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Study finds anti-Asian bias in economic espionage cases

U.S.-China tensions are fueling racism here at home.

An analysis of 25 years worth of economic espionage and trade theft cases has revealed significant, systematic biases against Chinese American defendants and others of Asian descent. That report, published this week by the Chinese American business and advocacy group Committee of 100, found that Asian Americans are more likely to receive harsher sentences, to be falsely accused, and to be subject to surprise arrests, while the Department of Justice more frequently publicizes their charges through press releases.

The study, co-led by the Committee of 100 and attorney Andrew Chongseh Kim, is based on an examination of 190 cases brought under the Economic Espionage Act  since its implementation in 1996. It comes at a moment of growing concern over how U.S.-China tensions are fueling anti-Asian racism in the United States, and warns of a “New Red Scare” that could have a chilling effect on scientific research and collaboration, while also damaging the livelihoods and reputation of American citizens based solely on their ethnicity and loose connections to China.

Its findings show that one in three Asian American defendants were falsely accused or convicted only of “process offenses” like giving false statements, compared to a little more than one in ten defendants with a Western name. Whereas a majority of the latter learned of their charges through a formal letter, or summons, three-quarters of defendants of Chinese and Asian descent did only once they were arrested, normally with handcuffs, and were four times more likely to be denied bail.

Three-quarters of those of Chinese and Asian descent who were convicted were sent to prison, compared to less than half for those with Western names, and received sentences twice as long on average. For Chinese and Asian defendants, the Department of Justice issued press releases announcing the charges in the overwhelming majority of instances — 83 percent — compared to barely half of the time for those with a Western name.

“No one here is saying that either federal prosecutors or law enforcement officials are bigoted. That’s not the claim at all,” said Frank Wu, the president of Queens College and a member of the Committee of 100, during an event announcing the report’s launch. The claim “is, instead, as with the COVID-19 violence against Asian Americans, that there’s a pattern. Even if you don’t know in any particular case that anyone was what we might deem racist, this is racial — there is a racially disparate effect at work here.”

“These findings suggest that ordinary Asian American citizens are becoming collateral damage in our efforts to protect America’s economy,” said attorney and study co-lead Andrew Chongseh Kim. “If we want to protect America’s economy and interests and fulfill the promise of equality, we need to address the threats against our nation based on facts, not on fear.”

The report also demonstrates that, as concerns about China’s rise and allegations of systematic theft of intellectual property have grown over the past decade, the portion of Chinese and Asian defendants targeted by the EEA “skyrocketed.” While two-thirds of defendants charged before 2009 had a Western name, that pattern was flipped on its head in the decade that followed, with the majority of those charged being of Chinese or Asian descent.

These trends eventually manifested themselves in the Trump administration’s “China Initiative,” a dedicated effort by the Department of Justice to crackdown on China-related economic espionage cases which legal experts have deemed unprecedented for being named after a single country. The campaign has led to a number of false accusations and mistrials, most famously in the case of University of Tennessee professor Anming Hu, who was recently acquitted after a two-year case based on Department of Justice accusations that he was spying.

The China Initiative has continued apace under the Biden administration, but a growing chorus of academics, Asian American and Pacific Islander rights groups, and members of Congress have put pressure on the administration to end the program. The Committee of 100 report concludes that, building off of decades of biased persecutions of Chinese and Asian Americans, the China Initiative constitutes a “New Red Scare” that is based on the longstanding and “false stereotype that Americans of Chinese descent have less ‘loyalty’ than Americans of other races.”

The executive-led “New Red Scare” also stands beside the growing prevalence of anti-Asian rhetoric among prominent politicians, including on the floor of the House just yesterday, and members of the media, as well as a rise in anti-Asian hate crimes since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. This lays bare the broader challenge of how to uphold democratic values at home in the context of rising tensions with China, a trend that appears likely to define U.S. foreign policy for years if not decades to come.

Speaking at the launch event, William Tong, attorney general of Connecticut, said that campaigns like the China Initiative “contribute to a culture and climate of hate and targeting. It’s not just ‘objectification,’ it’s not just ‘otherizing’ — they really put people at risk and in harm’s way.” He argued that the China Initiative, and the lack of attention paid to the concerns of the Asian American community, persists “because we lack political power and juice on a large scale… We have to stop accepting the invisibility of being Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and push really hard to make people understand that we’re Americans. We’re as American as anybody else.”

California congresswoman Judy Chu also said that “all of these reasons demonstrate why the China Initiative must be brought to an end. There is a legitimate need for counter-espionage work in our government — but that work must be based on evidence and not race.”

“We must also stop the Cold War rhetoric,” Chu continued. “When the Chinese government acts against our interests or values, we can and must speak out. But we need to be deliberate in what and who we criticize — it should be those who are responsible, not all Chinese people. And we can’t let fear become an excuse to rob Chinese Americans of their civil liberties.”

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