Advocates gather to support former University of Kansas professor following his sentencing

Franklin Tao was first person prosecuted under Trump’s ‘China Initiative’

By: - January 18, 2023 5:47 pm

Franklin Tao’s friends, family and colleagues gather Jan. 18, 2023, outside the federal courthouse in Kansas City, Kansas, to show support. From left: Gisela Perez Kusakawa, executive director of the Asian American Scholar Forum, Haipei Shue, president of United Chinese Americans, Peter Zeidenberg, Franklin Tao’s defense attorney, and Tao’s wife, Hong Peng. (Chloe Anderson for Kansas Reflector)

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Supporters of former University of Kansas professor Franklin Tao gathered in the cold wind and rain Wednesday outside the Robert J. Dole Federal Courthouse.

The group assembled to show support for Tao, who was the first person arrested under former President Donald Trump’s discontinued “China Initiative” in 2019, and to voice their concerns about the rise of racial profiling against Asian American scientists and academics.

Advocates say Tao’s arrest highlighted the problematic results of the China Initiative. He has spent the past three and a half years watching as his reputation, safety, finances and career vanished, even though many charges against him were dropped.

Tao’s trial began in March of 2022 in federal court in Kansas City, Kansas. He was initially charged with three counts of making false statements and seven counts of wire fraud. Tao was acquitted of all charges except for one count of making false statements. On Wednesday, he was sentenced to two years of supervised release.

A profile of the Robert J. Dole federal courthouse
Former University of Kansas professor Franklin Tao was arrested under Trump’s now-defunct “China Initiative” in August 2019 on seven counts of wire fraud and three counts of making false statements. In the fall of 2022, Tao was acquitted on all but one conviction. He was sentenced Jan. 18 at the Robert J. Dole Federal Courthouse in Kansas City, Kansas. (Chloe Anderson for Kansas Reflector)

The China Initiative was launched by the Department of Justice in 2018 and scrapped by the Biden administration in February. The program was created with the intention of combatting espionage and keeping “spies with connections to China” from stealing American intellectual property. Critics believe the program elevated anti-Asian propaganda and made those of Asian American descent feel targeted.

“This prosecution has turned our family’s life upside down,” said Hong Peng, Tao’s wife. “Three and a half years — 1,247 days — from 10 counts to eight counts before trial, to four counts before judge acquittal, to one count left now.”

The FBI obtained a search warrant after Tao was reported for espionage by a young scholar named Huimin Lui, who felt she wasn’t given enough recognition for her work as a co-author. He was indicted after it was revealed that he failed to disclose a teaching contract in China during his tenure at KU, leading the government to believe he used grant funds issued by the National Science Foundation and Department of Energy to further his work at Fuzhou University in Fujian, China.

Judge Julie Robinson found that although Tao was wrong not to disclose the conflict of interest to KU, the time commitment to Fuzhou University didn’t affect his work in Kansas. Robinson noted Tao’s dedication to his students in Kansas and clarified that his work at Fuzhou was fundamental and shareable research, not part of a Chinese “talent plan” that would require Tao to conceal intellectual property, contrary to government charges.

Franklin Tao's family and friends stand outside a federal courthouse
From left, Haipei Shue, president of United Chinese Americans, Gisela Perez Kusakawa, executive director of the Asian American Scholar Forum, and Peter Zeidenberg, Franklin Tao’s defense attorney, stand with Tao’s wife, Hong Peng. (Chloe Anderson for Kansas Reflector)

“We believe it’s very important … that we bring forward science and a greater understanding of the academic process before we push forward many of what we found to have been unjustified charges against Dr. Tao and scientists across the country,” said Gisela Perez Kusakawa, executive director of the Asian American Scholar Forum.

The New Yorker reported Tao grew up poor near China’s Yangtze’s river. He was the first student in three years from his high school to get into college, and he fell in love with research while studying in Chongqing.

Tao dedicated his life to research. He was a tenured associate professor at the University of Kansas and researcher at the Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis, in addition to working on projects funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation. He has published peer-reviewed papers and received awards from both the U.S. and China.

“This was a man who loved science, and would regularly work 70-80 hours a week,” Robinson said in court.

She found there was no harm to KU or any government agencies and denied the government’s request for both upward departure and a variance of 30 months in prison.

Tao’s defense attorney Peter Zeidenberg said he intends to appeal the conviction for making false statements.

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Chloe Anderson
Chloe Anderson

Chloe Anderson is a freelance photojournalist with work published in Climbing magazine, the Lawrence Times, Kansas Reflector and Sharp End Publishing. As a recent graduate of the University of Kansas, Chloe hopes to continue her career in photography, rock climbing and writing somewhere out West.