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China Initiative Set Out to Catch Spies. It Didn’t Find Many

A three-year-old Department of Justice program has produced few convictions—and lots of complaints about racism and FBI misconduct.

Franklin Tao, a former University of Kansas chemical engineering professor, and his wife, Hong Peng, in Lawrence, Kan. Tao, who has been charged with failing to disclose ties to a Chinese university, faces trial and a possible prison sentence of 20 years.

Franklin Tao, a former University of Kansas chemical engineering professor, and his wife, Hong Peng, in Lawrence, Kan. Tao, who has been charged with failing to disclose ties to a Chinese university, faces trial and a possible prison sentence of 20 years.

Photographer: Arin Yoon for Bloomberg Businessweek

Inside a Kansas City courtroom, Peter Zeidenberg is growing frustrated. The wiry, gray-haired lawyer isn’t making much headway persuading a judge to throw out evidence obtained as a result of what he calls misconduct by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. His client, Franklin Tao, a former University of Kansas chemical engineering professor facing 20 years in prison, is furiously scribbling notes and passing them to his defense team.

“They were looking for a spy, looking for evidence of espionage of trade secrets,” Zeidenberg says, his voice rising in exasperation. But they found none, he says, because there wasn’t any. “At the end of the day, they just have a conflict-of-interest form where the box wasn’t checked.”