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National Security & Profiling of Asian Americans

The Justice Department’s China Initiative formalized a program of xenophobic anti-Asian prejudice under the guise of combating Chinese economic espionage. Rather than protect national security, the program discriminated against Asian American academics and researchers, particularly those with ancestral or professional connections to China. While the China Initiative program was officially disbanded in 2022, the heated anti-China rhetoric and improper targeting of Chinese and Asian American scientists and scholars as national security threats has continued, causing harm to countless individuals and intensifying anti-Asian discrimination.

Published: June 21, 2023


In 2018, the Department of Justice launched the China Initiative, a program intended to combat the threat of economic espionage by the Chinese government. In reality, the program indiscriminately targeted Chinese Nationals and Chinese American academics and researchers through dubious investigations of minor administrative errors and abusive prosecutions. The initiative followed a long history of US national security initiatives entrenching xenophobic anti-Asian sentiment, from the Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned Chinese laborers from immigrating to the United States, to the incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII.

While the DOJ announced they would shutter the program in March of 2022, irreparable damage had already been done to the scientific community. Three years after the program began, only 40 of 148 individuals charged pled or were found guilty, and several high-profile cases were inexplicably dropped, nonetheless ruining the lives and careers of innocent researchers. Ultimately, the initiative failed to investigate and prosecute serious security threats, and instead fueled “a narrative of intolerance and bias” against Chinese and Asian American scientists with serious consequences for American scientific advancement. Joint publications by Chinese and American scientists have since declined, and many Chinese and Asian American researchers are unwilling to apply for federal grants out of fear of attracting scrutiny. 

The inappropriate scrutiny of academics has “only intensified” as the US security officials have continued  to promote a narrative that Chinese and Chinese American scientists pose a unique risk research security. While the number of prosecutions has slowed, intrusive and intimidating FBI investigations have continued apace. Asian American scholars and scientists continue to face scrutiny of U.S. government grant applications. States have also fueled xenophobic hostility toward Asian Americans, introducing legislation to ban Chinese nationals from owning real property. Relationships between US and Chinese academic institutions and the US’s ability to attract foreign talent, both vital to strengthening US security, are being significantly compromised.

The threat of economic espionage by intelligence agents from a multitude of foreign nations—including China—is a legitimate one. But until the U.S government focuses its attention on genuine threats instead of targeting Asian American researchers and academics because of their national origin or ancestry and stoking anti-Asian xenophobia that threat will continue unchecked.

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