In May, two Emory University professors, Shihua and Xiao-Jiang Li, were terminated by Emory University for allegedly failing to disclose sources of research funding and the extent of their work for research institutions in China. The Lis maintain that all funding had been fully disclosed, as it had been over the course of their tenure.
The two professors, who are married to one another, taught at Emory for 23 years, where they operated a joint lab in the Department of Human Genetics researching Huntington’s disease. They were dismissed without notice or the opportunity to respond to the accusations. Emory shut down the lab and told the four Chinese postdoctoral researchers in the lab to leave the United States within 30 days. Later, Emory cited a letter from the National Institute of Health as reason for the investigation and dismissals.
The Lis aren’t the only Chinese biomedical scientists who have been terminated this year due to NIH-prompted investigations. To date there have been terminations of at least five Chinese and Chinese American biomedical researchers, though the NIH has stated that not all terminations or inquiries have been disclosed, and many are ongoing. In August 2018, NIH Director Francis Collins issued a letter to over 10,000 research institutions warning of alleged threats to the integrity of U.S. biomedical research.
Such threats include failure by researchers to disclose funding from other organizations, including foreign governments, which “threatens to distort decisions about the appropriate use of NIH funds.” Though the letter references threats related to “foreign governments” in general, the NIH has sent out many calls for universities to investigate Chinese researchers in particular.
Matthew Woodruff, an Emory researcher, told Liberation News, “It seems convenient to crack down on Chinese research lab during a trade war with China. But if there’s legitimate concern about misappropriation of funds, then the university’s actions seem fitting, though selective application happens all the time.”
Some Chinese and Chinese American scientist organizations have denounced the investigations. This March, two months before the Lis were terminated, a joint letter was released by the Society of Chinese Bioscientists in America, the Chinese American Hematologist and Oncologist Network, and the Chinese Biological Investigators Society.
The letter addressed the NIH-driven investigations, stating, “It is our sincere hope that these actions, which we believe amount to racial profiling, will stop immediately and that increased security measures will not be used to tarnish law-abiding scientists and limit normal and productive scientific exchanges.”
Four Chinese researchers at Baylor College of Medicine confirmed that they were also under NIH investigation, while three other Chinese researchers at another prominent university confirmed they had received an inquiry but chose to remain anonymous.
Others terminated include three senior researchers at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, who, according to a New York Times article, were accused of “working with government sponsorship to exfiltrate intellectual property that has been created with the support of U.S. taxpayers, private donors and industry collaborators.”
One researcher in the Keqiang Ye lab at Emory University told Liberation News, “Students in my lab were afraid, or not sure what it was that was wrong. If our lab could also do something that would accidentally result in mistakes that could get us shut down. Because a lot of our students also came from a Chinese exchange program.”
Another Emory researcher in the graduate division of biological and biomedical sciences shared with Liberation News, “If you’re a student and your lab gets shut down, you’re kind of screwed. That’s all of your graduate work, your job. It would be hard to start over.”
Students’ fears aren’t unfounded, since this year the U.S. government has increasingly canceled and delayed hundreds of student visas for Chinese students, again in the interest of “national security.”
The NIH’s decision to carry out this wave of investigations and dismissals of Chinese researchers seems to be following the State Department’s trend of anti-China sentiment. In February 2018, FBI director Christopher Wray was asked about “the counterintelligence risk posed to U.S. national security from Chinese students,” to which he responded, “I think in this setting I would just say that the use of nontraditional collectors, especially in the academic setting, whether it’s professors, scientists, students, we see in almost every field office that the FBI has around the country… So one of the things we’re trying to do is view the China threat as not just a whole-of-government threat but a whole-of-society threat on their end, and I think it’s going to take a whole-of-society response by us. So it’s not just the intelligence community, but it’s raising awareness within our academic sector, within our private sector, as part of the defense.” (Inside Higher Ed)
Ultimately, Wray’s claim that Chinese professors, scientists, and students pose a “whole-of-society” threat to the United States is racist, unfounded, and a throwback to 20th century Yellow Peril propaganda. Unfortunately this propaganda has continued to gain momentum in government as well as popular media.
In December 2018, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that China is the greatest threat to the West. “Over the five, ten, twenty-five year time horizon, just by simple demographics and wealth, as well as by the internal system in that country, China presents the greatest challenge that the United States will face in the medium to long term.” (RealClearPolitics.com)
In contrast, Brian Perez-Canto, an activist with the Party for Socialism and Liberation, explained to Liberation News, “While the State Department continues to frame China as a threat to U.S. security, we recognize that what China actually ‘threatens’ is U.S. dominance on the international stage.”
Perez-Canto added, “Additionally, the NIH’s actions are an example of how for-profit healthcare inhibits advancements in medical research. It is unethical to have intellectual property rights on research that can be used to improve the people’s health all over the world. The medical community has long relied on international collaboration to advance its research and technology.”
As of November 2019, Emory has still not released evidence of the professors’ alleged failure in reporting funding. “The firings are unjust if the evidence is not provided,” one Emory student told Liberation News.
When asked if they felt that the Lis presented a threat on campus, another student told Liberation News, “A real threat is something that prevents us from learning, or researchers from researching diseases.”