The US crackdown on Chinese economic espionage is a mess. We have the data to show it.

A visiting researcher at UCLA accused of hiding his connection to China’s People’s Liberation Army. A hacker indicted for breaking into video game company servers in his spare time. A Harvard professor accused of lying to investigators about funding from China. And a man sentenced for organizing a turtle-smuggling ring between New York and Hong Kong. 

For years, the US Department of Justice has used these cases to highlight the success of its China Initiative, an effort to counter rising concerns about Chinese economic espionage and threats to US national security. Started in 2018, the initiative was a centerpiece of the Trump administration’s hardening stance against China.

Now, an investigation by MIT Technology Review shows that the China Initiative has strayed far from its initial mission. Instead of focusing on economic espionage and national security, the initiative now appears to be an umbrella term for cases with almost any connection to China, whether they involve state-sponsored hackers, smugglers, or, increasingly, academics accused of failing to disclose all ties to China on grant-related forms. To date, only about a quarter of defendants charged under the initiative have been convicted, and about half of those defendants with open charges have yet to see the inside of an American courtroom. 

Although the program has become a top priority of US law enforcement and domestic counterintelligence efforts—and an unusual one, as the first country-specific initiative—many details have remained murky. The DOJ has not publicly defined the initiative or answered many basic questions about it, making it difficult to understand, let alone assess or exercise oversight of it, according to many civil rights advocates, lawmakers, and scholars. While the threat of Chinese intellectual property theft is real, critics wonder if the China Initiative is the right way to counteract it.

Today, after months of research and investigation, MIT Technology Review is publishing a searchable database of 77 cases and more than 150 defendants. While likely incomplete, the database represents the most comprehensive accounting of the China Initiative prosecutions to date.

Our reporting and analysis showed that the climate of fear created by the prosecutions has already pushed some talented scientists to leave the United States and made it more difficult for others to enter or stay, endangering America’s ability to attract new talent in science and technology from China and around the world.

Here’s what we found:

  • The DOJ has neither officially defined the China Initiative nor explained what leads it to label a case as part of the initiative.
  • The initiative’s focus increasingly has moved away from economic espionage and hacking cases to “research integrity” issues, such as failures to fully disclose foreign affiliations on forms.
  • A significant number of research integrity cases have been dropped or dismissed. 
  • Only about a quarter of people and institutions charged under the China Initiative have been convicted.
  • Many cases have little or no obvious connection to national security or the theft of trade secrets.
  • Nearly 90% of the defendants charged under the initiative are of Chinese heritage. 
  • Although new activity appears to have slowed since Donald Trump lost the 2020 US presidential election, prosecutions and new cases continue under the Biden administration.
  • The Department of Justice does not list all cases believed to be part of the China Initiative on its webpage and has deleted others linked to the project.

Two days after MIT Technology Review requested comment from the DOJ regarding the initiative, the department made significant changes to its own list of cases.

Lawmakers say our findings are “startling.”

The Justice Department is “intentionally obtuse with us and will not address specific cases,” said Representative Judy Chu, a Democrat from California. “Whenever we ask for data, they usually don’t give it back to us. What you have are numbers, and it is startling to see what [they] are.” 

Two days after MIT Technology Review requested comment from the DOJ regarding the initiative, the department made significant changes to its own list of cases, adding some and deleting 39 defendants previously connected to the China Initiative from its website. This included several instances where the government had announced prosecutions with great fanfare, only for the cases to fail—including one that was dismissed by a judge after a mistrial.

Our findings highlight “the disconnect between the theory behind the China Initiative and the prosecutions that are brought in practice,” said Ashley Gorski, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project.

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They also demonstrate the “disproportionate impact on Asian Americans and the immigrant community,” said Gisela Kusakawa, a staff attorney at Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AJC, an advocacy group. “Essentially, national security issues are being used as a pretext to target our community.

“This is resulting in a brain drain from and distrust towards the United States, which is counter-productive to national security.”

What our data show

Our database of China Initiative cases draws primarily on the press releases that have been added to the DOJ’s China Initiative webpage over the last three years, including those recently removed from its public pages. We supplemented this information with court records and interviews with defense attorneys, defendants’ family members, collaborating researchers, former US prosecutors, civil rights advocates, lawmakers, and outside scholars who have studied the initiative.

It is also worth noting our disclosures, including cases involving MIT, which owns this publication, and the personal experiences of our reporters with government investigations. You can read a full report on our methodology here, which includes a detailed transparency statement

Here’s what we’ve learned from our analysis:

The China Initiative has no official definition

Though considered one of the DOJ’s flagship efforts, the department has never actually defined what constitutes a China Initiative case. Wyn Hornbuckle, the deputy director of the DOJ public affairs office, said it had “no definition of a ‘China Initiative’ case other than the goals and priorities we set out for the initiative in 2018.”

A former senior DOJ official, who we are not naming so as to share their full perspective, said the China Initiative was an attempt to tell law enforcement that “these are the types of crimes we’re seeing run rampant” and that “these are important crimes to investigate, these are worthy of your time and resources.” 

Former US Attorney for the District of Massachusetts Andrew Lelling, a founding member of the initiative’s steering committee, said his interpretation was that “all cases involving researchers got in,” and that, “if the tech was going to China, I’m certain they would categorize that as in the China Initiative.”

There’s a decreasing focus on economic espionage

The China Initiative claims to be centered on countering economic espionage, yet our database finds that only 19 of the 77 cases (25%) include charges of violating the Economic Espionage Act (EEA). The EEA covers both theft of trade secrets, which can benefit any outside entity that does not own the intellectual property, and economic espionage, which has additional burden of proof requirements that the theft is ultimately for the benefit of a foreign government. 

Eight of the 19 China Initiative cases specifically charged economic espionage, while the remaining 11 alleged only theft of trade secrets.

The number of charges filed under the EEA has remained steady each year, but the increasing focus on other areas means that the proportion of economic espionage charges has decreased over time: In 2018, 33% of new cases (four out of 12) announced included violations of the EEA. By 2020, only 16% of new cases (five out of 31) included EEA violations.

Research integrity cases grew to dominate China Initiative

In addition, some of the project’s stated goals have never been met. When announcing the initiative in 2018, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions said it would also focus on countering covert efforts to influence US leaders. But there has been just one case of an attempt to influence American lawmakers on behalf of the People’s Republic of China—that of Elliott Broidy, a former finance chairman of the Republican National Committee. He pleaded guilty to acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign government in October 2020. President Donald Trump pardoned Broidy three months later, on his last day in office—the only China Initiative defendant who has been pardoned to date. 

There's an increasing focus on "research integrity"

While the proportion of EEA cases has decreased, 23 of the 77 cases (30%) have involved questions of “research integrity.” Most of these involve prosecutors accusing academics of failing to fully disclose all Chinese affiliations and sources of income in various forms—although whether these were deliberate attempts to hide Chinese ties or the result of unclear rules has been heavily contested by defense attorneys and outside critics. 

Our analysis shows a significant shift in focus toward academics beginning in 2019 and continuing through 2020. In 2018, none of the cases were about research integrity. By 2020, 16 of the 31 (52%) of newly announced cases were. (One research integrity case in 2020 also included a charge of violating the EEA.)

At least 14 of these research integrity cases began due to suspicions arising from links to “talent programs,” in which Chinese universities provide financial incentives for academics to conduct research, teach, or bring other activities back to the sponsoring institution, on a part- or full-time basis. (At least four cases of trade secret theft also involve alleged talent program participation.) 

Federal officials have repeatedly said that participation in talent programs is not illegal—though they have also called them “brain gain programs,” in the words of Bill Priestap, former FBI assistant director of counterintelligence, that “encourage theft of intellectual property from US institutions.”

