The Chinese military’s retaliation against U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan last month included missiles launched around (and over) Taiwan. But in an odd twist of fate, the very Chinese missiles that threaten Taiwanese and American security are the legacy of the U.S. government’s profiling and deportation of a Chinese scientist. Nearly 70 years ago, in 1955, the U.S. government expelled Qian Xuesen (钱学森), the world’s foremost expert on jet propulsion at the time, and a Manhattan Project scientist, to China over anti-Asian prejudice. Qian went on to revolutionize China’s ballistic missile program, and is memorialized as the “father of Chinese rocketry.”

Today, the U.S. government continues to repeat the same mistakes it made in the 1950s with serious national security implications. But it is not too late this time around. The U.S. Department of Justice should take the opportunity to acknowledge that anti-Asian racial bias exists and comprehensively detail how law enforcement agencies and the Intelligence Community will prevent anti-Asian racial discrimination. Those steps are key, particularly as U.S.-China geopolitical tensions escalate.

Deporting a World-Class Scientist

In 1935, Qian Xuesen received a U.S. government scholarship to study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the California Institute of Technology. He soon became a prominent aeronautical engineer and, during World War II, supported the Allied effort by devising a range of missiles to counter German rockets. He even joined the Manhattan Project, which developed the first atomic bomb. In the late 1940s, Qian helped launch the U.S. space program and, eventually, applied for U.S. citizenship.

But the McCarthy era turned Qian’s life upside down. As Iris Chang describes in “Thread of the Silkworm,” the U.S. government accused Qian of being a Communist Party member without clear evidence as the zeitgeist of suspicion sweeping the nation “turned to scientists who were Chinese nationals studying at American universities.”

U.S. law enforcement held Qian under house arrest for five years. He felt betrayed and humiliated by the country he called home and which he admirably served. Eventually, in 1955, the U.S. government exchanged Qian for the repatriation of American pilots captured in the Korean War. Former U.S. Navy Secretary Dan Kimball called Qian’s treatment, “the stupidest thing this country ever did.”

In China, Qian received a hero’s welcome. He quickly founded and developed the “Dongfeng” (东风), or “East Wind,” missile program. Since Qian’s return, China’s military capabilities have greatly expanded. Michèle Flournoy, the former U.S. under secretary of defense for policy, assesses that Beijing can prevent U.S. forces from “projecting military power into East Asia to defend its interests or allies.”

Central to China’s national defense is its modernization of the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF). Qian’s legacy – and the Dongfeng missiles he pioneered – both lie at the heart of China’s effort to bolster its “strategic deterrence” capabilities, according to a 2021 U.S. Department of Defense report. Yet, the consequences of the U.S. government’s decision to deport Qian, most recently on display in the hypersonic missiles that streaked above Taiwan, remain largely unknown or unacknowledged by U.S. policymakers.

Repeating the Same Mistakes

The specter that the U.S. government will scrutinize researchers and officials of Asian ancestry has not dissipated in the 72 years since the Immigration and Naturalization Service confined Qian to house arrest.

In November 2018, the Department of Justice created the “China Initiative” to combat Chinese espionage. Among its goals, the program aimed to develop an enforcement strategy for university lab researchers “that are being coopted into transferring technology contrary to U.S. interests,” and sought to “educate” universities about “potential threats to academic freedom and open discourse from influence efforts on campus.” But the China Initiative has overwhelmingly targeted Chinese and Chinese American scientists: 88 percent of defendants in cases brought by the DOJ are of Chinese heritage. This overrepresentation may have some valid justification if the cases had actually led to high conviction rates, but only 25 percent of defendants met that outcome. Instead, most charges were “administrative violations” — minor infractions historically “handled at the university level” — and not malicious espionage on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party.

For example, earlier this year, the DOJ dropped all charges against MIT professor Gang Chen over lack of evidence of espionage. His case is not unique. The DOJ similarly charged University of Tennessee professor Anming Hu who was acquitted after federal agents admitted that they falsely implicated him as a Chinese spy and used false information to add him on the federal “no-fly” list.

Although the DOJ rebranded the “China Initiative as the “Strategy for Countering Nation-State Threats” in February (expanding the program to include Russia, Iran, and North Korea), its legacy remains. As APA Justice, a non-partisan organization that challenges the racial profiling of Asian American communities, explained: “Despite the official termination of the program, the impact is still palpable, especially among Asian immigrant and Asian American academic communities.”

Recent reports further confirm this sentiment, and the data should raise alarm. A 2021 joint study between the University of Arizona and Committee of 100 found that 51 percent of scientists of Chinese descent fear U.S. government surveillance (as compared to 12 percent of scientists of non-Chinese ancestry). This is probably undercounting as many researchers suspected that this survey was a surveillance ploy that the FBI would use to trap scientists under the China Initiative. Regardless of the precise numbers, scientists who live and work in the U.S. have already withdrawn “from opportunities to engage with their counterparts abroad,” according to the American Physical Society. As MIT professor Yasheng Huang states: “That’s bad for science, and that’s bad for America.”

In May, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) made two recommendations to address these concerns. First, the ODNI committed to eliminate “unlawful racial animus or bias” from security clearance processes. This is a welcome change and might be expanded to also monitor racial bias in related fields, like assignment restrictions. Second, the ODNI recommended training on “long-standing non-discrimination principles.” This appears inadequate since “unconscious bias” training lacks efficacy: it can “activate bias rather than stamp it out,” especially against people of Asian descent.

Significantly, the DOJ has provided no accountability for the China Initiative to set a precedent that racial profiling is unacceptable. While Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen “concluded that this initiative is not the right approach,” the DOJ should go further.

  • First, it should publicly acknowledge the harm the China Initiative wrought on individuals and institutions without substantive evidence. This would go a long way toward rebuilding trust the DOJ has lost. As Olsen maintains, the DOJ “can impair our national security by alienating us from the people we serve, including the very communities the [Chinese] government targets as victims.”
  • Second, the DOJ should provide more details into how the National Security Division (NSD) will implement the Strategy for Countering Nation-State Threats program. What are the new criteria to determine whether criminal prosecutions are warranted? How will NSD review ongoing cases for racial animus? How will NSD evaluate if racial bias persists? How will NSD continue to collaborate with civil rights organizations, academia, and Asian American community groups? These are crucial questions, and providing these details would underscore the DOJ’s commitment to prevent racial discrimination and rebuild trust, especially within Asian and Asian American communities.

For the U.S. government, confronting anti-Asian discrimination is a moral imperative: racial profiling is unethical and has violent consequences. Yet, it is also a security imperative. Beijing, of course, engages in espionage; however, presuming that individuals are Chinese spies simply because of their ancestry is a harmful counter-espionage strategy that undermines U.S. national security.

Nearly seven decades ago, the U.S. government deported a scientist whose prowess and legacy now define the modern Chinese missile program. The Dongfeng missiles that recently landed around Taiwan should serve as stark reminders, especially for U.S. officials in law enforcement and the Intelligence Community, that racial discrimination and disregard for civil liberties are detrimental to U.S. national security. As geopolitical tensions between the U.S. and China continue to escalate, the U.S. government should commit to combating anti-Asian racial discrimination or risk repeating its past mistakes.

IMAGE: People view the Dongfeng 1 missile at the Military Museum of Chinese People’s Revolution on March 1, 2008 in Beijing, China. (Photo by China Photos/Getty Images)