The future of the China Initiative

On Tuesday, in a courthouse in Kansas City, the trial of a University of Kansas professor charged with concealing his ties to China began.

Feng Tao, an associate professor of chemistry who goes by Franklin, is the latest researcher to go to trial under the federal government’s China Initiative.

If that sentence tripped you up, it may be because last month the Biden administration said it was shutting down the controversial probe of economic and academic espionage by China. “I have concluded that this initiative is not the right approach,” Matthew Olsen, assistant attorney general for national security, said in an announcement.

Olsen pledged a “broader approach” to safeguarding intellectual property — one that did not single out an individual country and in which research-disclosure failures were likely to be dealt with through administrative or civil sanction, rather than in criminal court. Yet, the conclusion of the China Initiative did not mean the end of pending prosecutions and investigations.

Indeed, Tao’s case isn’t the only one making headlines in recent days. At Yale University, faculty members are upset by the university’s decision to suspend Haifan Lin, a professor of cell biology, who is said to be under investigation as part of the China Initiative. (Yale Daily News has extensive coverage.)

There is a finite number of still-live cases, about a half-dozen, in which academics were formally charged under the Trump-era inquiry. But an unknown number of professors like Lin may still be under investigation as part of the China Initiative. Christopher Wray, the FBI director, has said his agency has opened more than 2,000 cases involving China, although only some involve university researchers.

The potential long tail of the China Initiative means it could continue to cast a cloud over research collaboration with China, particularly by scientists of Chinese or Asian descent. An October 2021 survey by the University of Arizona and the Committee of 100 found that half of Chinese and Chinese American scientists at American research universities reported feeling “considerable fear or anxiety” that they were being “surveilled” by the U.S. government.

Another survey, by the Asian American Scholar Forum, of faculty members who are U.S. citizens or permanent residents of Chinese descent found that nearly two-thirds felt unsafe as academic researchers.

Advocates for Asian and Asian American scientists would like the government to be more transparent about the China Initiative and about continuing scrutiny of research ties with China. The Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus sent a letter last week to the U.S. Department of Justice asking whether officials plan to review current and former cases brought under the China Initiative and whether they would issue a public report. Lawmakers also asked about the department’s plans to put in place anti-bias training. “We recognize the importance of addressing economic espionage and acting as warranted, " the members of Congress wrote, “however we remain concerned that if DOJ does not take additional steps to prevent profiling and misconduct, that Asian Americans will continue to be profiled as these investigations and cases are continued.”

“We fight for intellectual sovereignty”

Russia’s initial early-morning attack on Ukraine was barely an hour old when Tymofiy Mylovanov, president of the Kyiv School of Economics, and other top administrators carried out the university’s emergency national-security protocols.

Classes were canceled, and students and faculty members were urged to find safety. The campus was locked down. Measures were put in place to ensure continuity of academic and financial operations.

Less than three weeks after the attacks began, the university restarted classes online for its undergraduate students. Despite a harrowing experience for many — Mylovanov said Russian soldiers had held one of his students and her family in a basement without food or water — 60 percent of students showed up for classes. All students have been accounted for.

Mylovanov spoke with me on Friday from a town in central Ukraine where he and his family had gone for safety. Why was it so important, I wanted to know, to keep education going in the midst of a war zone?

It was a matter of perservance and pride, Mylovanov, who is also an associate professor of economics at the University of Pittsburgh, said.

The Kyiv School of Economics has managed to continue to pay faculty and staff members. Its fund-raising arm was quickly converted to humanitarian purposes and has helped raise million of dollars for medical kits and other safety equipment. And researchers have been working on a number of Ukrainian government projects related to the war effort, including on sanctions design and monitoring, the wartime economy, and reconstruction. (Mylovanov is a former minister of economic development, trade, and agriculture for Ukraine.)

The university has also organized a series of virtual discussions with public intellectuals like Paul Krugman, the New York Times columnist and Nobel laureate, and the essayist Nassim Nicholas Talib in support of Ukraine. (Mylovanov’s dream get: Michelle Obama.)

