FBI director defends investigations of Chinese academics in front of university audience

Speaking at the University of Michigan, Wray also said Chinese Americans are "in the crosshairs of the Chinese government," which tries to recruit them.

FBI Director Christopher Wray speaks at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich., on Friday. Carlos Osorio / AP
SHARE THIS —

Speaking at one of America’s leading public universities, FBI Director Christopher Wray offered a full-throated defense Friday of the Justice Department’s efforts to investigate and prosecute academic fraud linked to China, saying that there is no “more serious, more persistent threat to our innovation, our ideas and our economic security than the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese government.”

Wray’s stark description of what he views as a top national security threat from China was not new, but the context was notable. Speaking to students and professors at the University of Michigan, he was answering pointed questions by a Chinese American political scientist, who asked him about a series of cases under the Justice Department’s now-abandoned “China Initiative” that had collapsed in court.

Ann Chih Lin, director of the Lieberthal-Rogel Center for Chinese Studies at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, pointed to some of those legal setbacks as she asked Wray to respond to critics who accuse the FBI “of presuming that routine academic engagement with scientific colleagues in China is evidence of a crime, or of mistaking university-sponsored collaborations and grants for money that is illicitly going into scientists’ pockets.”

Wray’s response included some of his most expansive remarks to date about FBI efforts involving American universities and China. In February, the Justice Department announced that it was abandoning the so-called China Initiative, an effort to investigate and prosecute U.S.-based professors suspected of sharing research with Chinese universities linked to the government. But Wray said the FBI continues to be concerned about Chinese government “talent programs” that sometimes pay American professors through secret relationships.

“We do not base our cases on race, ethnicity or national origin, and we haven’t,” Wray said.

Wray added that “the Chinese government, the Chinese Communist Party, is engaged in what it considers an international talent war to try to leverage and steal intellectual property and sensitive research and data from countries all over the world. … And so it’s part of our responsibility to work with universities to try to help protect that information.”

It’s important to understand hidden relationships U.S.-based academics and researchers may have with Chinese universities, Wray said, especially if the academics are conducting research funded by American taxpayers.

“I think it’s appropriate for universities and the U.S. government to make sure that there’s transparency with the university and the relevant grant-making agencies to understand what kind of relationships exist between the scholar and the Chinese government,” he said, which has “a very different objective in the way it sees the world, including suppression of human rights, including theft of intellectual property, including military dominance.”

Wray added that the FBI is not impugning the patriotism of Chinese Americans and views them as allies in its work, noting that the bureau has investigated a host of cases in which Chinese government agents are alleged to have targeted Chinese Americans or Chinese citizens living in the U.S. who have run afoul of the Communist Party.

Wray, who rarely takes questions in public from journalists, was pressed by Lin to defend his statement that “the Chinese government is engaged in a whole of society effort to steal from the United States.”

“You’ve asked that the United States engage in a similar whole of society effort to combat China,” she said. “At the same time, you also stated, as you’ve just done, that this effort isn’t about the Chinese people or Chinese Americans. But of course, Chinese Americans are part of the U.S. society that you believe needs to be mobilized against China. So what advice do you have for Chinese Americans like myself, who hope to be able to bridge the differences between our two countries, but instead find themselves caught in the middle, subject to accusations of disloyalty … or to incidents even of anti-Asian hate?”

Wray answered by noting that he only used the “whole of society” phrase once, early in his tenure. He also returned to talking about Chinese government operations that have targeted Chinese Americans.

“So, us at the FBI, we don’t view that as a middle,” he said. “We view Chinese Americans here as being with us. And that’s why I highlight these cases, in particular the transnational repression cases, because to me, they in a very poignant way illustrate the degree to which Chinese Americans here are not in the middle, but in the crosshairs of the Chinese government. And we need to work with them.”

In a telephone interview after the event, Lin told NBC News she appreciated Wray’s thoughtful answers, particularly when he stressed that the FBI’s national security concerns were directed at the Chinese government, not the Chinese people or Chinese Americans.

But she said she would have liked to see Wray acknowledge the extent to which many prosecutions of Chinese academics collapsed. She added that she believes the FBI has overstated the threat of technology transfer in an academic setting in which research is usually published for all the world to see.

“If you are consistently being overturned, that should lead you to ask whether you have an incorrect understanding of the facts, or are drawing incorrect implications from the facts,” she said.

In his remarks, Wray said that the Justice Department’s losses in court are a testament to the U.S. justice system.

“I respect the decisions of juries and judges that have found against us, just as I trust others to respect the juries and judges that have found for us in those cases where it’s gone the other way,” he said. “The fact that we sometimes lose cases actually speaks volumes about the integrity and independence of our justice system. I actually think it’s a mark in our favor as a country that the government loses cases. I’d be willing to bet you that our counterparts over in China don’t lose very many cases, and it ain’t because they’re better than we are. So there is a stark illustration of the differences between the two systems.”