U.S. academics of Chinese descent organize and speak out—with caution | Science

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Rongwei Yang would rather be doing pure math. But the U.S. government’s prosecution of scientists of Chinese heritage and rising anti-Asian violence have pushed the University at Albany (UA) professor into the political arena.

In May, Yang helped found the UA Association of Chinese Professionals (UA-ACP), which now has some 130 members, in a bid to give scientists of Chinese heritage a more organized voice. And this week UA-ACP, which Yang leads, took a higher profile step, joining with similar groups at a dozen other U.S. campuses in sending a letter to President Joe Biden.

The 2000 faculty members who signed the letter ask Biden to end the 3-year-old China Initiative, which has led to federal investigations of hundreds of U.S. researchers. Some have been fired and more than two dozen, mostly of Chinese origin, have faced criminal charges for violating disclosure rules related to foreign funding. Several have been convicted, but the government has dropped other cases—and lost one—amid fierce criticism that it has engaged in racial profiling and pursued flimsy allegations that have ruined careers.

Speaking out doesn’t come naturally to members of these campus-based groups, says pharmacy professor Duxin Sun, president of the University of Michigan’s Association of Chinese Professors (UM-ACP), which has helped coordinate the informal coalition that wrote to Biden. “Chinese American scientists traditionally don’t do that,” Sun explained during a recent webinar co-sponsored by the campus-based groups. “But the time has come.”

At UA, Yang says he is still figuring how such activism fits into his professional life. “I personally have little interest in becoming political,” he says. “However, like many of my peers, I worry that the China Initiative may inadvertently harm the U.S. academic enterprise in the long run. So, what we are doing is more than safeguarding our own rights.”

Two recent surveys highlight how the China Initiative, as well as rising U.S.-Chinese tensions, have led U.S. researchers of Chinese heritage to fear for their research, their personal safety, and their civil rights.

In one, UM-ACP polled its 370 faculty members in July. Nearly two-thirds of 123 respondents reported they “don’t feel safe” as a Chinese academic for a variety of reasons. A second survey, of a national sample of nearly 2000 academic scientists, found that researchers of Chinese heritage are four times more likely to fear government surveillance and investigations than their non-Chinese colleagues. It was sponsored by the Committee of 100 (C-100), a group of prominent Chinese Americans from all sectors.

Such data highlight why researchers of Chinese origin working at U.S. universities would benefit from united action, says Sun, whose UM-ACP was formed in 2002 “to promote member interactions … and cultural exchanges” between the United States and China. “I really encourage you to form an ACP-type group if you don’t already have one,” he said during a 27 October webinar on “Chinese-American contributions and racial disparities” co-sponsored by the 13 campus groups that sent the letter to Biden.

Feeling threatened

At the University of Michigan (UM), 64% of 123 Chinese faculty responding to a survey said the China Initiative and U.S.-Chinese tensions have made them feel unsafe, whereas 33% said the climate has caused them to consider not applying for U.S. grants. A survey of nearly 2000 scientists at 83 large universities found Chinese and non-Chinese scientists respond differently to issues raised by the China Initiative.


Faculty at several other prominent U.S. universities, including Stanford University; the University of California, Berkeley; UM; and Princeton University, sent similar public letters earlier this fall. They called on Biden and Attorney General Merrick Garland to end the China Initiative and find “an alternative response to the challenges posed by our relations with the People’s Republic of China.”

The new letter also asks Biden to repair the damage being done to Chinese academics and their families by what it calls the “chilling effects of these prosecutions.” It does not detail how the government should compensate those harmed. But, Yang says, “The demands in our letter are obvious and natural. … No one has commented that the demands are too specific, and no other demands have been suggested, either.”

The campus-based groups are proceeding cautiously as they raise their political profiles. Many don’t have their own website, for example, and they allow members who fear reprisals for belonging to maintain their anonymity. “We want to make the university a better place, so you can focus on your research, teaching, and service,” Sun says about UM-ACP. And because it is “an internal organization, supported by the university, we don’t want to put them in an awkward situation. So, any overt political activity has to be done independently, as individuals.”

Other groups are even more circumspect. Although UM-ACP shared its survey questionnaire with similar organizations at some 50 other universities, only five fielded the survey, generating a total of 800 responses. None has yet to join UM in speaking publicly about the results.

A similar group at a different university did draft a letter in support of a Chinese American faculty member facing federal charges. But it pulled back after deciding that a public statement might do more harm than good. Similarly, other groups have hesitated to publicly praise their institutions for defending faculty members being investigated by federal funding agencies, notably the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, for fear of retaliation by those agencies.

“We’re lucky that our university has stood behind our faculty, and we appreciate their leadership,” says a member of one recently organized association at an institution under federal scrutiny. “But [the university] doesn’t want to talk about it because they are concerned about losing grant money. And we understand that.”

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