The Justice Department announced on Tuesday that Charles Lieber, former chair of Harvard’s Chemistry and Chemical Biology Department, was convicted by a federal jury in connection with his ties to China’s Thousand Talents Program. Lieber was convicted for failing to report income and making false statements to authorities regarding his affiliation with the Wuhan University of Technology (WUT). The conviction is a significant chapter in the story of the department’s China Initiative, which has recently come under fire by groups who allege that the program has led to racial profiling and amounts to prosecutorial overreach.
The jury convicted Lieber of knowingly and willfully making a materially false statement to federal authorities regarding his work with China’s Thousand Talents Program. The program, launched in 2008, began with the aim of reversing brain drain by enticing Chinese scientists overseas to return to China. Over time, the program evolved to also recruit foreigners with expertise in key technologies. The program provided Lieber with $50,000 a month to work at WUT, in addition to up to $150,000 in living expenses and more than $1.5 million in grants. Though it is not illegal to participate in Chinese recruitment programs, federal prosecutors alleged that Lieber had failed to report these payments as required of scientists receiving federal funding.
Lieber was seen by some as a potential Nobel Prize winner for his work in nanotechnology. Nanotechnology, the manipulation of materials at a near-atomic level, is a strategically important field with civilian and military application in medicine, green energy, computing and propulsion. In 2012, China’s Academy of Sciences launched a Strategic Pioneering Programme dedicated to nanotechnology research, investing one billion yuan ($152 million) over five years. As a result of the investment, China now ranks first worldwide for the number of patents and articles published on nanotechnology.
Lieber’s prosecution is among the highest profile to come from the China Initiative. The Justice Department created the China Initiative during the Trump Administration in 2018 to prosecute intellectual property (IP) theft and protect U.S. research institutions and critical infrastructure from external threats. The Biden administration has signaled to Congress that it plans to continue these efforts. In a congressional hearing in November, Attorney General Merrick Garland called China a “serious threat” with regard to IP theft and espionage. In the year-end update to its China Initiative information sheet, the department highlighted 15 prosecutions, indictments and operations from the past year. Separately, the MIT Technology Review published a database in December showing a total of 77 cases since 2018 with more than 150 defendants.
Academics and lawmakers have criticized the China Initiative, arguing that it has resulted in racial profiling against Asians and harmed U.S. technological competitiveness by chilling productive academic collaborations. This past July, in a letter signed by 90 members of Congress, Representative Ted Lieu warned about the risk of wrongful targeting of individuals of Asian descent. Addressing these concerns, Garland spoke to the need for the Department of Justice to distinguish between countering the Chinese government and targeting Americans of Chinese descent: “We want to be careful to separate out a country that is a serious competitor with us . . . with Americans and also with residents who come from that country.” To distinguish the two issues, Professor Margaret Lewis of Seton Hall Law School has proposed renaming the initiative. Lewis argues that while fears of Chinese IP theft are not unfounded, the naming of a Justice Department initiative after a specific country unnecessarily feeds into xenophobia.
The Lieber trial was seen by some observers as not only a trial on Lieber’s conduct, but for the viability of the China Initiative writ large. It remains to be seen what impact Lieber’s conviction may have on the department’s broader China-related law enforcement efforts heading into next year.
U.S. Imposes Latest Round of Sanctions on China for Misusing Biotechnology Against Ethnic Minorities
The Biden administration announced on Dec. 16 that it imposed trade restrictions on dozens of Chinese government research institutes and private-sector tech firms over human rights violations and the alleged weaponization of technologies that undermine U.S. national security. Twelve Chinese research institutes and 22 Chinese tech firms, including China’s Academy of Military Medical Sciences, were blacklisted and barred from any exports or transfers of U.S. technology, except in limited cases with a license. The Commerce Department accused the entities of contributing to a broader Chinese government strategy to develop and deploy biotechnology “to support Chinese military end uses and end users, to include purported brain-control weaponry” for potential offensive use against Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities.
China “is choosing to use these technologies to pursue control over its people and its repression of members of ethnic and religious minority groups,” Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said in a statement. “We cannot allow U.S. commodities, technologies, and software that support medical science and biotechnical innovation to be diverted toward uses contrary to U.S. national security.” Earlier this month, the White House announced a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, citing “ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang and other human rights abuses.” The Biden administration has also indicated support for bipartisan legislation passed by the Senate on Dec. 16 that bans imports into the U.S. from Xinjiang unless companies can demonstrate the goods were not produced by forced labor.
