The first jury trial of a university professor tried as part of the Department of Justice’s controversial China Initiative ended in a hung jury and a mistrial Wednesday, prompting renewed calls for the department to suspend the initiative and investigate concerns about racial profiling and targeting of Asian American and Asian immigrant scientists.
Anming Hu, a former associate professor in the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, potentially faced decades in prison on three counts each of wire fraud and making false statements.
Federal prosecutors accused Hu of deliberately concealing a professorship he held with Beijing University of Technology on forms submitted to UT Knoxville and to NASA.
NASA is prohibited by law from funding bilateral Chinese collaborations, and researchers seeking NASA grants have to agree not to “participate, collaborate, or coordinate bilaterally with China or any Chinese-owned company.”
It is unclear if the federal government will attempt to try Hu a second time. A spokesperson for the Department of Justice said Thursday that prosecutors “are evaluating our options but at this point have nothing further to share.”
Hu, a Canadian citizen originally from China, is one of about a dozen university-based researchers who have faced fraud-related charges for allegedly lying about Chinese funding or affiliations on federal grant applications, visa applications or tax forms under the auspices of DOJ's China Initiative.
While the initiative, launched in November 2018 during the Trump administration, was framed as targeting economic espionage, hacking and trade secret theft, none of the cases brought against academics have involved spying-related charges. All involve allegations of fraud related to nondisclosure of Chinese sources of funding or affiliations with Chinese universities or the Chinese military.
Three cases involving academics have resulted in guilty pleas, but Hu’s was the first to go before a jury.
The Knoxville News Sentinel reported that FBI Agent Kujtim Sadiku admitted in testimony during the trial that federal agents had falsely accused Hu of being a Chinese spy, falsely implicated him as an operative for the Chinse military in meetings with his bosses and used false information to put Hu on a no-fly list, to justify assigning a team of agents to surveil Hu and his son, and to pressure Hu to spy for the U.S. government.
The News Sentinel subsequently reported in its coverage of the trial that “prosecutors shrugged off the false spy claims made by the FBI in the case … instead focusing on what they say is a clear case of fraud.”
The Wall Street Journal reported that Hu said he made less than $5,000 over several years from his China-related work.
According to the Journal, Hu testified that he didn’t deliberately try to hide his China-related work, that he answered all questions about it and that he was confused by what the university wanted him to report.
Court documents submitted by Hu’s attorney cite an email from a UT grant administrator who said the university did not believe NASA’s restrictions on Chinese funding applied to students, faculty or staff.
A spokesperson for UT Knoxville declined to comment, saying that "any discussion by the university about information related to the case would be inappropriate at this time."
Hu’s attorney filed a motion last week seeking dismissal of the case, arguing that the NASA restriction on Chinese collaborations he is accused of violating is “excessively confusing.”
The government opposed the motion to dismiss, which is still pending, citing an earlier opinion in the case holding that “whether [the] defendant understood the [NASA China Funding Restriction] is not an essential element that the government must prove as to the wire fraud charges in this case.”
Hu’s attorney, Philip Lomonaco, did not return email and phone messages seeking comment Thursday.
Three Democratic members of Congress – Ted W. Lieu, of California, Mondaire Jones, of New York, and Pramila Jayapal, of Washington State – wrote to the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General Thursday asking it to investigate whether FBI agents made false claims or used false information against Hu and to look into whether racial profiling occurred. Among the questions they’re asking the department to investigate is whether there was “an adequate non-racial or non-ethnic factual predicate to open this investigation.”
Asian Americans Advancing Justice, a nonprofit advocacy group, on Thursday called for the case against Hu to be dismissed and for the China Initiative to be ended.
“The trauma that Dr. Hu, his wife, and children have faced are reflective of the deep scars inflicted on our Asian American and immigrant communities,” John C. Yang, president and executive director of the group, said in a written statement. “Many, like Dr. Hu, potentially face decades in prison for administrative mistakes on a university or administrative form stemming from unclear direction from their universities or reversal on collaborations previously encouraged with international institutions. The ‘China Initiative’ unjustly criminalizes these mistakes. There must be an end to the racial profiling and criminalization of our Asian American and immigrant communities and an end to the ‘China Initiative.’”
Frank Wu, president of Queens College in New York and the former president of the Committee of 100, an organization of Chinese American leaders, described the hung jury as a “vindication not just for the defendant but for a community. It’s something some of us have been trying to say for a long time that nobody paid attention to. What we were trying to say is these were never espionage cases to begin with.”
Wu also called for the government not to attempt to try the case again.
“Did we make America a better place by ruining this guy’s life?” he asked. “If hundreds of immigrant scientists decide this isn’t the place for them and their families, is our future improved or worsened?”