Cases charged under the China Initiative by year

National security links are sometimes weak.

The initiative’s increasing focus on research integrity has included several cases of academics working on topics such as artificial intelligence or robotics, which may have national security applications. But most of the work in these areas is basic research, and many disciplines in which cases have been brought have no clear links to national security. 

Nine of 23 research integrity cases involve health and medical researchers, including people studying heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and cancer; six of those centered on researchers funded by NIH—a reflection of the institute’s aggressive stance on countering “inappropriate influence by foreign governments over federally funded research,” said a representative of the NIH Office of Extramural Research. NIH’s efforts predate the China Initiative, and the representative referred questions on the initiative to the Justice Department.

Funding agencies allegedly defrauded in research integrity cases

Instead, the national security implications seem to center around concerns that any individuals with links to China could serve as “non-traditional collectors,” which the China Initiative fact sheet describes as “researchers in labs, universities, and the defense industrial base that are being coopted into transferring technology contrary to US interests.” But as our database shows, only two of 22 researchers were ever accused of trying to improperly access information or smuggle goods into China. The charges were later dropped. 

China Initiative cases aren’t as successful as the DoJ claims

Three years after the program’s start, less than a third of China Initiative defendants have been convicted. Of the 148 individuals charged, only 40 have pleaded or been found guilty, with guilty pleas often involving lesser charges than originally brought. Almost two-thirds of cases—64%—are still pending. And of the 95 individuals still facing charges, 71 are not being actively prosecuted because the defendant is in an unknown location or cannot be extradited.

In particular, many of the cases concerned with research integrity have fallen apart. While eight are still pending, seven cases against academics have ended in dismissal or acquittal while six have ended in a guilty plea or conviction. That’s a sharp contrast to the usual outcomes of federal criminal cases, where the vast majority end in a guilty plea, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of federal statistics.

Outcomes for defendants charged under the China Initiative

Nearly 90% of all cases are against people of Chinese origin

One of the earliest and most persistent criticisms of the China Initiative was that it might lead to an increase in racial profiling against individuals of Chinese descent, Asian Americans, and Asian immigrants. DOJ officials have repeatedly denied that the China Initiative engages in racial profiling, but individuals of Chinese heritage, including American citizens, have been disproportionately affected by the initiative. 

Our analysis shows that of the 148 individuals charged under the China Initiative, 130—or 88%—are of Chinese heritage. This includes American citizens who are ethnically Chinese and citizens of the People’s Republic of China as well as citizens and others with connections to Taiwan, Hong Kong, and long-standing Chinese diaspora communities in Southeast Asia.

Defendants of Chinese heritage

These numbers are “really high,” said Margaret Lewis, a law professor at Seton Hall University who has written extensively about the China Initiative. “We knew that it’d be a majority,” she added, but this “just underscores that the ‘but we’re prosecuting other people too’ argument…is not convincing.”

New cases are still being brought under the Biden administration

The initiative was launched under the Trump administration, and while the number of cases explicitly linked to the China Initiative has fallen since President Joe Biden took office, they have not stopped.

For example, Mingqing Xiao, a mathematics professor in Illinois, was charged in April 2021 with failing to disclose ties to a Chinese university on his application for a National Science Foundation grant. And an indictment against four Chinese nationals for hacking dozens of companies and research institutions was unveiled in July.  

Meanwhile, federal attorneys have continued to push prosecutions forward. The trial of Charles Lieber, a Harvard chemistry professor accused of hiding his ties to Chinese universities, is scheduled to begin in mid-December. Prosecutors are planning to go to trial in cases against high-profile academics in Kansas, Arkansas, and elsewhere in the first few months of 2022.  

New China Initiative cases brought in 2021

How it began

Concerns about Chinese economic espionage targeted at the US have been growing for years, with estimates of the cost to the American economy ranging from $20 billion to $30 billion to as high as $600 billion. Enforcement began rising dramatically under the Obama administration: in 2013, when the administration announced a new strategy to mitigate the theft of US trade secrets, China was mentioned more than 100 times. 

In 2014, the Justice Department filed cyberespionage charges against five hackers affiliated with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army—the first time state actors had been prosecuted by the US for hacking. Then in 2015, the United States and China signed a historic agreement committing not to conduct commercial cybertheft against each other’s businesses. 

But it was not until 2018, as part of the Trump administration’s far more confrontational approach to China, that the department formally launched its first country-specific program.

The effort was “data-driven,” according to the former Justice Department official, and ”born out of the intelligence briefings to the attorney general and senior DOJ leaders from the FBI that, day after day, showed that the PRC and affiliated actors across the board [were] deeply involved in hacking, economic espionage, trade secret theft, subverting our export controls, and engaging in nontraditional collection methods.” He said this included Chinese consulates helping to “mask the actual backgrounds of Chinese visa applicants to avoid visa rejection based on their affiliations with the PRC military.” 

Trump, however, had campaigned partly on anti-Chinese and anti-Communist rhetoric— infamously saying at one rally in 2016, “We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country, and that’s what they’re doing.” 

In the months before the initiative launched, Trump reportedly told a group of corporate executives at a closed-door dinner at his Mar-a-Lago estate that “almost every [Chinese] student that comes over to this country is a spy.” 

This was the backdrop when Sessions announced the launch of the China Initiative on November 1, 2018. 

“We are here today to say: enough is enough,” the attorney general told reporters, before announcing the unsealing of an indictment in a dramatic, years-long saga of high tech trade theft: three Taiwanese individuals who had been charged with allegedly stealing trade secrets from an Idaho-based semiconductor company, Micron, for the ultimate benefit of a Chinese state-owned enterprise. 

The three worked for the Taiwanese chipmaker UMC, which had made a deal with a Chinese counterpart to jointly develop memory chips using a type of semiconductor technology known as dynamic random-access memory. UMC, which said it wasn’t aware of its employees’ actions, pleaded guilty to theft of trade secrets in October 2020 and agreed to pay a $60 million fine. The case against the three individuals has not yet been resolved.

The Micron case was meant to signal the types of trade theft the new initiative would focus on, but our data show that it was far from the norm. 

Chilling effects

Only one research integrity case linked to the China Initiative has gone to trial, and it ended in a high-profile acquittal. Anming Hu, a professor of nanotechnology at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, originally was accused of defrauding NASA by failing to disclose all of his overseas affiliations and was ultimately charged with six counts of wire fraud and false statements. After a mistrial, a judge threw out the government’s attempt to retry Hu and acquitted him of all charges. 

“Without intent to harm, there is no ‘scheme to defraud,’” the judge wrote in his decision, noting that NASA also received the research that it paid for. (NASA declined to comment for this story.) Hu’s case was one of those removed from the China Initiative webpage after MIT Technology Review reached out with questions. 

Other cases have been dismissed more quietly. In the space of one week in July 2021, shortly after the collapse of Hu’s trial, the government dismissed five cases against Chinese researchers accused of lying about their military affiliations on visa applications. The government did not explain in court filings why it dropped the cases, but the dismissals came after doubts arose about whether the forms’ questions about military service clearly covered the defendants, who were civilians working at military universities. 

On November 19, those cases were also removed from the China Initiative webpage, after MIT Technology Review submitted a list of questions to the Justice Department. Last year, the government had spotlighted those same cases in a statement marking the initiative’s two-year anniversary.

“I am most concerned about how the initiative will deny the USA access to the world’s best science and technology talent.”

—Randy Katz, former vice chancellor of research, UC Berkeley

The effect of all these cases on Chinese, Chinese American, and scientific communities has been profound. 

A member survey of more than 3,200 physicists carried out in September by the American Physical Society found that more than 43% of foreign early-career researchers now consider the United States to be unwelcoming for international students and scholars. Less than 25% believe that the US federal government does a good job of balancing national security concerns with the research requirements for open science. 