The Commerce Department also added several Chinese companies to its Entity List for allegedly “acquiring or attempting to acquire technology from the United States to help modernize the People’s Liberation Army.” The Treasury Department announced sanctions on eight more Chinese tech firms for “biometric surveillance and tracking of ethnic and religious minorities in China, particularly the predominantly Muslim Uyghur minority in Xinjiang.” The blacklisted entities include DJI, the world’s largest commercial drone manufacturer. The tech companies allegedly employed facial recognition software, cloud computing, drones and GPS technology, among other artificial intelligence tools. “One such AI software could recognize persons as being part of the Uyghur ethnic minority and send automated alarms to government authorities,” according to the Department of Treasury, while another firm helped “develop a transcription and translation tool for the Uyghur language to enable authorities to scan electronic devices.”
While the majority of the blacklisted firms were designated because of their ties to China’s so-called “civil-military fusion strategy,” where civilian technologies in fields like medicine and biotechnology are allegedly procured and weaponized to support the military, the Commerce Department also took action against entities located in Georgia, Malaysia and Turkey for allegedly diverting sensitive U.S. technology to Iran’s military programs.
The Biden administration’s latest moves follow the blacklisting earlier this month of SenseTime, a cutting-edge AI company specializing in facial recognition software. U.S. government officials have increasingly expressed concerns that U.S. investment may be supporting Chinese entities whose activities undermine U.S. national security at a time when the U.S. and China are engaged in fierce economic and military competition. While U.S. policy bars exports of technology with military applications to China and forbids investment in certain publicly traded companies that allegedly support China’s military, Chinese companies not on the list are fair game for investors. This means that American capital may be flowing to a variety of companies developing artificial intelligence, semiconductors and other advanced technologies that could have “dual-use” applications for surveillance, the military and civilian commercial uses.
China has warned that it would “strike back” in response to any “reckless” actions by the Biden administration, urging Washington to withdraw its latest round of sanctions. In addition to targeting Chinese entities tied to human rights abuses committed by Beijing in Xinjiang, the Treasury Department also imposed sanctions on two Chinese officials for their alleged involvement in the repression of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities on Dec. 10. China followed through on its threat of retaliation by announcing sanctions on Dec. 21 against four members of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, a group that monitors freedom of religion outside of the United States. The tit-for-tat sanctions add to the spiraling tensions between Beijing and Washington over China’s alleged misuse of biotechnology to surveil and repress minorities and advance its military programs.
China-Targeted U.S. Innovation and Competition Act Remains Stalled in Congress
As Congress races to accomplish a number of major legislative priorities before the end of the year, the U.S. House of Representatives is under pressure to move ahead on Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s $250 billion U.S. Innovation and Competition Act (USICA). USICA integrates several pieces of China-targeted legislation, including the Endless Frontier Act, the Strategic Competition Act of 2021, and the Meeting the China Challenge Act, into one massive 2,276-page bill.
The legislation is intended to preserve a competitive technological edge over China by injecting tens of billions of dollars into U.S. semiconductor manufacturing and “buy American”requirements for federally-funded infrastructure projects, among other initiatives. USICA also includes several provisions that address Chinese threats to the U.S. economy, including state-directed intellectual property theft, forced technology transfers, and malicious cyberattacks on U.S. government and corporate entities. The bill adds a ban on government purchases of Chinese-manufactured drones and the use of government hardware to download TikTok.
Despite bipartisan consensus that the U.S. government must act decisively to better respond to China’s growing economic and geopolitical ambitions, the bill has stalled on Capitol Hill amid disagreements between the Senate and the House. Senator Schumer attempted to merge the bill with the $740 billion National Defense Authorization Act in mid-November, but his proposal was met with opposition and ultimately blocked. After months of delay, Schumer and Pelosi entered formal negotiations on USICA in November and hope to advance the bill through the House and place it on President Biden’s desk “as soon as possible.”
Chinese officials have warned of reprisals should the bill become law. Beijing’s response is likely to be more subtle than an escalating series of tit-for-tat tariffs in light of recent efforts by U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai and her Chinese counterpart, Vice Premier Liu He, to smooth the U.S.-China trade relationship. For example, Tai referred to “recoupling” with China when she announced in October that the government will restore the ability of U.S. firms to seek exemptions from tariffs on certain Chinese imports.
Instead, the Chinese government may retaliate to the ultimate passage of USICA through deliberate disruptions in imported parts’ supplies for U.S. manufacturers and curbs on Chinese purchases of U.S. exports. Chinese Ambassador Qin Gang has expressed his government’s outrage at the roughly 260 bills before Congress with “negative China content,” identifying USICA as an attempt to “hijack China-U.S. relations and gravely damage America’s own interests.” Beijing also urged U.S. business groups with interests in China to “speak out” and lobby the U.S. government to defeat USICA and other similar bills in early December.
Chinese Propaganda Arms Exerting Influence on Amazon, Twitter and Facebook
This past week, Reuters and The New York Times published reports exposing how arms of the Chinese government have shaped reviews and opinions of China on major American tech platforms. On Dec. 17, Reuters reported on Amazon’s compliance with Chinese government requests to remove negative reviews of Xi Jinping’s book, “The Governance of China,” from its Chinese website. On Dec. 20, The New York Times reported on how a branch of the Shanghai Public Security Bureau has recruited bot networks and pro-China online influencers to amplify the Chinese government’s message abroad.
