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Convictions for a US chemical engineer accused of concealing links to China were overturned.

September 23, 20225 Mins Read

US chemical engineer | A further setback for the old China Initiative programme of the US government comes with the judge’s acquittal of Feng “Franklin” Tao on three of the four accusations.

Three of the four verdicts that a jury in April gave to American chemical engineer Feng “Franklin” Tao were overturned by a federal court. Tao, who is away from the University of Kansas (KU) in Lawrence on an unpaid leave, was charged with concealing links to China. He is believed to be the first academic researcher detained under the contentious

US government programme known as the China Initiative, which ran from 2018 to 2022 and attempted to defend US businesses and laboratories from economic espionage.

The US Department of Justice (DoJ) has repeatedly failed to establish solid convictions under the China Initiative, and this reversal might usher in a new era for US scientists of Chinese descent who have been concerned about government surveillance since the program’s inception.

One of Tao’s attorneys, Peter Zeidenberg, of the Washington, DC, firm ArentFox Schiff, said in a statement to Nature that he is “very happy” by the decision. This should put a final spike through the cases involving the China Initiative, he said.

inadequate evidence

Tao was charged in August 2019 for failing to declare his employment at China’s Fuzhou University (FZU) on a KU conflict-of-interest form. He was also charged by the DoJ for failing to disclose his ties to China while getting funds from the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation. US chemical engineer Tao was charged with eight different offences by the prosecution.

Four of the accusations were dismissed by the jury after a two-week trial that ended on April 7; nevertheless, Tao was found guilty on three counts of wire fraud and one count of making a false statement. Wire fraud is financial fraud carried out through information and communication technologies. However, US district judge Julie Robinson did not set a sentencing date and instead asked for a briefing on the government’s case.

Robinson overturned the wire fraud convictions on September 19 after determining that the DoJ’s proof was “legally and factually inadequate” to sustain them. She did, however, uphold Tao’s conviction for failing to disclose his position at FZU on the KU conflict-of-interest form.

In her ruling, Robinson stated that although Tao was dishonest in failing to disclose his actions at FZU, there was “no evidence that Tao received money or property via the alleged plot to deceive,” which is necessary for an act to qualify as wire fraud.

Tao is still awaiting sentence, which Zeidenberg predicts will happen in January. Tao and his legal counsel will then determine whether to file an appeal or not.

The head of KU’s news and media relations, Erinn Barcomb-Peterson, declined to respond to a question from Nature on whether the school would return Tao to its faculty. We are unable to speak further on this topic since it is a current criminal and personnel concern, she said in a statement.

reduced punishments and acquittals

Academics and advocates for civil liberties have applauded the decision, pointing out that Tao’s case is another another illustration of how allegations made against academic researchers as part of the China Initiative have failed because they were unfounded.

Mathematician Mingqing Xiao was accused by the Department of Justice of submitting false tax returns and failing to disclose a foreign bank account. Staci Yandle, a judge for the Southern District of Illinois, denied the DoJ’s plea to sentence Xiao to jail earlier this week. Yandle instead gave Xiao a probationary period of a year and a US$600 punishment.

(In May, a jury had convicted Xiao guilty of the bank account and tax crimes but not guilty of lying on a grant application about his connections to Chinese entities.)At Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Xiao is on vacation.

Anming Hu, a nanotechnology researcher at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville who was suspected of concealing links to China and placed under house arrest for more than a year, was declared innocent of all accusations against him in September of last year after a mistrial.

Research partnerships and geopolitics expert Jenny Lee from the University of Arizona in Tucson has requested the DoJ to drop cases like Tao’s because they lack sufficient proof. She claims that they are a waste of government dollars and have destroyed careers in addition to having a chilling impact on the scientific community.

The cases are “flawed,” according to Frank Wu, a legal expert on the China Initiative and president of Queens College at the City University of New York.

The China Initiative was terminated by the DoJ in February due to concerns that it seemed to be prejudiced towards persons of Chinese heritage and that it threatened international research collaboration. US chemical engineer The organisation replaced it with a more comprehensive strategy known as the Strategy for Countering Nation-State Threats in order to monitor the actions of more nations, such as Russia, Iran, and North Korea.

According to Lee, the government need to compensate the innocent individuals whose lives have been completely upended by the China Initiative. When Nature contacted the DoJ for comment, no response had been received by the time this article was published.

Mechanical engineer Gang Chen of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge said, “It greatly pains me to know that Feng Tao and his family endured so much.” Chen was detained in January 2021 under the China Initiative, but the DoJ withdrew the charges in January of this year.

According to Chen, “We need to hold our government accountable, cease these unfair prosecutions, and reestablish confidence among the Asian American community, starting with apologising to the many affected scientists and families whose lives have been devastated.”

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