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Racial bias appears in espionage charges

An increasing number of people with Asian names are being charged, but a lower percentage are being convicted, a new analysis shows

by Andrea Widener
September 23, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 35


People with Asian names are increasingly targeted for prosecution under the US Economic Espionage Act, but are convicted less often than their counterparts with Western names, a new analysis says.

Uneven prosecution?
An analysis of individuals charged under the Economic Espionage Act from 1996 to 2020 showed that US citizens with Asian names were less likely to be convicted than those with Western names. When they were convicted, they were more likely to instead be convicted of lesser charges, such as making false statements.
Two pie charts showing that 87% of people with Western names and 67% of people with Asian names were convicted of espionage.
Source: Andrew Chongseh Kim and the Committee of 100, Racial Disparities in Economic Espionage Act Prosecutions: A Window into the New Red Scare, 2021.a Includes 53 defendants with Chinese names and 17 with other Asian names, including Indian names.

The report examines cases of economic espionage brought by the US Department of Justice from 1996 to 2020. The analysis was conducted by lawyer Andrew Chongseh Kim and the Committee of 100, a group of high-profile Chinese Americans.

The report comes as pressure mounts on the DOJ to examine whether the agency has unfairly targeted Asian people, especially as part of its China Initiative. Asian scientists have said they feel singled out by the China Initiative and increasing physical and verbal attacks on Asian people in the US.

“If we want to protect America’s economic interests and fulfill the promise of equality, we need to address the threats against our nation based on facts, not on fear,” Kim, a lawyer at the firm Greenberg Traurig and a visiting scholar at the South Texas College of Law Houston, said at a web event outlining the report.

Kim began analyzing economic espionage prosecutions after hearing about Asian people who were arrested and charged but either had charges dropped, like Temple University physicist Xiaoxing Xi, or were convicted of lesser charges, like lying to investigators, rather than spying. The report assesses cases brought against 276 people.

From 1996 to 2008, only 16% of defendants had Chinese names. That proportion rose to 57% in 2009–16, under President Barack Obama, and was 52% in 2017–20, under President Donald J. Trump. At the same time, prosecutors were less successful at convicting people with Asian names, including Chinese and Indian names. Only 67% of US citizen defendants with Asian names were convicted of espionage, compared with 87% of those with Western names, which included Eastern European, Hispanic, and Latino names.

Defendants with Asian names were treated more severely. People with Asian names were twice as likely as those with Western names to be arrested publicly and handcuffed, and they were more than four times as likely to be denied bail. Of those who were convicted, 75% of defendants with Asian names and 51% with Western names went to prison. Defendants with Asian names also faced longer sentences.

“This unfair, unequal, discriminatory treatment of Chinese Americans, Asian Americans in contrast to people with non-Asian names is absolutely shocking and unacceptable,” says Gary Locke, chairman of the Committee of 100 and a former ambassador to China.

The DOJ did not respond by C&EN’s deadline to a request for comment about the report.



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