’s published record suggests that the intelligence threat on American campuses has been overstated. According to Eileen Guo, Jess Aloe, and Karen Hao of the MIT Technology Review, who have built a database of cases brought under the Initiative,[26] only 19 of the 77 cases allege violations of the Economic Espionage Act (EEA), only 3% percent of EEA cases allege theft of trade secrets from academic institutions, and no China Initiative indictments involve university faculty committing espionage. In other words, according to DOJ data, roughly two China Initiative IPR theft cases and zero of its espionage cases involve activity on American campuses. What, then, are China Initiative cases against academics about?

Most concern crimes related to research integrity, such as program fraud, or failure to disclose conflicts of interest on applications for federal funding. As Vivin Qiang of Asian Americans Advancing Justice put it, “federal prosecutors are charging Asian Americans and Asian immigrants with federal crimes based on administrative errors or minor offenses… such as making an error on a conflict of interest form that can lead to an end in careers and [leave] lives in shambles.”[27] Program fraud—lying about or omitting information on connections to China—may mask more serious crimes, but in itself it hardly constitutes a threat to American national security. Federal grant forms are complicated and individual university reporting requirements are often vague and honored in the breach. So why launch the China Initiative with arrests? Why not begin by offering training sessions for grant applicants rather then perp-walking them out of their houses? 

National attention to the China Initiative increased with the case of Anming Hu, professor of nanotechnology at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. His is the only research integrity case the China Initiative has brought to trial to date. Hu was charged with six counts of wire fraud and false statements for failing to disclose lecture fees he had earned in China on his application for NASA funding. His first trial ended in a hung jury, after which Representative Ted Lieu of California and ninety other members of Congress sent a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland requesting a DOJ investigation into the Initiative’s alleged racial profiling. Lieu also accused the DOJ of racism on Twitter, writing: “You should stop discriminating against Asians … If Hu’s last name was Smith, you would not have brought this case.”[28] A mistrial was declared at Hu’s second trial and he was acquitted of all charges. The sense that the DOJ was pursuing bad cases—or pursuing cases badly—was reinforced on January 19, 2022 when one of the most high-profile scientists charged under the China Initiative, MIT professor of mechanical engineering Gang Chen, had all charges against him dismissed due to lack evidence.

Two recent studies sponsored by the Committee of 100—which presents its findings in detail in the third section of this report—accused the DOJ of bias against Asians. Andrew Chongseh Kim’s Racial Disparities in Economic Espionage Act Prosecutions examined 190 EEA prosecutions carried out by the DOJ between 1996 and 2020 and found that it was primarily a program for the indictment of Asian Americans.[29] Jenny J. Lee’s Racial Profiling Among Scientists of Chinese Descent and Consequences for the U.S. Scientific Community demonstrated that, whatever the goals and record of the China Initiative might be, the perception that it  targeted ethnic Chinese  was driving top-talent out of the U.S.[30]  

American universities have also pushed back against the China Initiative or called for its abolition. In their January 2021 defense of Gang Chen, 170 members of the MIT faculty wrote:

“The criminal complaint against Professor Chen has nothing to do with protecting intellectual property. As published, it is deeply flawed and misleading in its assertions. At best, it represents a deep misunderstanding of how research is conducted or funded at a place like MIT. The official complaint is filled with allegations and innuendo based on what are, in fact, some of the most routine and even innocuous elements of our professional lives.” [31]

In September 2021, 177 members of the Stanford faculty asked the DOJ to terminate the China Initiative because: first “it disproportionally targets researchers of Chinese origin…Second, in most of the China Initiative cases involving academics, the alleged crime has nothing to do with scientific espionage or intellectual property theft…Third, the China Initiative is harming the U.S. science and technology enterprise and the future of the U.S. STEM workforce.”[32]

A More Rational Response

The three years since the launch of the China Initiative have seen such a rapid decline in U.S.-China relations that the 2017-2019 wave of alarm over Chinese influence operations may now seem like a minor issue. The Trade War; the arrest of Huawei’s CFO in Vancouver and China’s retaliatory hostage-taking; the global pandemic; the ongoing violence against Asian- and Chinese-Americans; China’s Wolf Warrior diplomacy, imposition of a new security law in Hong Kong, treatment of the Uighurs in Xinjiang, and threatening behavior toward Taiwan; the chaos of the 2020 American presidential election and the January 6, 2021 Insurrection—all of these issues and events seem more urgent than the alleged activity the China Initiative was intended to counter. Yet the China Initiative has ground on through it all.

