academics, Biden administration, China, China Initiative, Chinese Americans, civil liberties, DOJ, dual loyalty, espionage, FBI, German-Americans, higher education, immigrants, Israel, Italian-Americans, Japanese internment, Japanese-Americans, Jews, Justice Department, Our So-Called Foreign Policy, profiling, spying, students, The New York Times, World War II, Yudhijit Bhattacharjee
As an American Jew, I’m extremely aware of the dangers of accusing members of various U.S. identity groups with ancestry from or associated with foreign countries of “dual loyalties.” The worst example of the injustices that can result was the World War II-era internment policy – which punished legal immigrants and even American citizens simply based on the assumption that anyone of Japanese descent could be spying for a wartime enemy.
(German- and Italian-Americans came under suspicion, too, but were placed in camps much more selectively than Japanese-Americans.)
Especially in the U.S. context, the dual loyalty charges levelled against Jews has come from those who claim that when they lobby for or just favor pro-Israel policies, they’re prioritizing the interests of the Jewish State over those of the United States. (For some typical – and unusual – recent examples see here.)
More recently, individuals of Chinese descent living in America have come under the microscope due to concerns about wide-ranging spying campaigns conducted by the People’s Republic. And because the targets have ranged from U.S. citizens to legal immigrants to Chinese nationals resident here as students and on various academic exchange programs, critics have claimed that racial profiling and dual loyalty overreach have marked the responses of American law enforcement agencies.
Indeed, these charges – along with contentions that valuable scientific progress is at risk – have been so persuasive to the Biden administration that last February, it shut down a Justice Department program begun during the Trump years to cope with the alleged threat.
But as a New York Times Magazins article today has made clear, despite the dangers of broad-brush approaches, something like the Justice Department’s disbanded “China Initiative” is absolutely necessary to safeguard U.S. national security adequately.
As explained in this detailed Times report on the FBI’s China-related counter-espionage work (and it’s worth quoting in full):
“…China has sought to exploit the huge numbers of people of Chinese origin who have settled in the West. The Ministry of State Security, along with other Chinese government-backed organizations, spends considerable effort recruiting spies from this diaspora. Chinese students and faculty members at American universities are a major target, as are employees at American corporations. The Chinese leadership ‘made the declaration early on that all Chinese belong to China, no matter what country they were born or living’ in, James Gaylord, a retired counterintelligence agent with the F.B.I., told me. ‘They started making appeals to Chinese Americans saying there’s no conflict between you being American and sharing information with us. We’re not a threat. We just want to be able to compete and make the Chinese people proud. You’re Chinese, and therefore you must want to see the Chinese nation prosper.’
“Stripped of its context and underlying intent, that message can carry a powerful resonance for Chinese Americans and expatriates keen to contribute to nation-building back home. Not all can foresee that their willingness to help China could lead them to break American laws.”
Keep in mind, moreover, that Times reporter Yudjhijit Bhattacharjee is by no means unsympathetic to the profiling and dual loyalty issues, as he wrote in the very next sentence,
“An even more troubling consequence of China’s exploitation of people it regards as Chinese is that it can lead to the undue scrutiny of employees in American industry and academia, subjecting them to unfair suspicions of disloyalty toward the United States.”
But however – genuinely – troubling they are, if you’re worried about Chinese spying and national security, and you acknowledge that much of Beijing’s strategy is based on an attempt to blur the distinction between Chinese nationals and Chinese-Americans, and that the latter can be all too susceptible to these appeals, what’s the alternative to casting a wide net? Pretending that there’s nothing to see here?
Which brings up another disturbing finding of Bhattacharjee’s: The claim of one FBI agent he interviewed that “When… agents go out to talk to companies and universities about the threat…skeptical listeners ask for the evidence that proves the theft of trade secrets is part of a campaign directed by China’s government.”
Given unmistakable evidence of decades of massive Chinese theft of U.S. and other foreign intellectual property, China’s systematic disregard for other long agreed-on global trade rules it’s promised to respect, and its increasingly hostile and expansionist foreign policies, what aside from willful ignorance – or on the part of universities, a naive faith that even a regime so repressive and belligerent would never dream of corrupting the global March of Science – could explain this skepticism?
Obviously no country with what I called yesterday a healthy sense of self-preservation could possibly base its China counter-espionage policies on such assumptions. Nor could any country with inevitably limited national security resources and a consequent need to set priorities.
So even though critics of the China Initiative were right in pointing out that some of those it had prosecuted have been acquitted, and even though that danger of overreach is always present, the Biden administration was seriously mistaken in not only closing down the China Initiative but sanctimoniously declaring that it’s completely scrapping any practices smacking of “standards based on race or ethnicity.”
And if China Initiative critics want to boost the odds of counter-espionage campaigns choosing their targets accurately, they might try getting their own heads out of the sand by helping the government less reluctantly and scrutinizing their own China ties with more realistically and vigiliantly.