Another survey of nearly 2,000 scientists at 83 research institutions carried out by Arizona State University found that 51% of scientists of Chinese descent, including US citizens and noncitizens, feel considerable fear, anxiety, or both, about being surveilled by the US government. This compares to just 12% of non-Chinese scientists.

Some respondents in the Arizona State University study indicated that this climate of fear has affected how—or what—they choose to research. One said they were limiting their work to only use data that is publicly available rather than collecting their own original data; one indicated that they would no longer host visitors from China; another said they would focus on what they call “safer” topics rather than “cutting edge” research.

The effects of the initiative stretch even further. No one knows the exact number of scientists who have returned to China as a result of investigations or charges, but in late 2020, John Demers, then the assistant attorney general for national security, said that “more than 1,000 PLA-affiliated Chinese researchers left the country.” An additional group of 1,000 Chinese students and researchers had their visas revoked that September due to security concerns. How their security risks or affiliations with the People’s Liberation Army of China were determined, however, has not been explained. 

Randy Katz, a computer science professor at UC Berkeley who served as the university’s vice chancellor for research until earlier this year, says the initiative will have a grave impact on US innovation.

“I am most concerned about how the initiative will deny the USA access to the world’s best science and technology talent,” he said in an email. “Recently, as [many] as 40% of our international graduate students were from China. These students are heavily represented in the STEM fields, are highly competitively selected…and represent a critical component of our research workforce. We want them to come and we want them to stay and innovate in the USA.”

Changing course?

After three years of prosecutions and fear, the tide may be turning. 

Criticism of the initiative has ramped up in recent months, particularly after Anming Hu’s acquittal and the decision to drop several cases against academics. In July, Representative Ted Lieu, a Democrat from California, and 90 members of Congress sent an open letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland urging him to investigate the “repeated, wrongful targeting of individuals of Asian descent for alleged espionage.” 

A growing chorus of civil society groups and scientific associations have also made pleas for the program to be terminated, including a coalition of civil rights groups that wrote an open letter to Biden in January and more than 2,000 university professors who signed a request to Garland in September to end the initiative.

Even former DOJ officials are advocating for a change in direction. 

Demers reportedly considered a proposal for amnesty programs that would allow researchers to disclose previously undisclosed ties with no fear of prosecution—though this plan was quickly shot down by Republican lawmakers. 

Meanwhile Lelling, the former Massachusetts prosecutor, said he also believes that “general deterrence has been achieved.” “If the message was, ‘Make sure you are utterly transparent about your foreign collaboration,’ all right, everyone gets it,” he said. “There’s no need to prosecute another 23 academics.”

This fall, a group of lawmakers sat down with Garland to discuss the China Initiative as well as the rise in anti-Chinese hate during the pandemic. Garland did not commit to ending the project, but he did promise that he would restart the implicit bias trainings at the DOJ that had stopped under Trump. 

Garland has also indicated in Congressional testimony that Matt Olsen, the newly confirmed assistant attorney general of the DOJ’s national security division, is planning a review of all programs under his portfolio, as Hornbuckle, the DOJ spokesperson, shared when MIT Technology Review first reached out for comment. Hornbuckle did not, however, respond to a follow-up question on whether the review was intended to address specific criticisms of the China Initiative. 

Today, the DOJ continues to announce new indictments and move forward with existing prosecutions, while the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy is considering a Trump-era presidential directive on strengthening the security of federally funded research. 

In the meantime, the people caught up in the China Initiative have been left to deal with the damage done to their lives and careers—even if their cases were ultimately thrown out.

Hu, the professor who was acquitted after a mistrial, has been offered his old job at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville; he is a Canadian citizen, however, and it is still unclear whether he will be allowed to remain and work in the United States. MIT Technology Review found that some American and Chinese citizens who intended to stay in the US have moved overseas, primarily to China, and some who were fired by their US employers are now conducting their research elsewhere—in some cases leading the laboratories to which they were once accused of hiding their affiliation.

Yasheng Huang, a professor at MIT Sloan School of Management who has spoken about many China Initiative cases, says that the long-term costs of these investigations is only starting to be felt. 

“We've heard stories of young PhD students who are not thinking at all of applying to jobs in the United States: they want to go to Europe, they’re going to Asia,” he said. “They don’t want to stay in the United States. Some of these people are the best and brightest in their fields.” 

“The US is losing some of its most talented people to other countries because of the China Initiative,” he said. “That’s bad for science, and that’s bad for America.”

Do you have more information, or questions you'd like answered, about the China Initiative? Please reach out to us at tips@technologyreview.com.

Additional reporting by Tate Ryan-Mosley, Bobbie Johnson, Patrick Howell O'Neill, Alyssa Wickham, and John Emerson.

This story has been updated to clarify that the DOJ shared statements from Attorney-General Merrick Garland when first contacted for comment.

We built a database to understand the China Initiative. Then the government changed its records.

Since the US government launched the China Initiative in 2018, the main source of information about it has been press releases on the Department of Justice’s China Initiative webpage announcing arrests, charges, and indictments. 

But the record is incomplete. Civil rights groups that have been concerned about the initiative from the start—especially its potential for racial profiling—have seen gaps and inconsistencies in the DOJ’s messaging. In response, some of them have built their own lists of cases and tracked changes made to the initiative’s webpage.

For example, the DOJ omitted some cases that its officials had publicly described as textbook China Initiative cases from the page. This includes the case of MIT professor Gang Chen, who has been accused of failing to disclose contracts, appointments, and awards from Chinese entities while receiving federal grants from the Department of Energy. (MIT, which is the owner of Technology Review, is paying for his defense: it asserts that the main contract in question was between MIT and a Chinese university.)

Meanwhile, other cases, like that of Cleveland Clinic researcher Qing Wang—who was accused of making false claims and of wire fraud relating to a failure to disclose grants and positions in China—were quietly removed after charges were dismissed. 

The Justice Department itself has not been very forthcoming. As we explain in our main piece, DOJ officials have so far failed to provide a clear definition of what constitutes a China Initiative case, or how many cases in total it has brought. This lack of transparency has made it impossible to understand exactly what the China Initiative is, what it has achieved, and what the costs have been for those disproportionately affected. 

“I’d like to see a balance sheet,” said Jeremy Wu, who held senior civil rights and ethics positions in the US government before co-founding the APA Justice Task Force, one of the groups that is independently tracking the China Initiative. “What did we gain? How many spies did we catch, compared to how much damage that has [been] done not only to individuals, but also to the future of American science and technology?” 

Our database is not that balance sheet. But it is an important step toward answering some of the questions Wu poses—questions that, to this point, the US government has not answered. Rather, it has added to the confusion: two days after we reached out with a request for comment, the Justice Department made major updates to its webpage, removing cases that do not support its narrative of a successful counterintelligence effort.

How we did it

This spring, we began searching through all the press releases then linked on the Department of Justice’s China Initiative webpage, followed by another scrape of its data in August. Then we pulled thousands of pages of  federal court records pertaining to each case and used this information to build our database.

We also combed through additional court documents and public statements by FBI and DOJ officials to find cases that had been removed from the webpage or that had never been included. Then we supplemented this information with interviews with defense attorneys, defendants’ family members, collaborating researchers, former US prosecutors, civil rights advocates, lawmakers, and outside scholars who have studied the initiative. We found more cases that had been left out of the DOJ’s public list but either were publicly described as part of the initiative or fit the general fact pattern of academics charged with hiding ties to Chinese institutions, hackers alleged to be working for the Chinese government, or those accused of illicit technology transfers. 

Our goal was to create as comprehensive a database of China Initiative prosecutions as possible. We know there may be more, and our database may grow as we confirm the existence of additional cases. If you have more information on China Initiative cases, please reach out to us at tips@technologyreview.com.