American universities and their national organizations—the Association of American Universities (AAU), the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities (APLU), and the American Council of Education (ACE)—have worked tirelessly over the past three years to respond to DOJ concerns and minimize harm to American scholarship. These efforts bore fruit in the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), passed in June 2019. NDAA Section 1746, Securing American Science and Technology, charged the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, working in tandem with the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, to “coordinate activities to protect federally funded research and development from foreign interference, cyber attacks, theft, or espionage and to develop common definitions and best practices for federal science agencies and grantees, while accounting for the importance of the open exchange of ideas and international talent required for scientific progress and American leadership in science and technology.”[33]

The 2020 NDAA marked the end of the panic over security concerns and the beginning of a period in which academics and technologists worked with government to frame and contain threats from China (and other countries). The report on Fundamental Research Security which JASON, an independent scientific advisory group, submitted to the National Science Foundation in December of 2019,[34] was a key contribution to the effort. JASON maintained that it was possible to keep basic research open and collaborative while also safeguarding its integrity. Meeting the China Challenge: A New American Strategy for Technology Competition,[35] issued by the University of California San Diego and the Asia Society in November 2020 proposed that, while threats to American security and research integrity were real, a strategy of targeted risk mitigation rather than total risk elimination would best serve the interests of the United States and global science. The AAU, APLU, and ACE developed guidelines for American universities to ensure that they upheld openness and supported faculty while strengthening reporting on conflicts of interest and foreign commitments.

The Trump and Biden administrations have both followed through on the letter and spirit of Section 1764. In January 2021, as the Trump team was on its way out the door, White House Science Advisor Kelvin Droegemeier and the National Science & Technology Council issued Recommended Practices for Strengthening the Security and Integrity of America’s Science and Technology Research Enterprise—a yawn-inducing title but an expert, earnest effort to create a university research culture that was fully open, but more secure.[36] After the caustic rhetoric of the previous year—in which Secretary of State Pompeo declared that “Communists almost always lie”[37] and Senator Marsha Blackburn tweeted that “China has a 5,000 year history of cheating and stealing”[38] Recommended Practices’ thoughtful tone was a welcome surprise.

On January 14, 2021, less than one week before Joseph Biden was inaugurated, President Trump issued National Security Presidential Memorandum (NSPM) 33 on national security policies for R&D supported by the United States Government.[39] NSPM-33 called for development of detailed procedures to safeguard research funded by Washington. This task was urgent because:

“Unfortunately, some foreign governments, including the People’s Republic of China, have not demonstrated a reciprocal dedication to open scientific exchange, and seek to exploit open United States and international research environments to circumvent the costs and risks of conducting research, thereby increasing their economic and military competitiveness at the expense of the United States, its allies, and its partners.”

Droegemeier’s work was taken up by President Biden’s Office of Science and Technology Policy under Eric Landler. In August 2021, Landler issued an interim NSPM-33 briefing[40] which promised that the final implementation guidance would address three issues: ensuring that federally-funded researchers provided full disclosure on potential conflicts of interest; ensuring that federal agencies had clear policies regarding consequences for violations of disclosure requirements; and ensuring that research program security was sufficient. Research integrity could be pursued, Landler wrote, in ways that protected America’s openness and weren’t conducive to xenophobia or prejudice.

The National Science and Technology Council issued final guidance implementing NPSM-33 on January 4, 2022.[41] It notes that “Some foreign governments, including those of the People’s Republic of China, Russia, and Iran, are working vigorously … to acquire, through both licit and illicit means, U.S. research and technology. There have been efforts to induce American scientists to secretively conduct research programs on behalf of foreign governments or to inappropriately disclose non-public results from research funded by U.S. Government sources. This is unacceptable.”

