By John C. Yang
On October 6, 2020, Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC launched the Anti-Racial Profiling Project in response to the increasing concerns about the government’s racial targeting and profiling of Asian American and Asian immigrant scientist, researchers, and scholars, particularly those of Chinese descent under the Department of Justice’s “China Initiative.” Since the launch, Advancing Justice | AAJC has led trailblazing advocacy efforts to call for the end of racial profiling of Asian Americans and immigrants, including meetings with the White House and Congressional offices and spearheading the first letter to President-elect Biden on ending the Justice Department’s “China Initiative” with the Brennan Center for Justice and APA Justice.
Advancing Justice | AAJC established the first bilingual legal referral service on this issue in the country. Along with our advocacy efforts, we helped nearly 70 impacted persons in 24 states, connecting them to specialized experienced attorneys and providing them with advocacy support. We effectively mobilized grassroots efforts to draw attention to the first “China Initiative” case to go to trial. We reached thousands of community members, impacted persons, faculty and students, and civil rights partners through our public webinars and other education efforts.
The “China Initiative”
In 2018, the Department of Justice under the former Trump Administration launched the “China Initiative” to allegedly combat economic espionage and trade secret theft by the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The increasing pressure for government agencies to prosecute these cases, combined with the rise of xenophobic rhetoric by government officials, have incited mass investigations, surveillance, and surges in prosecutions of Asian Americans and Asian immigrant scientists, researchers, and scholars who are targeted for any connection to China — many of which are often ancestral or professionally legitimate. Even when no evidence of economic espionage or criminal activity is found, federal prosecutors are charging many Asian Americans and Asian immigrants with federal crimes based on administrative errors such as making an error on a university form. These mistakes have historically not been treated as crimes until the Trump-era initiative, and raises serious concerns of government overreach.
To be clear, the U.S. government should be concerned with economic espionage and trade secret theft by the PRC. Likewise, the PRC is deserving of criticism for its record against democracy in Hong Kong and human rights. But these geopolitical differences are not appropriate bases to reach overbroad conclusions regarding Chinese or Chinese American scientists, academics or students.
Impact on Asian Americans
The lives of numerous innocent Asian Americans and Asian immigrants have been upended, leaving many with jeopardized careers and long-term trauma. While the persecution against Asian immigrants and Asian Americans is not a novel trend, this latest wave in targeted xenophobia further reinforces the ostracization and “perpetual foreigners” stereotype placed on our communities. Under the pretext of national security, Asian Americans and Asian immigrants have been repeatedly unjustly targeted in our nation’s history. It has been exemplified through injustices like the incarceration of Americans of Japanese descent during World War II and the targeting of Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim, and South Asian (AMEMSA) communities post-9/11. Anti-immigration laws are deeply rooted in strong, historic xenophobia, dating as far back as the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 and continue to manifest in the current spike in hate, violence, and discrimination against our communities during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Professor Feng ‘Franklin’ Tao, a professor who was employed at the University of Kansas, was one of many scientists directly impacted by the “China Initiative.” Professor Tao was charged for allegedly failing to disclose an affiliation with a Chinese university — he was not charged with economic espionage or intellectual property theft of any type. Professor Tao’s life, career, and immediate family have suffered immeasurable consequences as a result of these charges. In support of Professor Tao and to oppose government racial profiling efforts against Asian American scientists and researchers, Advancing Justice | AAJC and Advancing Justice | Asian Law Caucus submitted an amicus brief in United States v. Tao in August 2020.
Unfortunately, the racial profiling and targeting of Asian Americans and Asian immigrants, particularly those working in fields of science, has been an ongoing issue even prior to the launch of the “China Initiative,” with real repercussions on the lives of targeted scientists like Wen Ho Lee, Xiaoxing Xi, Sherry Chen, Wei Su, and their immediate families. This impact has created a chilling effect on our communities, promoting widespread anxiety and a growing mistrust towards law enforcement and the federal government. Professor Xioaxing Xi, a Temple University professor who was falsely accused of spying in 2015 based on accusations that he was sharing blueprints of U.S. technology with Chinese scientists. Although his case was dropped after being proven innocent, Professor Xi remains fearful that his actions will be used against him in the future.
“I am not applying for funding as a sole principal investigator,” Professor Xiaoxing Xi says. “I always try to team up with other scientists . . . so I’m not the person to sign the forms and check those boxes, because I’m scared.”
Professor Xi is not alone. The DOJ’s “China Initiative” and the current environment have discouraged international students from studying STEM fields in the United States, researchers from applying for jobs within universities and the federal government, and those in academia from applying for federal grants and serving as leaders in their field of research.
The Work Ahead
In light of all these unjust actions against our communities, Advancing Justice | AAJC calls on the government to live up to our democratic ideals and uphold our principles. The Anti-Racial Profiling Project seeks to end racial bias, discrimination, and profiling of Asian Americans and immigrants from the federal government, especially as it relates to the scientific and academic community.
What can you do to help?
- Join our week of action to end racial profiling from November 1–5, 2021! Share your story, impact to your local community, and concerns about this issue with your Congress or Senate member. Contact Gisela Kusakawa at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more.
- Sign on to letters, petitions, comments, that help combat racial profiling. You can learn about opportunities to sign on by joining Advancing Justice | AAJC’s listserv.
- Start your own petition or letter to send to your university, federal agencies, or your member of Congress. You can reach out to our staff at Advancing Justice | AAJC if you need further guidance.
- If you are worried that you are being targeted by the federal government due to your ethnicity or race, please get an attorney as soon as possible. Advancing Justice | AAJC can help connect you with an experienced attorney. Please contact Advancing Justice | AAJC at 202–935–6014 using the Signal app with your name, number, and availability.
- Share our legal referral service and Know Your Rights information available here. This can change the lives of many around the country.
- Mobilize your local community and attend trials of impacted persons. We encourage you to attend if you are in the area to show your support. In other parts of the country, please share our social posts on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter and relevant articles.
The road ahead will have its challenges. We will continue to work together, invest in long-term change and build solidarity across all communities to continue the fight for racial justice for all.
John C. Yang is the president and executive director at Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC.