The Guardian view on anti-Chinese suspicion: target espionage, not ethnicities

August 10, 2021
In The News

oliticians and academics in the US have begun to talk of Researching While Chinese American, in a deliberate echo of the phrase Driving While Black. There is a long, ignoble history of failed espionage cases against such scientists. But the Trump administration stepped things up when it launched the China Initiative, vowing to aggressively pursue the theft of trade secrets and identify researchers who had helped to transfer technology to Beijing.

Though one man was jailed after pleading guilty to making false statements to federal authorities this spring, its first trial has rightly faltered. Anming Hu’s prosecution for fraud, over claims he hid ties to China, ended in a hung jury and a mistrial. One juror later declared that the FBI owed him an apology, after agents admitted they had falsely accused the former University of Tennessee researcher of being a spy. Yet to the shock of academics, Asian American advocacy groups and others, prosecutors plan to retry the Chinese-born Canadian citizen.

The concerns go beyond the treatment of Professor Hu to the broader strategy, and the general suspicion it evinces of those of Chinese ethnicity in science and technology, by singling out one country’s espionage. Though other cases have been dropped, 90 members of Congress have now urged the department of justice to end what they believe is the racial profiling of individuals of Asian descent. While cases like this are most alarming to academics, business people and others who fear that their lives could be similarly upended, they send a broader message that at best some citizens are not seen as quite as American as others, and at worst, that they are viewed as enemies within. A similar signal is clear when analysts, politicians and others of Chinese birth or descent in western countries face a greater level of scrutiny for their actions or statements, with insinuations or outright accusations that they may be working for another country’s interests.

As political competition intensifies, and concern grows about China’s behaviour internationally, such suspicion is likely to grow. It is important to be alert and thorough in assessing the risks posed by Chinese espionage or its covert influence operations. But stereotyping of and animosity towards those with Chinese heritage is both wrong and counterproductive. The suspicion is all the more painful at a time when those of east and south-east Asian descent have faced soaring abuse and violence sparked by the pandemic. The US has seen a spate of horrifying attacks; in the UK, it is estimated that communities have experienced a three-fold increase in hate crimes.

In the UK, Chinese agents have reportedly been applying for visas under the scheme for Hong Kong’s British National (Overseas) passport holders, designed to aid those fleeing Beijing’s crackdown. Vigilance is essential, and will help to protect those who are genuinely escaping the repression. But necessary care in processing cases should not be used to justify bureaucratic delays which risk their ability to leave Hong Kong.

Still less should such concerns fuel wider suspicion. It goes without saying that discrimination is intrinsically wrong. It can hit those who have left China for their opposition to the leadership. It also risks bolstering Beijing’s claim that the world is not critical of the leadership’s abuses, but hostile to the Chinese people. That is not in anyone’s interests.