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‘We might be seen as spies’: US

Jul 29, 2023Jul 29, 2023

University of Virginia professor emeritus of foreign affairs Brantly Womack at Tsinghua University in Beijing in 2023. PHOTO: COURTESY OF BRANTLY WOMACK

June 6, 2023

WASHINGTON – Dr Brantly Womack, professor emeritus of foreign affairs at the University of Virginia, counts himself lucky to have been able to visit Beijing and lecture at Tsinghua University in February.

Once quite commonplace, such academic exchanges have become rare.

In a note he circulated to academic friends on his return, he said: "The isolation of the Covid-19 era, amplified by the mutual suspicions of Xi Jinping's China and (Donald) Trump's and Joe Biden's America, has removed the human texture from the relationship."

The unwelcoming atmosphere cuts both ways.

The US Justice Department's China Initiative – launched in 2018 under the Trump administration to investigate researchers and scientists for any ties to China – was scrapped in 2022. But it continues to haunt research and scientific collaborations between both countries in a new form referred by the department only as "a strategy for countering nation-state threats".

The China Initiative spawned charges against well over 100 academics, typically for failing to disclose financial ties to Chinese institutions. But an analysis in 2022 by the MIT Technology Review found that 88 per cent of 148 defendants charged were of Chinese ancestry – leading to accusations of racial profiling.

Many cases were dropped, while some ended with minor charges.

Take researcher Franklin Tao, a chemistry professor at the University of Kansas, who In August 2019 was arrested by federal agents who took him away from his home in handcuffs.

In April 2022, a jury found Dr Tao guilty of wire fraud and of making false statements.

But in January 2023, a federal judge acquitted him of the wire fraud charges though she found him guilty of making false statements about undisclosed ties to a research university in China. The judge made a point of saying: "This case is not about espionage."

In any case, the initiative has achieved what it intended. In December 2021, as questions grew over the programme, former US attorney for the District of Massachusetts Andrew Lelling said: "The point of the initiative was to deter academic researchers from failing to disclose their affiliations with Chinese counterparts.

"There's no academic researcher in the sciences who isn't concerned about this. So the point's been made."

The chilling effect has been real, said Dr Womack.

"In general, there's a lot of space in a research academic's schedule, and he fills it in various ways," he told The Straits Times.

"There’re a lot of informal contacts and formal arrangements and various other things that happen, that produce all those jointly authored articles, or whatever. They’re not produced by one thin lab connection. They’re produced by thicker relationships.

"Now that the spotlight might shine on your specific relationships, and you might have to explain things that otherwise would seem perfectly natural things to do, it becomes a serious problem," Dr Womack said.

The same applies to working in China.

Dr Bates Gill, executive director of the Asia Society Policy Institute's Centre for China Analysis based in New York, has not visited China since 2019.

He told ST during a visit to Singapore that the difficulties for foreign researchers, journalists and business people in China were already apparent before the pandemic. "Especially under Xi's second term (beginning in 2018), it had already become a more difficult set of circumstances, especially if you were working in areas that China deems sensitive," he said.

He noted the increase in new regulations in China that raise questions about foreign activities, putting pressure on Chinese academics, businesses and non-governmental organisations to avoid, or at least be much more cautious about, relationships with foreign entities.

For instance, China revised its anti-espionage law in April, expanding the definition of espionage to include providing "documents, data, materials or items related to national security". Changes are to go into effect in July.

"All of these were already happening, and we had Covid-19 on top of it. The serious downturn in political relations between the West especially and China during the Covid-19 crisis just added to the problem," he said.

"Today, the incentives to engage in people-to-people exchange or to conduct research in China, or even to have meetings or dialogues in China, are far, far less than they were in the past."

Access to information in China and having honest and informative conversations have become harder, he said.

"Not only are archives and databases being closed to foreigners, but Chinese people themselves are more reluctant to have conversations and exchanges with foreigners for fear that they might themselves get into trouble," he said.

Take, for instance, the China National Knowledge Infrastructure, the largest academic database in China that was established in 1999. Foreign universities were informed in March that their access to portions of the database would be curtailed from April, to be "in compliance with the law".

There is also a small – but still an increased – risk to foreigners going to China, added Dr Gill. These may not be as extreme as being detained or arrested but could take the form of harassment, questioning, or imposition of restrictions on what visitors can say and where they can go.

"Those are risks that many foreigners simply don't want to take. And they are voting with their feet – they are not going to China, or they are leaving."

Police investigations into US consulting firm Bain & Company and a New York-based due diligence firm Mintz Group earlier in 2023 have sparked fears among foreign businesses operating in China.

Chinese researchers feel the pain too.

In July 2020, the Chinese Academy of Science and Technology for Development, a Beijing think-tank, conducted a survey of 3,679 public and private researchers.

Among the 251 Chinese researchers who had worked with American counterparts after 2018 – well into the war waged by former US president Trump against trade and technology with China – 23.3 per cent said the tensions had had "some impact" on their work, while another 8 per cent said that their work had been "greatly affected".

The impact had been strongest on exchange visits, with half saying that the fall in the number of visits by American researchers to China, as well as the reduction of their own study visits to the US, had hurt their work.

The tensions also led to fewer academic seminars, which hurt the work of 48.7 per cent of the affected researchers, while 37.2 per cent said that they had reduced their participation in US conferences.

A Chinese doctoral student at a university in Beijing who specialises in US-China relations said he has not visited the US for fieldwork since he started his thesis in 2021 due to "limitations" set by the university, without elaboration.

"There's also a fear among the doctoral students that if we get too close with the US, we might be seen as spies," he said, declining to provide more details as he was not authorised to speak with the press.

Dr Womack told ST: "The good side is that, for both governments, there is support for people-to-people relationships.

"The problem is, that's a soft commitment on both sides. Security is a hard issue, and Covid-19 was a sideswipe. It was a black swan that flew over the relationship and flew over all relationships.

"But when you have the physical problems plus the deterioration in political relationships, then the scar will be slower to heal."

Additional reporting by Lim Min Zhang