Our tracking efforts were made harder in June, when the Department of Justice stopped updating its China Initiative webpage. That timeframe roughly coincides with the resignation of John Demers, the assistant attorney general who had been in charge of the national security division overseeing the initiative.

Once we had built a rough database and analyzed the data, we compared notes with Wu, of the APA Justice Task Force, and with Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AJC, another civil rights group tracking cases, and we shared our initial findings with a small group of lawmakers, civil rights organization representatives, and scholars and asked for their comments.

What the Department of Justice changed

On November 19—two days after MIT Technology Review approached the Department of Justice with questions about the initiative, including a number of cases we believed to have been omitted or erroneously included—the department made major revisions to the China Initiative webpage.

These changes were extensive, but they didn’t really clear up much of the confusion around the initiative. In fact, in some ways they made it worse.

On the left is the DOJ China Initiative webpage as it appeared on Nov. 18, and on the right is the webpage on Nov. 19, after MIT Technology Review reached out for questions. Items in yellow were deleted, while items in blue were added. Explore the changes in more detail on Webarchive.org.

While he did not respond to our specific questions, Wyn Hornbuckle, the spokesperson for the DOJ’s National Security Division, informed us by email that staff “have been in the process of updating our webpage to reflect some of the changes, updates, and dismissals.” 

He also shared the department’s own numbers. “Since November 2018, we have brought or resolved nine economic espionage prosecutions and seven theft of trade secrets cases with a nexus to the PRC. We also have brought 12 matters involving fraud on universities and/or grant making institutions,” he wrote. 

We found significantly more than 12 research integrity cases—but only 13 of the 23 research integrity cases included in our database are currently on the website. (One of those cases was settled before charges could be filed.) Six of those cases ended in guilty pleas. Seven are still pending. 

Seven of the eight research integrity cases that ended in dismissals or acquittals were previously included on the website, but the DOJ has now removed them from its list. 

Our analysis showed 12 cases that charged either theft of trade secrets or economic espionage since November 2018. Ten are listed on the Department of Justice’s site. (Two were related prosecutions, although they were charged separately.) Of those 10, seven charged only theft of trade secrets and not the more severe allegation of economic espionage. One charged both economic espionage and theft of trade secrets. The other two were hacking cases—one included an economic espionage citation, and one included a theft of trade secrets citation. 

The Department of Justice did not respond to multiple requests for a more detailed breakdown of its numbers. 

Our subsequent analysis showed that the DOJ had removed 17 cases and 39 defendants from its China Initiative page, added two cases [with a total of five defendants, and updated existing cases with sentencing and trial information, where available.

Hornbuckle did not respond to a follow-up request to comment on what these removals say about transparency.

DOJ officials have widely publicized some of these defendants as China Initiative cases. One example is that of Anming Hu, a University of Tennessee nanotechnology professor, which was the first research integrity case to go to trial. He was acquitted in September after a mistrial, and his case is no longer listed as a China Initiative one despite the original press release announcing his arrest stating, “This case is part of the Department of Justice’s China Initiative.”

Privately, however, a former DOJ official, who declined our request to attribute this information to him, provided information suggesting that the webpage’s organizing principles may have been less clear than was warranted for an initiative of this scale and impact. Some cases, he said, such as that of a man who organized a turtle-smuggling ring, originally may have been added to the department’s list by mistake. A new staff member, he said, may have been overzealous in looking for cases with a “nexus to China,” a vague term that he did not clearly define. (The turtle-smuggling case was one of the 17 that were removed after MIT Technology Review contacted the DOJ.)

At the other end of the spectrum, the official added that the case of Chen, the MIT professor, may have been omitted originally because his charges were announced in the aftermath of the January 6 insurrection, on January 14, and key DOJ communications staff were otherwise occupied. (Chen’s indictment was announced on January 14.)

“Without a more precise definition of the scope and boundaries of the China Initiative, information can be manipulated to create biased impressions to fit the government’s narrative,” said Jeremy Wu of the APA Justice Task Force. “The change in the online DOJ report will add even more confusion and uncertainty on what counts as a China Initiative case and what does not.” 

A guide to the database

Our database shows important details about the defendants linked to the China Initiative, including their names, the charge(s) brought against them, and the summary of allegations in the cases, as well as their dispositions (such as pleaded guilty, charges dismissed, or pending) and outcomes, which includes any sentence that may have been handed down. 

Thirty-seven cases in our database—nearly half of the total—are still ongoing. The defendants in these cases have not been convicted, and the government’s allegations against them are still unproven. All defendants should be considered innocent until proven guilty.

It also contains other information about the defendants—such as the technology areas in which they were working, the organizations with which they were affiliated, and what victim institutions were affected by the alleged crimes. We also list whether they were connected to Chinese “talent plans,” state-sponsored university recruitment programs that aim to build domestic expertise in crucial areas of science and technology—and deemed by the US government as “a threat…to the US research enterprise” and as having an incentive to commit intellectual property theft. 

Names appear in the database as they do in court documents, meaning that some follow the Western naming convention of first name followed by family name, and others appear with the family name first, as is standard in China. 

At times, we’ve marked certain fields as “Unknown.” That means it is unknown to us, not necessarily unknown to prosecutors. For example, companies that were the victims of hacking or the theft of trade secrets often were cited in court papers only as “Company A” or “Company B.” 

We also included all of the charges brought against defendants, under charges. Some of these charges were added weeks, months, or even years after the case was first opened. Defendants who pleaded or were found guilty were often only convicted of a subset of these charges. We’ve noted which charges they were convicted of in the outcome section.

To better understand the China Initiative’s focus areas, we sorted cases by category, breaking them into groups based on the core facts of the Justice Department’s allegations against them.   Defendants and cases sometimes fall into multiple categories.

These are the categories:

Agent of a foreign government: Cases that allege a person is acting illegally on behalf of the Chinese government.

Corruption: Cases that allege violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. 

Theft of trade secrets: Cases that allege the stealing of intellectual property or confidential business information. 

Economic espionage: Cases that allege the theft of trade secrets to benefit a foreign government.

Espionage: Cases that allege improper contact with or action on behalf of foreign intelligence officials.

Hacking: Cases that allege illegally accessing computer systems, usually to steal information.

Import/Export: Cases that allege violations of import or export laws.

Research integrity: Cases that allege failures to disclose conflicts of interest or foreign affiliations, as well as allegations of sharing nonpublic scientific information.

Other: Outlier cases that do not fit closely with others.

Economic espionage and theft of trade secrets both fall under the umbrella of Economic Espionage Act violations, but economic espionage requires proof that the theft was intended to ultimately benefit a foreign government, making it harder for prosecutors to charge and even harder to win. Economic espionage also carries harsher maximum penalties.

Finally, to better understand claims about the initiative’s ethnic focus, we looked at the citizenship, race, and Chinese heritage of each defendant. Court records tend to describe foreign nationals as such, so we assumed the others were US citizens. We double-checked these assumptions in academic/professional bios listed online as well as media reports, including in local language reports (non-English) and with consular officials in some cases. Individuals are considered of Chinese heritage if they or their family claimed ancestry from China, regardless of where they were born or their citizenship status.  We used names to determine whether individuals were of Chinese heritage and to help determine their race (Asian, Caucasian, African American), cross-referencing with online bios and media reports. 

These 77 cases are primarily criminal prosecutions brought under the China Initiative by the Department of Justice. In some instances, there may be related civil litigation or regulatory actions that are not included in our database.

Transparency

In a story about transparency, it’s especially important to be clear about what may be perceived as our biases and potential conflicts of interest. Several are at play, and we want to be straightforward about them.

First, MIT Technology Review is owned by—although editorially independent of—the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. MIT professor Gang Chen is listed in our database, accused of wire fraud, false statements, and failing to report a foreign bank account. MIT is paying for his defense.

Second, in a story that shows outsized racial disparities in prosecutions against researchers, we want to note that Eileen Guo and Karen Hao, two of the staff reporters who produced this work, are US citizens of Chinese heritage. Their race does not play a part in our data or analysis, although it does mean they have an intimate understanding of anti-Asian sentiment.

Third, when talking about how allegations about federal grants can be used to punish and intimidate people, it’s important to point out that we have personal experience of this, too. Guo, a senior reporter at Technology Review, was previously the CEO of a company based in Kabul, Afghanistan, called Impassion Afghanistan, which ran citizen journalism and civic technology projects. In 2018, the US State Department claimed that Impassion had not provided enough documentation to support some of its costs and disallowed it. Impassion appealed the decision—a process that included submitting thousands of pages of forensic accounting, which were summarily ignored. The government has never alleged that Guo was personally liable, and the DOJ was never involved. 

Do you have more information, or questions you’d like answered, about the China Initiative? Please reach out to us at tips@technologyreview.com.

Renewables are set to soar

Construction of solar farms, wind turbines, and other sources of renewable power will soar over the next five years as nations set stricter climate policies and more ambitious emissions targets.

New renewable electricity capacity will set another record this year, at 290 gigawatts, according to a new report from the International Energy Agency. That’s roughly equivalent to building nearly 300 nuclear reactors or almost 150 Hoover Dams, and it’s happening despite global supply chain issues, rising material costs, and covid restrictions.

By 2026, global capacity from these carbon-free sources will rise more than 60% over last year’s levels, the intergovernmental research organization now projects. That will add up to some 4,800 gigawatts, on par with all the world’s fossil-fuel and nuclear plants today.

In addition, renewables will account for 95% of the overall capacity growth in the power sector over that period.

Building new wind and solar plants doesn’t necessarily mean renewables are displacing fossil fuel—because demand for energy is rising as well. And it still remains to be seen how quickly carbon-free sources will become the dominant source of electricity globally and begin rapidly supplanting coal, natural gas, and other polluting sources.

While renewables now account for most of the new capacity being built, the level of electricity generation by source can bounce around considerably from year to year, depending on shifting costs, weather conditions, and more. But in the last few years, generation from coal has declined and solar, hydro, and wind have ticked up, according to BloombergNEF. In fact, those three sources accounted for all the growth in power generation last year, as electricity output from coal, natural gas, and nuclear plants declined.

The IEA’s renewables estimates for 2026 are a substantial upward revision, more than 40% higher than its projections last year. Among other things, the agency cited the improving economics, increased national emissions reduction commitments ahead of the recent UN climate conference, and domestic developments and policies.

Those included China’s commitment to achieving net-zero carbon emissions targets by 2060; the US’s extension of federal tax credits as part of the Build Back Better bill, which the House has passed; and both national and corporate efforts to comply with policies and emissions targets within the European Union.

China, Europe, the US, and India will account for nearly 80% of the added renewable capacity.

Despite the boon in renewable capacity, however, the world is still far behind on the goal of building out a net-zero energy sector, which will ultimately be necessary to halt global warming. For nations to get on track for that scenario by 2050, average annual additions of renewables will need to double over the level the IEA expects to see over the next five years.

Among other things, that’s likely to require far more aggressive climate policies and goals; still cheaper wind, solar, and other carbon-free sources; and the rapid development of additional technologies needed to balance out rising shares of fluctuating renewables on the grid.

We won’t know how bad omicron is for another month

The discovery of the omicron variant of covid-19 in southern Africa shows how sequencing the genes of a virus can give an early alert to dangerous-looking changes in its genome.

Omicron has more than 30 mutations, some of which have previously been seen in other variants and are thought to make viral transmission faster. Others are alarming because researchers have no idea what they mean. The worry is that omicron might contain a dream team of nasty adaptations. That’s why several countries threw up travel barriers this week to prevent planes from bringing passengers from Africa.

Despite such steps, it’s going to take time before researchers can say whether omicron is a genuine problem. “A really important thing we have to keep in mind right now is that for most of the things we are trying to figure out, we don’t yet have a lot of data,” says Emma Hodcroft, a molecular epidemiologist in Bern who helps run a database of genetic information called Nextstrain.

Here’s what scientists want to know and how soon they’ll have answers. Given the way things played out with past variants, like alpha and delta, we expect it to take about a month for omicron to reveal its properties.

Research perspectives in this article were shared on Tuesday, November 30, during a Twitter Spaces discussion featuring experts from the University of Bern, Switzerland.

Will the vaccines still work?

The worry: The head of Moderna, Stéphane  Bancel, sent tremors through the stock market when he told the Financial Times that vaccines would take a hit from the variant. He anticipates a “material drop” in their effectiveness, adding that scientists were telling him: “This is not good.”

The experiment: To actually find out how well current vaccines will work, researchers around the world are already racing to isolate omicron from the bodies of infected travelers. They will grow the germ in laboratory cells and then expose it to blood plasma from vaccinated people. They can then measure how well that person’s antibodies block the virus. Other labs will use genetic information about omicron to create “pseudoviruses” that harbor just the variant’s spike gene, to carry out similar tests.

“This is important to find the answer we need: Do the antibodies still neutralize [the virus]?” says Volker Thiel, a virologist at the University of Bern. “Depending on the degree of blocking, you can say this is still working, or not as well.”

How soon: These types of tests usually take a couple of weeks to perform. For past variants, like alpha, companies like Moderna and BioNTech published answers from their laboratory tests within the month.

What’s next: If omicron evades vaccines, it could mean that companies like Moderna and BioNTech will need to re-engineer their messenger RNA products for the first time to reflect the changed genetic makeup of the new variant. That could be a common occurrence as the years go by. In the future, expect to get an annual booster before winter sets in, just as you do for the flu.

Is omicron being transmitted more easily?

The worry: The new variant has spread widely in South Africa’s Gauteng province, where Johannesburg is located, and has by now popped up in more than 20 countries. Researchers wonder if it is able to transmit faster or is succeeding because it avoids pre-existing immunity, either from vaccines or prior infection.

The experiment: It’s hard to test transmission in a lab, so this is an experiment that happens in the real world. Researchers will use sequencing tests to track what fraction of the actual covid-19 cases they see are due to omicron. If that percentage starts growing, and if similar growth is seen in different countries, it will be a sign that omicron is transmitted faster.

That’s what happened with the alpha variant, which appeared in the United Kingdom in 2020. By December of that year, it accounted for a rising share of British cases, and within a few months it also came to dominate case loads in the rest of Europe and in the US. Later, alpha was displaced by delta. With both of these strains, alpha and delta, it took about four months from the time they were introduced for them to account for most cases. If omicron follows suit, it will be the dominant strain by March or April of 2021.

“When we see replacement, it’s strongly suggestive of a transmission advantage,” says Thiel. “But if it only happens in one place, it could be due to chance.” He says the rise of omicron in South Africa, on its own, doesn’t prove whether the variant is more transmissible.

How soon: Firm evidence for higher transmissibility could take a month or more to acquire. That’s because it takes about five to six days for a newly infected person to grow enough virus to infect others. And to get a grasp on whether omicron is being transmitted faster, researchers will need to observe multiple rounds of infection and spread.

Such research can be accelerated if researchers extend the timeline backward by sequencing old samples. Already, doctors in Nigeria have said they’ve found omicron in a banked covid-19 sample in that country. Dutch authorities also found omicron cases there from mid-November. These could offer earlier data points.

What’s next: It’s not only the SARS-CoV-2 virus that’s changing; so has the human stage where the pandemic is playing out. Omicron will face more diverse conditions than any variant yet, including countries where nearly everyone is vaccinated, countries using different vaccines, locales where most people have had covid-19 already, and “zero-covid” nations like China and New Zealand. That means omicron might take hold in some areas but fizzle out in others.

Does omicron cause more severe disease?

The worry: Initially, some South African doctors said the symptoms caused by the new variant seemed milder, but then came reports of more hospital beds filling up. Right now, no one knows whether omicron causes worse symptoms or not.

The issue is that omicron is so new that most cases are only a week or two old, while it often takes several weeks for covid-19 to cause severe problems or death. “It’s too early to say something about disease severity. So far, we can’t really say anything,” says Christian Althaus, an epidemiologist in Bern.

The experiment: To measure disease severity, researchers can expose lab animals like mice or monkeys to omicron, but the final answers will come from real-world data on people, including doctor’s observations, hospital records, and death counts.

How soon: Whether omicron causes worse disease, or different symptoms, is probably the question that will take longest to answer—likely a couple of months.

With all the uncertainty around omicron, and the possibility that vaccines won’t work so well, researchers are reminding the public about tactics they say will stunt the spread of any variant, like isolation, social distancing, and wearing masks. “There is no variant against which these interventions won’t work,” says Thiel.

He also says omicron is a sign of things to come. “In the next months or years, it will be rough. There will be new variants; we should expect that,” he says. “But stock markets should not respond to all variants in a scared way. That is the future, and we will have to cope with that.”

The FDA has narrowly backed Merck’s covid pill—but it’s not that effective

The news: A US Food and Drug Administration panel has voted by 13 to 10 to recommend that the government authorize Merck’s antiviral pill for patients with early covid-19 who are at high risk for severe infection. The drug, called molnupiravir, has been shown to reduce the risk of hospitalization and death, although by less than previously thought. Initial results in October found it cut the risk of hospitalization or death by 50% when given to 755 unvaccinated volunteers who were mildly to moderately ill with covid-19 and had at least one risk factor for severe illness. Last week, with updated data from 1,433 patients, that figure was cut to 30%. “The efficacy of this product is not overwhelmingly good,” said panel member David Hardy.

Lacking consensus: The closeness of the vote was due to concerns over the change in the drug’s efficacy data, but also over its safety. James Hildreth, CEO of Meharry Medical College and one of the panel members, said he voted no because he worried that the use of molnupiravir could, theoretically, lead to new covid-19 variants. Other panelists, though, argued that the overall risk was small enough to vote it through. 

Who can take it: If it’s authorized, the drug will be prescribed to high-risk people who have begun experiencing symptoms to take twice a day at home for five days. Tens of millions of Americans who are older or have underlying medical conditions would qualify, and they’d need to begin taking it within five days of symptoms appearing. The committee recommended tight restrictions on molnupiravir’s use in pregnant women, given concerns about the potential side effects. 

What’s next: In the coming weeks, the FDA will assess a similar pill from Pfizer that seems to be significantly more effective than Merck’s, reducing the risk of hospitalization or death within the same patient groups by 89%. The hope is that these drugs could provide promising new weapons in our arsenal against covid, especially because they are easily stored and can be taken at home. The US government has already spent billions of dollars to secure large supplies of both new pills. 

We still don’t know enough about the omicron variant to panic

The news: Just five days ago, South African scientists informed the World Health Organization that they’d identified a new covid-19 variant. The situation has escalated rapidly since then. The variant, known as B.1.1.529, has already been found in many countries across the world. On Friday it was designated a variant of “concern” by the WHO, which opted to name it “omicron,” the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet, following the organization’s naming system.

Governments are reimposing border restrictions and closures, as well as new measures to mitigate covid’s spread among their populations. Health ministers from G7 countries are set to meet today to discuss their response. 

What we know: Viruses mutate all the time, and that isn’t cause for alarm on its own. Part of the reason why the omicron variant is worrying people is that it has so many mutations in its spike protein—approximately 30, which is roughly double the number delta has. This protein is the part of the virus that helps it to enter human cells. Preliminary evidence suggests this variant brings a higher risk of reinfection, according to the WHO.

The omicron variant has been identified in at least 15 countries already, mostly in southern Africa but also in the UK, Europe, Hong Kong, Canada, Israel, and Australia.

What we don’t know: Amid all the panic, it’s important to remember that we still know very little about the new variant—and we’ve been worried before about variants that have come to nothing. The crucial questions are whether it increases transmissibility, whether it worsens health outcomes (thus pushing up deaths and hospitalizations), and, crucially, whether it erodes immunity afforded by vaccines or previous infections. We don’t have firm answers to any of these questions yet—although it seems likely, given the mutations, that it will affect the effectiveness of vaccines to some degree.

If that’s the case, then vaccine manufacturers will have to move quickly to come up with new versions. Luckily, with mRNA technology it is relatively easy to reformulate a vaccine. Moderna’s chief medical officer, Paul Burton, told the BBC on Sunday that his firm could have a new booster—one tweaked to handle omicron—ready to roll out as soon as early next year.

Researchers around the world are now racing to gather the data we need to know how worried we should be. We also don’t know exactly how omicron arose. Experts have long warned that uneven global vaccine access—South Africa, where omicron seems to have originated, has a vaccination rate of 35%—poses a global risk because it gives the virus more opportunities to mutate.

What you can do: As has been the case throughout the pandemic, the best thing you and your loved ones can do to protect yourselves is to get vaccinated. If you are offered a booster shot, take it. While it’s possible that omicron might degrade vaccine efficacy, it won’t eradicate it altogether.

Can Afghanistan’s underground “sneakernet” survive the Taliban?

When Afghanistan fell to the Taliban in August, Mohammad Yasin had to make some difficult decisions very quickly. As the country reeled from the shock of the insurgent takeover, the 21-year-old—whose name has been changed to protect his safety—snuck into his small place of business and got to work. 

He began erasing some of the sensitive data on his computer and moving the rest onto two of his largest hard drives, which he then wrapped in a layer of plastic and buried underground at an undisclosed location.

Yasin didn’t take these precautions because he is part of Afghan intelligence, or linked to the government. He has no state secrets hidden on his computers. He is what is locally referred to as a “computer kar”: someone who sells digital content by hand in a country where a steady internet connection can be hard to come by. “I sell pretty much everything, from movies, music, mobile applications, to iOS updates. I also help create Apple IDs and social media accounts, and with backing up phones and recovering data,” he says, then adds, in a hushed voice, “I can also unlock [stolen] phones and provide other naughty videos.” 

When the Taliban captured the city of Herat on August 12, Yasin and his colleagues speculated that it wouldn’t be long before the Taliban’s invading forces took over their own city of Mazar-i-Sharif. 

“Things were more tense in Mazar, too, so me and other computer kars of Mazar who work together held a secret meeting to decide what to do to protect all our content,” he says. Among them, the informal union of computer kars had several hundred terabytes of data collected over several years, and much of it would be considered controversial—even criminal—by the Taliban. 

“We all agreed to not delete, but rather hide the more nefarious content,” he says. “We reasoned that in Afghanistan, these regimes come and go frequently, but our business should not be disrupted.” 

He isn’t too worried about being discovered.

“People are hiding guns, money, jewelry, and whatnot, so I am not scared of hiding my hard drives. They will never be able to find [them],” he says. “I am a 21st-century boy, and most Taliban are living in the past.”

Less than 20 years after former president Hamid Karzai made Afghanistan’s first mobile phone call, there are nearly 23 million mobile phone users in a country of fewer than 39 million people. But internet access is a different matter: by early 2021, there were fewer than 9 million internet users, a lag that has been largely attributed to widespread physical security problems, high costs, and a lack of infrastructural development across the country’s mountainous terrain. 

That’s why computer kars like Yasin can now be found all across Afghanistan. Although they sometimes download their information from the internet when they’re able to get a connection, they physically transport much of it on hard drives from neighboring countries—what is known as the “sneakernet.”

“I use the Wi-Fi at home to download some of the music and applications; I also have five SIM cards for internet,” says Mohibullah, another kar who asked not to be identified by his real name. “But the connection here is not reliable, so every month I send a 4 terabyte hard drive to Jalalabad, and they fill it with content and return it in a week’s time with the latest Indian movies or Turkish TV dramas, music, and applications,” for which he says he pays between 800 and 1,000 afghanis ($8.75 to $11).

“People are hiding guns, money, jewelry, and whatnot, so I am not scared of hiding my hard drives. I am a 21st-century boy, and most Taliban are living in the past.”

Mohammad Yasin, computer kar

Mohibullah says he can install more than 5 gigabytes of data on a phone—including movies, songs, music videos, and even course lessons—for just 100 afghanis, or $1.09. “I have the latest Hollywood and Bollywood movies dubbed in Dari and Pashto [Afghan national languages], music from across the globe, games, applications,” he told me in early August, days before the Taliban took over. 

For just a little more, Mohibullah helps customers create social media accounts, sets up their phones and laptops, and even writes emails for them. “I sell everything—A to Z of contents. Everything except ‘100% films,’” he said, referring to pornography. (Later he admitted that he did have some “free videos,” another nickname for porn, but that he only sells them to trusted customers.)

Most of his customers are men, but women also regularly buy music and movies from him. Much of it comes from Pakistan, which he says has better and cheaper internet connectivity.

As we were discussing the business in Mohibullah’s small store on a crowded street in west Kabul, two women walked in. They declined an interview request, but told us they were “wedding DJs” looking for latest music to play at their clients’ lavish wedding parties. Mohibullah offered them a selection of latest Indian music to browse through, and he transferred each of them a playlist of over 100 songs for 70 afghanis.

Unfortunately for the kars, such clients have entirely disappeared since the rise of the Taliban. The violent, extremist regime has banned music and restricted women’s freedoms.

Yasin and Mohibullah have had to adapt their business quickly to the new regime. They replaced the raunchy Bollywood and Iranian music videos with the Taliban taranas (songs without music) and recitations from the Quran. Afghans love to carry pictures of celebrities on their phones; those have now been replaced with pictures of Taliban flags in different styles. And all the “free movies” kars offer are now hidden; only they know where. 

“If they ever find those, I will be punished very badly. They will execute me,” says Yasin, shuddering.

Content crackdowns

The Taliban takeover has been bad for business, they both admit. Their average earnings have fallen nearly 90%, from around 3,000 afghanis per day to less than 350—from $32 to $3.80. 

“From that, at least 100 afghanis goes for generator fuel and about 50 afghanis to the municipality for the space I use on the street,” says Yasin. “That isn’t enough to support my five siblings and [my] parents.”

In addition to policing their content, the Taliban have also been cracking down on kars like Yasin who have expanded their services to help Afghans fleeing persecution. 

“Those who are in hiding or who are waiting to be evacuated come to me to help them back up their phone data on flash drives, to avoid being caught by the Taliban fighters who are checking phones at the checkpoints,” he says. 

Sometimes he charges a nominal fee, he says, but he has also waived it in some cases. 

“It is usually personal data they want to take with them that the Taliban may not approve, and sometimes it’s information that can identify them as supporters of the previous government or foreign allies, that can get them arrested or even executed,” he says.

Mohibullah finds it ironic that the Taliban are cracking down on the content dealers now that they are in power, because they used the sneakernet themselves for radicalization and recruitment. 

“Every once in a while, some men would approach us to distribute the Taliban taranas praising their fighters, or graphic videos of the executions they’ve conducted,” he says. “They wanted to use our services to spread their ideology and propaganda among the youth.” 

He never shared such content with his clients before now, he says. 

“These days, however, the Taliban are among us, and they demand such content. They also ask for pictures of Taliban flags and fighters with their weapons. I oblige because I have to feed my family,” he says.

But the Afghan computer kars are nothing if not enterprising. Many of them continue to discreetly sell forbidden content. Others, searching for a silver lining, are hopeful that there may even be an uptick in business for certain entertainment content as many Afghans, particularly women, are forced to stay indoors. 

“During covid lockdowns there was an increase in demand for cartoon clips because children were locked at home,” says Mohibullah. “Now, with the Taliban and widespread unemployment, people are also stuck at home; they might watch more movies.”

NASA wants to use the sun to power future deep space missions

In August 2022, a NASA probe called Psyche will set out to explore a giant metallic asteroid called Psyche 16, to help scientists learn more about how planets form. The way Psyche reaches its target, though, will be different from typical NASA missions.  

Building on technology used in previous missions, including Dawn and Deep Space 1, solar power will help propel Psyche into deep space. If that proves successful, it could be the start of a new era of using more fuel-efficient probes for both space exploration and commercial missions. 

Traditional spacecraft rely on chemical reactions between a combination of liquid fuels to get around rather than electricity. Psyche will use two giant solar arrays to convert solar energy into electricity that will power four ion thrusters. That electricity will turn tanks of xenon gas (the same kind used in car headlights) into xenon ions, which Psyche’s four thrusters will eject to gently propel the spacecraft toward the asteroid, which orbits between Mars and Jupiter, more than 1.5 billion miles from Earth.

While other spacecraft, like Lucy, have used solar energy to operate instruments, Psyche will be among the first of NASA’s deep-space missions to use solar energy for both onboard operations and propulsion. 

Paulo Lozano, director of MIT’s space propulsion laboratory, says Psyche could lay the groundwork for more solar-powered space exploration. Eventually, the technology could help us investigate multiple celestial objects for longer periods and potentially make human-crewed missions outside of Earth’s orbit more affordable and feasible.  

“It actually opens up the possibility to explore and to commercialize space in a way that we haven’t seen before,” Lozano says.  

Because a spacecraft that uses solar-electric propulsion requires less propellant than a chemically powered one, it has more space on board for cargo, scientific instruments, and, someday, astronauts. One company, Accion Systems, is developing more efficient ion thrusters for Cubesats as well as larger satellites and other spacecraft. 

Solar propulsion technology is already common in satellites that orbit Earth, but until now it has not been a powerful enough alternative to chemically powered engines to be used as often in spacecraft headed to deep space.  Advances in solar electric propulsion will change that.

The technology behind Psyche had its first major test in Dawn, an exploration spacecraft that used solar power and ion thrusters. Dawn eventually went silent while orbiting the dwarf planet Ceres (where it will remain in orbit for decades) in 2018, three years after the mission was supposed to end. These thrusters can operate for years without running out of fuel, but they provide relatively low thrust compared with conventional propulsion.  

Psyche’s thrusters will be able to generate three times as much thrust as its predecessors, and about a year after launch, it will get some help from Mars’s gravitational pull to change its trajectory before eventually reaching its target in 2026.  

After that, Psyche will spend just under two years orbiting the asteroid. Its mission will be to examine the asteroid’s iron core to determine whether it has the same elements that have been discovered in Earth’s high-pressure core, which can help researchers learn more about how planets form. 

Although we can’t directly view Earth’s core, Psyche will use a multispectral imager, an instrument that uses filters and two cameras to obtain high-resolution geologic, compositional, and topographical data from the asteroid. If its core proves similar to those of small, rocky planets, scientists could determine whether the two have similar origins. Because Psyche 16 (the asteroid) is thought to be the core of a planet that failed to form, an up-close look could provide details about the formation of the inner solar system. 

Back in 2017, Psyche was chosen as one of two missions for NASA’s Discovery Program, a series of low-cost missions to targets around the solar system. Led in part by Arizona State University, Psyche had about a $450 million development cap to ensure it could make it all the way to deep space. But the farther a spacecraft goes from the sun, the more difficult it becomes for its solar arrays to capture sunlight and power its ion thrusters. That’s why once Psyche is past Mars, it will have to slow down. 

To go even further, spacecraft may need to rely on nuclear thermal propulsion, which NASA is also developing. 

How a new global carbon market could exaggerate climate progress

Nations are poised to begin building an international carbon market, after finally adopting the relevant rules at the UN climate conference in Glasgow earlier this month.

Under the COP26 agreement, countries should soon be able to buy and sell UN-certified carbon credits from one another, and use them as a way to achieve greenhouse gas reduction pledges under the Paris climate agreement.

But some observers fear the rules include major loopholes that could make it appear as if nations are making more progress on emissions than they really are. Others warn that the agreement may accelerate the creation of carbon credits within separate voluntary offset markets, which are often criticized for overstating climate benefits as well.

Carbon credits, or offsets, are produced from projects that claim to prevent a ton of carbon dioxide emissions, or to pull the same amount out of the atmosphere. They’re typically awarded for practices such as halting deforestation, planting trees, and adopting certain soil management techniques.

A new supervisory body, which should begin holding meetings next year, will develop final methods to validate, monitor, and certify projects seeking to sell UN-accredited carbon credits. The Glasgow agreement will establish a separate process for countries to earn credit toward their Paris targets by cooperating with other nations on projects that lower climate emissions, such as funding renewable power plants in another country.

Experts disagree over how large the UN-backed market will become, what some of the new rules will actually do, and how much the details may change as the final methods are determined. But the process is “slowly, messily, ploddingly building out the infrastructure for more trading of carbon as a commodity,” says Jessica Green, associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto, who focuses on climate governance and carbon markets.

The US and European Union have stated that they don’t intend to rely on international carbon credits to achieve their emissions goals under the Paris agreement. But countries including Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Korea, and Switzerland have said they will apply carbon credits, according to Carbon Brief. In fact, Switzerland is already financing projects in Peru, Ghana, and Thailand in hopes of counting those initiatives toward its Paris target.

Most observers praise at least one key achievement at Glasgow: The rules largely will prevent double counting of climate progress. That means two nations trading carbon credits can’t both apply the climate gains toward their Paris goals. Only the nation that buys a credit, or holds onto one it generated, can.

Voluntary markets

But some experts fear there may still be ways that double counting could occur.

Offset project developers have long been able to generate and sell carbon credits through voluntary programs, like the ones managed by registries such as Verra or Gold Standard. Oil and gas companies, airlines, and tech giants are all buying increasing numbers of offsets through these sorts of programs as they strive to achieve net-zero emissions goals.

The UN’s new rules take a hands-off approach to these marketplaces, notes Danny Cullenward, policy director at CarbonPlan, a nonprofit that analyzes the integrity of carbon removal efforts.

That suggests that projects developers in, say, Brazil could earn money for the offsets sold through voluntary markets—while the nation itself could still apply those carbon gains toward its own emissions progress under the Paris accords. That means there could still be double counting between a country and a company both asserting that the same credits lowered their emissions, Cullenward says.

COP26 President Alok Sharma receives applause after giving closing speech at COP26
COP26 President Alok Sharma receives applause after delivering the closing speech at the UN climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland.
JEFF J MITCHELL/GETTY IMAGES

An additional problem is that studies and investigative stories have found that voluntary offset programs can overstate the levels of carbon dioxide reduced or removed, due to a variety of accounting issues. But the fact that the UN isn’t going to regulate these programs could provide market clarity that drives greater demand for these offsets, spurring development of more projects with questionable climate benefits.

“It’s a complete green light for the continued scaling of those markets,” Cullenward says.

Some observers think that many nations will opt not to apply credits sold in voluntary markets toward their Paris goals. Similarly, certain marketplaces will likely distinguish between credits that countries have or haven’t used in this way, labeling the credits to signal their relative quality and pricing them accordingly.

“I’d expect that as recognition grows that [corresponding adjustments] are needed to ensure the environmental integrity of voluntary offset claims, then the market will move in that direction,” wrote Matthew Brander, senior lecturer in carbon accounting at the University of Edinburgh Business School, in an email.

Inconsistent accounting

Lambert Schneider, research coordinator for international climate policy at the Oeko-Institut in Germany, pointed out another “big loophole” in an analysis earlier month.

The rules allow different countries to use different accounting methods at different times for the carbon credits that are generated and sold, noted Schneider, who was part of the European Union’s team negotiating the carbon market rules. That could also lead to double counting. In one scenario he sketched out, half of the emissions reductions from a set of carbon credits could be claimed by two nations.

The results from either accounting method might balance out over time, more or less, if all nations used the same one all the time. But instead, every country can select the most beneficial method each time they’re reporting progress, likely distorting the overall carbon math.

“It’s a cherry-picking problem,” Schneider says.

Questionable climate benefits

Another area of concern is that the rules will allow nations to apply some credits from an earlier UN program known as the Clean Development Mechanism, authorized within the Kyoto Protocol that went into effect in 2005.

That system issued Certified Emissions Reductions to nations that funded clean energy projects in other countries, like solar and wind farms, for the emissions they may have prevented. It was designed to create an incentive for wealthier nations to fund sustainable development in poorer ones. They produce credits on an ongoing basis on the assumption that the electricity otherwise would have been generated by a climate-polluting facility, like a coal or natural gas plant.

Under the rules approved at Glasgow, nations can continue to apply credits from such projects registered in 2013 or later toward their first set of emissions reduction goals (which in most cases will mean for 2030).

The problem is that those projects already exist. If a project doesn’t achieve emissions reductions beyond what would have happened without the carbon credit program, the program didn’t bring about any added climate benefits.

Many countries have been developing wind and solar farms for years, with no carbon credit subsidy, because they’re often already cost competitive with fossil-fuel alternatives. In fact, a recent economic working paper looked at more than 1,000 wind farms in India and found that more than half of the Clean Development Mechanism offsets went to projects that likely would have come online anyway. That’s because other wind projects that didn’t receive such a subsidy were built in the same area.

The earlier Clean Development Mechanism projects could produce hundreds of millions of credits, Schneider wrote.

It’s “deeply questionable” whether these projects delivered real, additional climate benefits when they were developed, Cullenward adds. “It’s even more questionable whether they are now.”

Magnifying mistakes

A final fear is that the UN’s new carbon trading marketplace will carry over these types of accounting problems.

In fact, the language in the rules advises the supervisory body to review the Clean Development Mechanism’s methodologies “with a view to applying them with revisions as appropriate,” and to consider the rules from market-based offset programs “as a complementary input.” Some of the latter, notably the forest program under California’s cap-and-trade system, also have well-documented problems, as MIT Technology Review and ProPublica previously reported.

Some groups argue that the Glasgow agreement is a “robust set of rules” because it simply doesn’t count carbon credits twice, Green says. “But that overlooks the fundamental thing, which is that there are a lot of problems with the way we’re accounting for this stuff in the first place,” she says.

The hope is that the new supervisory body will take a hard, honest look at the problems in earlier programs and strive to fix them. The fear is that political and economic incentives will work against that, as nations, polluters, and project developers look to generate, buy, and sell credits that allow them to make money or assert climate progress.

If the UN-backed carbon market is built largely upon the shaky foundation of earlier offset programs, including its own, it will effectively replicate and magnify the known problems. That would threaten to overstate emissions progress, undermine the credibility of Paris agreement achievements, and slow global efforts to address climate change.

Correction: The story was updated to clarify that the study of wind farms in India concluded more than half of the offsets were in question, not necessarily more than half of the projects.