People at Widener Library at Harvard Yard of Harvard University
Credit: iStock

During the height of the 1950s Red Scare, when there were Communists under every bed and spies in every closet, America saw threats to its national security everywhere. Justifiably, there were purges of those who really sought to sneak state secrets to the Soviets. War plans and bomb-making schematics were the most important of those confidential documents. Accusations abounded; not everyone was guilty.

Fast forward to 2020, and the new Red Scare is Beijing, not Moscow. The fear is that China’s long reach is not only touching but grabbing some of America’s dominant industries, institutions, plans and, of course, people. Scientists and researchers are in the crosshairs. Dr. Charles M. Lieber, the Harvard professor who recently was arrested by U.S. officials for allegedly sending research to China—and lying about it to American authorities—pleaded not guilty on Tuesday.

Lieber was Harvard’s chair of Chemistry and Chemical Biology Department and received $15 million in U.S. government research grants. Good work, prestigious position. It turns out Lieber also was working with Wuhan University and a target of China’s deeply suspect “Thousand Talents” program, which recruits and nurtures key individuals abroad to tap their expertise, networks, research and intellectual property. Lieber was offered a lot of support by the U.S. government while, it’s alleged, he was offering a lot to China. If Lieber is found guilty, all universities may undergo greater government scrutiny, research oversight and likely even more restrictions on academic freedom.

America’s National Security Strategy identifies this moment as one of great power rivalry between the United States and China (and Russia, too). In an international political environment where Beijing and Moscow are seen as America’s strategic competitors, any technological edge they gain is considered a national security threat. Those technological advantages exist in the private sector and at tech companies, of course, but basic R&D is mostly done in America’s most open and vulnerable institutions: universities.

Weaknesses in the university system were revealed by the recent Varsity Blues admissions’ scandal that ultimately caught actress Lori Loughlin in its net. The scam helped get a large cohort into college via corrupt insiders who showed the moneyed how to make end runs around a relatively fair admissions system.

Like Loughlin, China, too, leverages the inherent weaknesses of America’s open, trust-based, higher-education system, where intellectual freedom reigns supreme and shared research leads to career advancement and generates knowledge. China actively exploits this system, breaking into university-research structures that intertwine higher education with government, society, innovation and capital.

The Trump administration is trying to confront these actions by wholesale blocking some of China’s students from sensitive American research labs. Unfortunately, as the administration reverts to Red Scare tactics to prevent the theft of intellectual property and protect secrets on campuses, it is also feeding racist attitudes towards Asians. It should know better. America has a bad history of both Asian racism and red-baiting.

During the height of the 1950s Red Scare and Cold War with the Soviets, Sen. Joe McCarthy saw a Communist “fifth column” everywhere he looked. McCarthy’s purges destroyed so many individuals and sullied so many more—from actors to playwrights, scientists to politicians. Everyone was suspect and, in McCarthy’s estimation, everyone was guilty.

Cold War hysteria led to broad purges but also, at times, to exposing real spies. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were a New York couple accused of seeking atomic secrets to pass to the Soviets. They went to the gas chamber after a rushed trial tinged with anti-Semitism. A new HBO documentary claims Ethel Rosenberg was innocent, but after the Soviet Union fell, KGB documents revealed the Rosenbergs’ guilt.

America is now in the midst of myriad domestic crises and major geopolitical challenges. Societal tensions rise as Washington abdicates responsibility for a sane pandemic response, minimizes real economic fallout and justifies market volatility. The administration’s tone-deaf response to America’s inherent racial problems adds to domestic strife and opens up new global vulnerabilities. Domestic problems and international challenges set the stage for a politically threatened administration to exploit Americans’ real fears. In this environment and during a presidential election year, it is raising the red flag about Red China.

The case against Lieber is about more than just a university professor trying to make a few extra bucks with a foreign side gig. Rather, it will set the tone for how paranoid America and the world are about China’s intentions. Does Beijing seek global domination or a peaceful rise? What is China willing to do to achieve this goal? There will be no simple answers.

While Lieber claims his innocence, the trial and popular jury are still out on the bigger question of China’s global challenge.

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Markos Kounalakis

Markos Kounalakis is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is a former NBC Radio Moscow correspondent and the author of Freedom Isn’t Free: The Price of World Order (Anthem Press, 2022).