That is all the document has to say about China. The rest of its thirty-four pages consist of clear guidance to universities on how to protect research and researchers by assuring that reporting requirements are closely followed. The implementing guidance treats universities as partners in defending the American innovation system, not as China’s unwitting dupes.

It took a while, but U.S. policy is now on the right path. In retrospect, the integrity of American research would have been better served if, rather than opening with a slew of prosecutions, the China Initiative had begun by consulting with universities, leaders like Congressman Lieu, and scientist-officials like Kelvin Droegemeier to understand the scope of the threat and the nature of Sino-U.S. collaboration. Such preparatory work might have suggested an important, but more limited role for the DOJ on American campuses: criminals should be investigated by the Justice Department, but, for the sloppy, a reminder and warning should suffice. Most deans and department chairs are up to the task.

Where Do We Go From Here?

The Department of Justice announced the termination of the China Initiative on February 23, 2022. Matt Olsen, Assistant Attorney General for National Security, offered its eulogy:

“The department's actions over the past few years have been driven by genuine national security concerns, but by grouping cases under the China initiative rubric, we help give rise to a harmful perception that the Department of Justice applies a lower standard to its investigation and prosecution of criminal conduct related to that country, or that we in some way view people with racial, ethnic or familial ties to China differently.”[42]

The announcement was cause for celebration. But keep the party brief—there is rough weather ahead.

Olsen went on to say, correctly, that some PRC behaviors remain a threat to U.S. interests. Xi Jinping’s China continues to be repressive at home and aggressive abroad in ways that offend American values and threaten American interests. On February 4, 2022, on the eve of the Beijing Olympics and three weeks before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Xi announced a quasi-alliance with Vladimir Putin. The partnership, Xi and Putin claimed, would, “oppose further enlargement of NATO and call on the North Atlantic Alliance to abandon its ideologized cold war approaches,” and “remain highly vigilant about the negative impact of the United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy on peace and stability in the region.”[43]

At the 20th Party Congress in late 2022, Xi will probably be anointed as leader for life. His cult of personality will grow. Chinese citizens’ rights of free expression and assembly, such as they are, will be further curtailed. China has taken great pride in its ability to limit the spread of COVID within its borders. The lesson China draws from its success is that authoritarianism, isolation, and surveillance work.  We should expect Beijing to double down on all three fronts. As Xi takes China from authoritarianism to techno-totalitarianism, he will continue to call on ethnic Chinese worldwide to support his agenda and his diplomats will continue to attack countries and individuals that question his wisdom.

Another factor Chinese-Americans will have to contend with, no matter how reasonable new U.S. research integrity policies turn out to be, is the ongoing deterioration of U.S.-China relations. We are one major crisis away from a new Cold War. It is likely that over the next decade, and possibly for much longer, the two great powers will become more alienated from each other. Mutual hostility is already becoming entrenched as an organizing principle in both countries.

What does this portend for Chinese-Americans, on-campus and off? While COVID has been the primary spur to anti-Asian racism in the U.S. since the pandemic began, racism is unlikely to fade with the virus because deteriorating bilateral relations will continue to reinforce negative narratives about China and its role in the world.  Not all of those narratives will be inaccurate. Even cautious, informed descriptions of U.S.-China relations may therefore add to pressures on Chinese-American communities. Domestic politics in both countries will also exacerbate tensions. The CCP will continue to erode liberal norms and offend liberal sensibilities internationally. On the American side, most of the likely 2024 Republican presidential candidates delight in insulting China for insult’s sake, and their Democratic opponents will not want to appear weak and mealy-mouthed in comparison.

These dynamics ensure that American security agencies will remain skeptical of academic collaboration with China even if the China Initiative ends. There will be no return to Engagement Era co-evolution. In the new dispensation, simply following the rules on conflict of interest disclosure won’t get academia off the hook. University leaders and researchers must assume that any cooperation with China which might contribute to China’s corporate or national power will be used to those ends. They should also assume that any of their China collaborations, however benign they may seem, will draw the attention of U.S. politicians, journalists, and investigators.

