A big settlement for one Chinese-American scientist won’t end wrongful prosecutions

Chen declined an interview request from MIT Technology Review, but said through his lawyer that he is “currently considering [her] next steps.” But her friend Gang Chen, an MIT scientist who has also been wrongfully accused of spying for China (and is not related to Sherry Chen), tells us she feels her pain.

“Despite the victory, it’s important to remember that this was a decade of Sherry’s life,” says Gang Chen. “I reflect on the years that so many have lost, myself included, and the trauma that remains for those directly affected and their families. Victories, such as this, alone do not fully compensate for what has been lost.”

Second, Sherry Chen’s case is an anomaly in that a broad pattern of misconduct by her accusers was definitively demonstrated. One of the biggest criticisms of the China Initiative is that law enforcement calls into question the daily activities of certain ethnic groups, such as traveling home. It is generally difficult to prove racial bias in court. But in Chen’s situation, the Investigations and Threat Management Service (ITMS), an internal security unit of the Commerce Department that began investigating Chen in 2012, found him to be particularly egregious in his practices. racially profiled.

A 2021 report by the Senate Commerce Committee revealed that ITMS “used ethnic surnames through secure databases,” targeted an employee “purely because of his Chinese ethnicity,” and “broadly targeted in departmental divisions with comparably high proportions of Asian American employees.” This led to an internal investigation by ITMS and the unit was closed in September 2021.

Obviously, not all government malpractice is revealed in heavyweight Senate reports, and certainly much more is swept under the rug. “You rarely get a smoking gun like this, open a case,” says Frank Wu, an attorney, activist and president of Queens College of the City University of New York. (Wu consulted on Chen’s case, but never acted as his lawyer.)

And even though Chen won his settlement and the DOJ ended the China Initiative, that doesn’t mean the implicit bias that set these discriminatory lawsuits in motion has gone away. It may have become more covert.

Finally, Chen’s victory does not necessarily mean that others in his situation will have an easier time getting justice. Yes, Chen’s settlement was the first of its kind for a wrongfully accused Chinese-American scientist, and people are surely hoping it will set a precedent. But the reality is likely not so straightforward.

“I haven’t seen the agreement, but I hope it’s worded to make it clear that this is specific to this particular case,” says Margaret Lewis, a Seton Hall University law professor who focuses on criminal justice and human rights. “I’m sure the government was careful to avoid any indication that it was setting a wider precedent.” This would mean that other scholars fighting their own wrongful prosecution cases could not point to Chen’s case and argue that the same decision should apply.

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