Cultural and scientific diplomacy is important, he said. “Universities are the places where people discuss ideas, different views, not just for the purpose of discussion itself but for the end goal to try to understand and comprehend what’s happening with the world and with society.”

Mylovanov hopes to work with colleges around the world to support Ukrainian students and scholars. While some institutions are offering temporary positions, he also wants to develop programs to support researchers who remain in Ukraine, particularly because Ukrainian men are not permitted to leave the country. It’s important to find solutions that don’t spark brain drain, Mylovanov said.

“We fight for sovereignty, but we also fight for intellectual sovereignty.”

More on higher ed and the conflict in Ukraine

The Russian government is barring scientists from participating in international academic conferences and will stop indexing their publications in international databases, further isolating Russian academe from the global scholarly community.

In a speech to Russian university rectors, Valery Falkov, minister of science and higher education, said the suspension would be for a year. “We need to proceed from our national interests,” he said.

Falkov clarified that the temporary moratorium would not prohibit Russian scientists from publishing on top Western platforms. However, it would remove an incentive for them to do so.

The announcement comes as universities and academic associations in the United States and elsewhere grapple with whether to cut ties with Russia higher ed.

In other news:

  • The Biden administration has approved temporary protected status for Ukrainians in the United States, preventing them from being deported.
  • MIT broke off ties with a research university it helped start in Russia, but Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology’s American provost isn’t leaving.
  • The Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies has started a program to help digitally preserve Ukrainian archives and research.
  • Tell me: As the fighting in Ukraine plays out nightly on cable news, I’m curious how you are teaching about the conflict. I’m interested in hearing from faculty members whose courses focus on the history or politics of the region, of course, but I’d also love to hear about how professors are integrating these current events into a wide range of subjects. Email me at, and you could be highlighted in my next newsletter.

Around the globe

A group of Chinese students at Cornell University walked out of an event after a Uyghur student spoke out about her brother’s detention. Check out a recent Q&A I did on the issue of international students and campus speech.

U.S. House and Senate negotiators are likely to begin meeting later this week to hammer out a final bill to bolster America’s global competitiveness in science and research. Catch up here and here on the implications of the legislation for international education and global research.

Sen. Marco Rubio sent a letter to Florida college presidents “urging them to be on guard against efforts by the Chinese Communist Party to use research collaboration and education exchange with American academic institutions to advance their malign agenda,” his office announced.

Eight in 10 international students would recommend studying in the United States, but fewer than half think the value of an American education justifies the cost from a career perspective, according to a new survey.

Money from Chinese students makes up about 6 percent of British universities’ total income, or £2.5 billion of the £7 billion in annual student-tuition fees.

The Canadian Federation of Students wants the government to waive work limits for international students as inflation hits a 30-year high.

Israel will decide which foreign lecturers can teach at universities in the West Bank under new rules from the Ministry of Defense.

Universities across Shanghai have gone into lockdown as China deals with a Covid resurgence.

“When I left China for the U.S., the decision was personal. It was not Beijing’s loss or Washington’s gain.” Guys, read Yangyang Cheng in Wired on nationalism and science.

Brown University is starting an experiential learning program in which students complete a six-month intensive internship program in Berlin or in locations in the United States, part of an effort to increase its undergraduate class size.

And finally...

For the field of international education, Covid-19’s impact has been deep and profound. With planes grounded and borders locked down, the worldwide public-health crisis stopped global academic mobility in its tracks for many months. Overseas programs were planned only to be canceled. International students were recruited yet couldn’t make it to campus. The very purpose and objective that guides international educators’ work was suspended, suddenly and indefinitely.

I took a very personal look at how Covid-19 challenged, and changed, a profession.

Thanks for reading. I always welcome your feedback and ideas for future reporting, so drop me a line at You can also connect with me on Twitter or LinkedIn. If you like this newsletter, please share it with colleagues and friends. They can sign up here.