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We built a database to understand the China Initiative. Then the government changed its records.

Our monthslong investigation revealed a major DOJ effort troubled by shifting narratives and a lack of focus. Here's how we got the facts.

Since the US government launched the China Initiative in 2018, the main source of information about it has been press releases on the Department of Justice’s China Initiative webpage announcing arrests, charges, and indictments. 

But the record is incomplete. Civil rights groups that have been concerned about the initiative from the start—especially its potential for racial profiling—have seen gaps and inconsistencies in the DOJ’s messaging. In response, some of them have built their own lists of cases and tracked changes made to the initiative’s webpage.

For example, the DOJ omitted some cases that its officials had publicly described as textbook China Initiative cases from the page. This includes the case of MIT professor Gang Chen, who has been accused of failing to disclose contracts, appointments, and awards from Chinese entities while receiving federal grants from the Department of Energy. (MIT, which is the owner of Technology Review, is paying for his defense: it asserts that the main contract in question was between MIT and a Chinese university.)

Meanwhile, other cases, like that of Cleveland Clinic researcher Qing Wang—who was accused of making false claims and of wire fraud relating to a failure to disclose grants and positions in China—were quietly removed after charges were dismissed. 

The Justice Department itself has not been very forthcoming. As we explain in our main piece, DOJ officials have so far failed to provide a clear definition of what constitutes a China Initiative case, or how many cases in total it has brought. This lack of transparency has made it impossible to understand exactly what the China Initiative is, what it has achieved, and what the costs have been for those disproportionately affected. 

“I’d like to see a balance sheet,” said Jeremy Wu, who held senior civil rights and ethics positions in the US government before co-founding the APA Justice Task Force, one of the groups that is independently tracking the China Initiative. “What did we gain? How many spies did we catch, compared to how much damage that has [been] done not only to individuals, but also to the future of American science and technology?” 

Our database is not that balance sheet. But it is an important step toward answering some of the questions Wu poses—questions that, to this point, the US government has not answered. Rather, it has added to the confusion: two days after we reached out with a request for comment, the Justice Department made major updates to its webpage, removing cases that do not support its narrative of a successful counterintelligence effort.

How we did it

This spring, we began searching through all the press releases then linked on the Department of Justice’s China Initiative webpage, followed by another scrape of its data in August. Then we pulled thousands of pages of  federal court records pertaining to each case and used this information to build our database.

We also combed through additional court documents and public statements by FBI and DOJ officials to find cases that had been removed from the webpage or that had never been included. Then we supplemented this information with interviews with defense attorneys, defendants’ family members, collaborating researchers, former US prosecutors, civil rights advocates, lawmakers, and outside scholars who have studied the initiative. We found more cases that had been left out of the DOJ’s public list but either were publicly described as part of the initiative or fit the general fact pattern of academics charged with hiding ties to Chinese institutions, hackers alleged to be working for the Chinese government, or those accused of illicit technology transfers. 

Our goal was to create as comprehensive a database of China Initiative prosecutions as possible. We know there may be more, and our database may grow as we confirm the existence of additional cases. If you have more information on China Initiative cases, please reach out to us at tips@technologyreview.com.

Our tracking efforts were made harder in June, when the Department of Justice stopped updating its China Initiative webpage. That timeframe roughly coincides with the resignation of John Demers, the assistant attorney general who had been in charge of the national security division overseeing the initiative.

Once we had built a rough database and analyzed the data, we compared notes with Wu, of the APA Justice Task Force, and with Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC, another civil rights group tracking cases, and we shared our initial findings with a small group of lawmakers, civil rights organization representatives, and scholars and asked for their comments.

What the Department of Justice changed

On November 19—two days after MIT Technology Review approached the Department of Justice with questions about the initiative, including a number of cases we believed to have been omitted or erroneously included—the department made major revisions to the China Initiative webpage.

These changes were extensive, but they didn’t really clear up much of the confusion around the initiative. In fact, in some ways they made it worse.

On the left is the DOJ China Initiative webpage as it appeared on Nov. 18, and on the right is the webpage on Nov. 19, after MIT Technology Review reached out for questions. Items in yellow were deleted, while items in blue were added. Explore the changes in more detail on Webarchive.org.