There is a broader implication of contentious U.S.-China relations, which, as a non-Chinese, I hesitate to raise: the sudden shift from bilateral engagement to adversity is especially perilous for Chinese who immigrated to the United States after normalization in 1979. I have many friends who came from China to the U.S. to pursue PhDs and later attained green cards and American passports. They love America.  But most of them also love China. For the past forty-five years, they have been free to move back and forth between both countries, benefitting both, benefitting from both, and behaving in similar ways in both jurisdictions without consequence. 

But the ground has shifted under their feet. My sense right along has been that most Chinese-American scholars prosecuted under the China Initiative had no intention of betraying the United States; they were just behaving within American institutions as they were accustomed to behaving in Chinese institutions. T-s and I-s sometimes went un-crossed and un-dotted. For decades, this was not a problem. A certain flexibility about rules and definitions enabled binational scholars to found study abroad programs, joint research projects, and new institutes that benefitted their American employers and their Chinese almae matres. They were rewarded for their academic entrepreneurship by both sides. 

Those days are gone. Conditions have changed and anyone who doesn’t adjust their professional habits will be exposed like the last person standing in a game of musical chairs—or like an accused before a jury. The new dispensation will have different implications for different people, but it will bring a sea change to all Americans, Chinese and otherwise, who care about both countries and are uncomfortable casting their lot with one against the other. Binational scholars who have not heretofore given much thought to these matters should think hard about them now.

Even as security pressures on American higher education increase, there is much the academy can do to help prevent the collapse of U.S.-China relations.  American colleges and universities should invest in training the next generation of American sinologists, expand Chinese language studies, host public events that frankly address issues in bilateral relations, welcome Chinese students to campus and encourage them to interact with American and third-country colleagues, and support faculty research on China.

Chinese-American academics have an essential role in this work. American universities must continue to fight hard if anyone tries to prevent them from playing it.

[1] The author recounts this history in detail in “Thinkers. Builders. Symbols. Spies? Sino-U.S. Higher Educational Relations in the Engagement Era,” a chapter in Engaging China: Fifty Years of Sino-American Relations, Edited by Anne F. Thurston, Columbia University Press, July 2021.

[2] The Engagement Era in bilateral relations ran from the Nixon visit in 1972 through the launch of the U.S.-China Trade War in 2018. It was not called Engagement at the time; it was referred to simply as U.S.-China Relations. While its core theory was that Sino-U.S. co-evolution benefitted both countries, Engagement was beset with suspicion, ideological conflict, and competitive friction from the beginning.

[3] Contributing Across America/From Foundations to Frontiers:

[4] Critics of Engagement argue, with some force, that Reform and Opening were always instrumental to Chinese power and that engagers should have known it. During the Engagement period, however, most of China’s foreign interactions were aimed primarily at development, not power—and improving the welfare of one fifth of humankind. That was the basis on which the world engaged with China. It should also be noted that, throughout the Engagement Era, China was liberalizing, albeit slowly and frustratingly, along nearly every axis. The impetus to Reform and Openness was real. The Chinese people became more free and globally integrated under Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao.


[6] Suisheng Zhao, The Ideological Campaign in Xi’s China, Asian Survey , Vol. 56, No. 6, University of California Press,,pp.1184








[14] The impact of Michael Pillsbury’s book would be hard to overstate, whatever its virtues or failings may be. When I visited the offices of a dozen Republican lawmakers in 2015, I was asked in six what I made of the argument in chapter X, paragraph Y of The Hundred Year Marathon, as if it were a Biblical work. Pillsbury later became an informal advisor to the Trump Administration.

[15] Rush Doshi’s The Long Game (July 2021) and Elizabeth Economy’s The World According to China (December 2021) worked with different premises and methodologies, but reached many of the same conclusions as The Hundred Year Marathon




[19] Professor Brady, a former Wilson Fellow, asked me to consider publishing Magic Weapons on the Wilson Center site and, after reading it, I put it on the Kissinger Institute’s website the same day. It is the most influential scholarly work published by the Kissinger Institute in my eight-plus years at Wilson. Professor Brady’s writings, and those of John Garnault in Australia, did much to increase American vigilance over CCP influence in U.S. communities and institutions. See Garnault’s Foreign Affairs essay, How China Interferes in Australia and How Democracies Can Push Back, 






[25] According to data compiled by the MIT Technology Review: