Amid warnings from the Trump administration about Chinese espionage, the president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) last week wrote an open letter in support of students and scholars of Chinese descent.
In the note, addressed to “members of the MIT community,” L. Rafael Reif wrote that he felt compelled to share his “dismay” over the Trump administration’s scrutiny of Chinese and Chinese American researchers and pupils due to heightened concerns about academic espionage.
“Faculty members, post-docs, research staff and students tell me that, in their dealings with government agencies, they now feel unfairly scrutinized, stigmatized and on edge – because of their Chinese ethnicity alone,” he wrote. “Nothing could be further from – or more corrosive to – our community’s collaborative strength and open-hearted ideals. To hear such reports from Chinese and Chinese American colleagues is heartbreaking.”
Last year, FBI Director Christopher Wray accused Chinese individuals in academia of “exploiting the very open research and development environment in the U.S.,” calling those from China a “whole-of-society threat” during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing.
He doubled down on his statements in an interview with NBC News the following month. “To be clear, we do not open investigations based on race, or ethnicity, or national origin,” Wray told the outlet. “But when we open investigations into economic espionage, time and time again, they keep leading back to China.”
FBI officials have reportedly visited at least 10 members of the Association of American Universities, a group of more than 60 research institutions, to advise them to monitor students who have affiliations with certain Chinese institutions and companies.
A spokesperson for MIT told HuffPost that Reif’s open letter was prompted by general rising tensions, rather than any single incident. In it, Reif acknowledged that “small numbers of researchers of Chinese background may indeed have acted in bad faith.” But, he said, “they are the exception.”
The MIT president added that these academics are experiencing “distress,” which is part of a larger message the U.S. is sending the world.
“Such actions and policies have turned the volume all the way up on the message that the U.S. is closing the door – that we no longer seek to be a magnet for the world’s most driven and creative individuals,” he wrote.
Reif said that the country should be signaling that “the story of American immigration is essential to understanding how the U.S. became, and remains, optimistic, open-minded, innovative and prosperous – a story of never-ending renewal. ... As a society, when we offer immigrants the gift of opportunity, we receive in return vital fuel for our shared future.”
In May, Emory University researchers Li XiaoJiang and Li Shuhua, who are both U.S. citizens, were terminated from their positions. The university said that the married couple “had failed to fully disclose” the extent of their ties to Chinese institutions. XiaoJiang denied the claim, telling ScienceInsider that he had provided the university with the research documents it had requested.
A 2017 white paper from the Chinese American organization Committee of 100 found that Asians were more likely to be charged with espionage than any other racial group. It also noted that Asians were found innocent at a rate two times higher than those of other races.