While he did not respond to our specific questions, Wyn Hornbuckle, the spokesperson for the DOJ’s National Security Division, informed us by email that staff “have been in the process of updating our webpage to reflect some of the changes, updates, and dismissals.” 

He also shared the department’s own numbers. “Since November 2018, we have brought or resolved nine economic espionage prosecutions and seven theft of trade secrets cases with a nexus to the PRC. We also have brought 12 matters involving fraud on universities and/or grant making institutions,” he wrote. 

We found significantly more than 12 research integrity cases—but only 13 of the 23 research integrity cases included in our database are currently on the website. (One of those cases was settled before charges could be filed.) Six of those cases ended in guilty pleas. Seven are still pending. 

Seven of the eight research integrity cases that ended in dismissals or acquittals were previously included on the website, but the DOJ has now removed them from its list. 

Our analysis showed 12 cases that charged either theft of trade secrets or economic espionage since November 2018. Ten are listed on the Department of Justice’s site. (Two were related prosecutions, although they were charged separately.) Of those 10, seven charged only theft of trade secrets and not the more severe allegation of economic espionage. One charged both economic espionage and theft of trade secrets. The other two were hacking cases—one included an economic espionage citation, and one included a theft of trade secrets citation. 

The Department of Justice did not respond to multiple requests for a more detailed breakdown of its numbers. 

Our subsequent analysis showed that the DOJ had removed 17 cases and 39 defendants from its China Initiative page, added two cases [with a total of five defendants, and updated existing cases with sentencing and trial information, where available.

Hornbuckle did not respond to a follow-up request to comment on what these removals say about transparency.

DOJ officials have widely publicized some of these defendants as China Initiative cases. One example is that of Anming Hu, a University of Tennessee nanotechnology professor, which was the first research integrity case to go to trial. He was acquitted in September after a mistrial, and his case is no longer listed as a China Initiative one despite the original press release announcing his arrest stating, “This case is part of the Department of Justice’s China Initiative.”

Privately, however, a former DOJ official, who declined our request to attribute this information to him, provided information suggesting that the webpage's organizing principles may have been less clear than was warranted for an initiative of this scale and impact. Some cases, he said, such as that of a man who organized a turtle-smuggling ring, originally may have been added to the department’s list by mistake. A new staff member, he said, may have been overzealous in looking for cases with a “nexus to China,” a vague term that he did not clearly define. (The turtle-smuggling case was one of the 17 that were removed after MIT Technology Review contacted the DOJ.)

At the other end of the spectrum, the official added that the case of Chen, the MIT professor, may have been omitted originally because his charges were announced in the aftermath of the January 6 insurrection, on January 14, and key DOJ communications staff were otherwise occupied. (Chen’s indictment was announced on January 14.)

“Without a more precise definition of the scope and boundaries of the China Initiative, information can be manipulated to create biased impressions to fit the government’s narrative,” said Jeremy Wu of the APA Justice Task Force. “The change in the online DOJ report will add even more confusion and uncertainty on what counts as a China Initiative case and what does not.” 

A guide to the database

Our database shows important details about the defendants linked to the China Initiative, including their names, the charge(s) brought against them, and the summary of allegations in the cases, as well as their dispositions (such as pleaded guilty, charges dismissed, or pending) and outcomes, which includes any sentence that may have been handed down. 

Thirty-seven cases in our database—nearly half of the total—are still ongoing. The defendants in these cases have not been convicted, and the government’s allegations against them are still unproven. All defendants should be considered innocent until proven guilty.

It also contains other information about the defendants—such as the technology areas in which they were working, the organizations with which they were affiliated, and what victim institutions were affected by the alleged crimes. We also list whether they were connected to Chinese “talent plans,” state-sponsored university recruitment programs that aim to build domestic expertise in crucial areas of science and technology—and deemed by the US government as “a threat…to the US research enterprise” and as having an incentive to commit intellectual property theft. 

Names appear in the database as they do in court documents, meaning that some follow the Western naming convention of first name followed by family name, and others appear with the family name first, as is standard in China. 

At times, we’ve marked certain fields as “Unknown.” That means it is unknown to us, not necessarily unknown to prosecutors. For example, companies that were the victims of hacking or the theft of trade secrets often were cited in court papers only as “Company A” or “Company B.” 

We also included all of the charges brought against defendants, under charges. Some of these charges were added weeks, months, or even years after the case was first opened. Defendants who pleaded or were found guilty were often only convicted of a subset of these charges. We’ve noted which charges they were convicted of in the outcome section.

To better understand the China Initiative’s focus areas, we sorted cases by category, breaking them into groups based on the core facts of the Justice Department’s allegations against them.   Defendants and cases sometimes fall into multiple categories.

These are the categories:

Agent of a foreign government: Cases that allege a person is acting illegally on behalf of the Chinese government.

Corruption: Cases that allege violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. 

Theft of trade secrets: Cases that allege the stealing of intellectual property or confidential business information. 

Economic espionage: Cases that allege the theft of trade secrets to benefit a foreign government.

Espionage: Cases that allege improper contact with or action on behalf of foreign intelligence officials.

Hacking: Cases that allege illegally accessing computer systems, usually to steal information.

Import/Export: Cases that allege violations of import or export laws.

Research integrity: Cases that allege failures to disclose conflicts of interest or foreign affiliations, as well as allegations of sharing nonpublic scientific information.

Other: Outlier cases that do not fit closely with others.

Economic espionage and theft of trade secrets both fall under the umbrella of Economic Espionage Act violations, but economic espionage requires proof that the theft was intended to ultimately benefit a foreign government, making it harder for prosecutors to charge and even harder to win. Economic espionage also carries harsher maximum penalties.

Finally, to better understand claims about the initiative’s ethnic focus, we looked at the citizenship, race, and Chinese heritage of each defendant. Court records tend to describe foreign nationals as such, so we assumed the others were US citizens. We double-checked these assumptions in academic/professional bios listed online as well as media reports, including in local language reports (non-English) and with consular officials in some cases. Individuals are considered of Chinese heritage if they or their family claimed ancestry from China, regardless of where they were born or their citizenship status.  We used names to determine whether individuals were of Chinese heritage and to help determine their race (Asian, Caucasian, African American), cross-referencing with online bios and media reports. 

These 77 cases are primarily criminal prosecutions brought under the China Initiative by the Department of Justice. In some instances, there may be related civil litigation or regulatory actions that are not included in our database.

Transparency

In a story about transparency, it’s especially important to be clear about what may be perceived as our biases and potential conflicts of interest. Several are at play, and we want to be straightforward about them.

First, MIT Technology Review is owned by—although editorially independent of—the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. An inspector-general report from the Department of Education found that, among Research 1 universities, MIT received the highest amount of money between 2015-2019 from funding sources physically located within the People's Republic of China: $125,008,331. Additionally, MIT professor Gang Chen is listed in our database, accused of wire fraud, false statements, and failing to report a foreign bank account. MIT is paying for his defense.

Second, in a story that shows outsized racial disparities in prosecutions against researchers, we want to note that Eileen Guo and Karen Hao, two of the staff reporters who produced this work, are US citizens of Chinese heritage. Their race does not play a part in our data or analysis, although it does mean they have an intimate understanding of anti-Asian sentiment.

Third, when talking about how allegations about federal grants can be used to punish and intimidate people, it’s important to point out that we have personal experience of this, too. Guo, a senior reporter at Technology Review, was previously the CEO of a company based in Kabul, Afghanistan, called Impassion Afghanistan, which ran citizen journalism and civic technology projects. In 2018, the US State Department claimed that Impassion had not provided enough documentation to support some of its costs and disallowed it. Impassion appealed the decision—a process that included submitting thousands of pages of forensic accounting, which were summarily ignored. The government has never alleged that Guo was personally liable, and the DOJ was never involved. 

Do you have more information, or questions you'd like answered, about the China Initiative? Please reach out to us at tips@technologyreview.com.

This story has been updated to include the amount of money that MIT receives from funding sources physically located within China, according to a Department of Education report.

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