FBI Is 'Harassing' Some Chinese Citizens Says Academic Group

Aug 26, 2019

The FBI is "intimidating or harassing" some Chinese citizens who work and teach at the University of Cincinnati. That's the claim by the executive director of the local American Association of University Professors chapter. Eric Palmer says at least three UC faculty members have been contacted by the FBI in the last year.

He did not reveal the identities of the three, citing privacy concerns.

Palmer says it's his understanding the agents are looking into connections to China's Thousand Talents program. That, he says, is a Chinese initiative to encourage its citizens to go abroad to gain research knowledge in the STEM fields.

"The means in which they're questioning these individuals has been intimidating or harassing; showing up at either their workplace or their homes," Palmer says. "My understanding is that some of the faculty members have been asked to turn over information about other Chinese national faculty members with at least an implicit threat that if they don't, they will be investigated further."

A spokesman for the FBI office in Cincinnati says they do not typically confirm specific interviews. Todd Lindgren says in an email, "FBI Special Agents conduct voluntary interviews with members of the public on a daily basis in order to better understand and protect the community." In June, NPR reported on similar interviews at other universities around the country.

"It's the AAUP national's perspective that this is an interference by the government with academic freedom principals … and it also can interfere with the independence of public universities' abilities to oversee these issues themselves," Palmer says.

"It's not that the AAUP or anybody is trying to condone attempts by foreign governments to steal research information from American universities," Palmer says. "But we can't do so by using these same scare and authoritarian tactics that the foreign governments that we're criticizing use themselves."

Palmer says instead of assuming Chinese scholars are trying to steal intellectual property, the FBI should see if there's credible information pointing to individuals and investigate on that basis.