The Reuters report centered on a 2018 internal briefing document prepared for Jay Carney, Obama’s former White House Press Secretary and Amazon’s head of lobbying and public policy operations. According to the document and interviews with Amazon insiders, Amazon partnered with a propaganda arm of the Chinese government to create a selling portal on Amazon.com known as China Books. Though the project hasn’t been highly lucrative, the document notes that the project has helped smooth the path for obtaining licenses for Amazon’s other operations in China, including selling e-books and cloud-computing services. China’s request to remove negative reviews of Xi Jinping’s book on Amazon.cn, the Chinese version of Amazon’s e-commerce site, was part of that campaign, the report notes.
The New York Times report centered on an invitation for contract bids that the Shanghai Pudong Public Security Bureau posted online. In the post, the Bureau’s Public Opinion Technology Services Project on Competitive Negotiation sought bids from tech contractors to rent social media accounts to the Chinese government to amplify its message. Crucially, the Shanghai police sought accounts with organic followers that could evade detection on Twitter and Facebook.
Social media networks have frequently taken down crude bot networks and disinformation accounts using automated screening tools and manual reviewers, but the recent reporting shows how the Chinese government has evolved to employ more sophisticated tools in its information campaign. Officials are also starting to rely on more visual media, seeking contractors to produce videos to “fight the battle of public opinion” in domestic and foreign media.
U.S. and Taiwan Establish New Technology Trade and Investment Collaboration
Washington and Taipei have agreed to establish a new framework to boost investment and strengthen cooperation in key technology sectors like semiconductors. In an introductory call between U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and Taiwan’s Minister of Economic Affairs Wang Mei-hua on Dec. 6, both sides indicated their intentions to cooperate through a new Technology Trade and Investment Collaboration (TTIC) framework that will allow them to “develop commercial programs and explore actions to strengthen critical supply chains.”
Taiwan’s position in the global semiconductor industry is particularly critical as the U.S. continues to grapple with an ongoing chip shortage stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. Taiwan’s semiconductor contract manufacturers accounted for 63 percent of total global foundry market share in 2020, while Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company—the world’s largest contract chipmaker—is responsible for 92 percent of the world’s advanced chips production.
Closer coordination between the U.S. and China in semiconductor policy could have far-reaching implications for Beijing. Despite China’s concerted effort to reduce its dependence on foreign technology, Chinese tech companies continue to rely on Taiwanese manufacturers to produce advanced chips. The establishment of the TTIC framework will surely anger Beijing after it called on the U.S. to end official contact with Taiwanese officials. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian made the call in November following the second “U.S.-Taiwan Economic Prosperity Partnership Dialogue,” which focused on issues such as supply chain resilience, digital economy, science and technology, and 5G network security, as well as Beijing’s alleged economic coercion.
President Biden fueled tensions further by hosting the first of two Summits for Democracy on Dec. 9-10, which brought together leaders from government, civil society, and the private sector across the globe—but notably excluded China. Taiwan’s inclusion on the list of invitees likely signals Biden’s intention to continue developing closer ties with Taiwan beyond efforts to resolve the global semiconductor shortage, though strained cross-strait and U.S.-China relations may ultimately bring even greater uncertainty to global supply chains.
Yangyang Cheng discusses geopolitical tension in the U.S.-China scientific divide with Jordan Schneider and Alex Liang on the ChinaTalk podcast.
Joseph Nye, Jr. argues that the balance of power in U.S.-China technological competition will depend on closing the domestic innovation gap, diplomatic alliances and America’s ability to attract immigrants.
Ryan Fedusiak and Emily Weinstein propose a new framework for understanding Beijing’s technology strategy, focused on four resources: equipment, personnel, information and capital.
Graham Allison and Eric Schmidt discuss a recent report from Harvard Belfer’s Center concluding that China could soon overtake the United States in artificial intelligence, semiconductors and other emerging technologies.
Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian argues that American and European companies have caved to Chinese economic pressure because democratic governments have left companies to fend for themselves.
Dan Wang critiques the Justice Department’s China Initiative, highlighting parallels to America’s flawed attempts to prevent technology leakage during World War II and the Cold War.
Ellen Lu and Ryan Fedusiak argue that China’s tech crackdown harms its domestic tech industry and takes a “legal sledgehammer” to its AI companies.
Cissy Zhou shows how China’s expanding influence in tech standard-setting organizations has allowed it to outpace the U.S. and Europe in setting rules on strategic sectors like lithium and 5G.
Darren Linvill and Patrick Walker dissect the pro-China propaganda and disinformation toolkit the Chinese government uses to shape its narrative on Xinjiang.