Forum in Houston advises Asian Americans on FBI questioning

World Today

Economic espionage: it’s defined as the theft of trade secrets carried out to benefit foreign countries. In March, the U.S. Trade Representative claimed that Chinese theft of American intellectual property costs the country between $225 and $600 million each year.

Even so, one study has found that Asians in America may be unfairly targeted by economic espionage investigations.

CGTN’s Hendrik Sybrandy filed this report.

Gordon Quan still remembers a U.S. FBI agent calling him several years ago. The agent wanted to meet Quan at his house.

“They’d been monitoring the Chinese consulate in town and had seen my car there many times,” Quan said.

The immigration attorney was asked if he’d ever shared information with the Chinese government. He said no.

“To have my loyalty imputed was kind of very upsetting to me, thinking just because I’m Chinese, doesn’t mean I’m not all American.” Quan explained.

At a forum in Houston, more than 100 Asian American scientists and academics were advised on how to avoid U.S. government suspicion, and how to comply with laws against the theft of American trade secrets.

“These laws can really take somebody down and do bitter, bitter damage to careers, to families,” International Business Attorney Nelson Dong said. “People can go to prison, and they don’t fool around.”

The number of Chinese scientists working in research and academic institutions, like the University of Houston, has gone up dramatically in recent years. Economic espionage investigations have also become more of a priority.

A study published last year by the group Committee of 100 found that of those charged under the U.S. Economic Espionage Act between 2009 and 2015:

  • 62-percent of defendants were Asian (mostly Chinese)
  • Average sentences for Asian defendants were twice as long as those for defendants with Western names
  • As many as one in five Asians prosecuted as spies were likely innocent

Andrew Kim, who conducted the study, thinks it’s preconceived images of spies as Chinese, rather than outright racial profiling, that explains some of the findings.

“There’s been people who have gone to jail over these issues, many of them guilty, and many of them rightfully so, but there’s also innocent people that are being caught up in the cross-hairs,” Kim said.

FBI special agent Michael Morgan, who did not want to be shown speaking at the forum, told the audience his agency bases investigations on specific threats, and doesn’t focus on ethnicity.

Attorney Kent Schaffer believes researchers in the U.S. should thoroughly vet those they collaborate with in places like China.

“They work for a company over there. Unbeknownst to the scientists here, that company is owned by the Chinese government,” Schaffer said.

Some advice from the forum:

  • Work closely with your university’s compliance manager
  • Consult a lawyer, if need be
  • Don’t lie to the FBI

“They need to make sure that they’re following not just the spirit, but the letter of every regulation that their research institution provides, and absolutely make sure that you’re following the letter of the federal law,” Kim advised.

Quan said this is serious business, and knows from experience. 

“Whenever the government comes knocking, it’s not a good visit,” Quan warned.