The FBI’s China Obsession

by Omar Fili

Author: Mara Hvistendahl

Affiliation: NM

Organization/Publisher: The Intercept

Date/Place: Feb, 2, 2020/U.S.

Type of Literature: Article            

Word Count: 5435


Keywords: FBI, Surveillance, Institutional Racism, Economic espionage.



The FBI Cold War program titled “Chinese Communist Contacts with Scientists in the U.S.” has targeted scientists and scholars. Ethnic Chinese researchers and students, including US citizens, were singled out due to the logic that technological advancements in China were a result of theft, and that scientists with immigrant backgrounds were part of this. The bias continues operating today, with accusations of economic espionage and lawsuits skyrocketing under Trump’s mandate; the similarities between Hoover’s suspicion-driven surveillance and now are eerily the same. The program started in the 50’s when the FBI scrutinized the loyalty of Tsien Hsue-Shen, a respected researcher who worked on classified government projects; after such scrutiny led the U.S. military to revoke his security clearance, Tsien Hsue-Shen (who prior showed little interest in aiding China) was forced to go to China because the FBI made it impossible for him to do serious work in the United States.  He subsequently aided China in testing its nuclear weapons. Instead of learning the lesson that unjustified suspicion and career-ending surveillance can create unnecessary problems, Hoover’s FBI instead used this to justify escalated surveillance and propelled the program of surveilling Chinese scientists. The fear of collusion between China and its nationals in the US has led the FBI to compile lists of researchers and students that fall into their criteria, and even attempting to recruit Chinese researchers as double agents. The program was an attempt to either surveil or use Chinese researchers and students in the US; though the program was scrapped in the late 70s, it still went on in some way or another as in the case of many others including Chang-Lin Tien, a mechanical engineer at UC Berkeley. Former FBI agent Michael German compares the surveillance of such researchers, who were the victims of stereotyping and institutional racism, with the FBI’s current tendency in counterterrorism work to blur “important distinctions” and thereby create bias. 


By: Omar Fili, CIGA Research Intern

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