In 1880, the city of San Francisco passed a law requiring a special permit to operate a laundry business in a wooden building due to fire hazard. At the time, most of the city’s laundries were owned by Chinese immigrants, yet almost all the permits were granted to white owners.

A Chinese immigrant by the name of Lee Yick continued running his business, without the permit, as he had for the past 22 years. He was fined $10 and arrested, then sued the San Francisco sheriff, arguing that discriminatory enforcement of the law violated his right to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment. The case went all the way to the US Supreme Court, which, in 1886, sided with the laundry operator. In a unanimous opinion, Justice T. Stanley Matthews wrote that though the law was “impartial in appearance,” it had been applied “with an evil eye and an unequal hand.” The decision set a precedent that the law must not only be fair on its face, but also unbiased in its enforcement. 

At a hearing yesterday in Boston’s federal court, Attorney William Fick compared the story of Lee Yick to his client, Haoyang Yu, a Chinese immigrant and Lexington resident convicted of possessing a stolen trade secret. 

The hearing was a last attempt to argue that the case against Yu was biased and should therefore be dismissed. Judge William G. Young appeared sympathetic to the argument but was ultimately unconvinced. The motion was denied and Yu’s case will now move to sentencing. 

Haoyang Yu’s wife, Yanzhi Chen (right) and supporters protest outside the federal court in Boston / Credit: Lauren Feeney

Yu originally faced 19 federal criminal charges relating to prototype microchip design files he transferred to his personal Google drive while working for a company called Analog Devices before going on to form his own microchip business. The charges included wire fraud, immigration fraud, and transferring the designs to China. After a jury trial last year, Yu was acquitted of 18 of the 19 charges, leaving the single count of possessing a stolen design. Most significantly, the jury did not find any transfer of the designs to China.

In a similar case, three former employees of the same company, Analog Devices, misappropriated trade secrets and passed them on to their new employer. The case was settled quickly in civil court and no one faced criminal charges. In Yu’s case, federal investigators stepped in and commenced a criminal action, treating the case as a national security threat. 

Fick argued that the government engaged in selective enforcement in their prosecution of Yu. “The overwhelming majority of prosecutions for intellectual property crimes are Asian Americans,” he said.

Fick pointed to an FBI report from March 23, 2018, when the federal case against Yu was opened. The report referred to Yu as having a “strong nexus to the People’s Republic of China.” Yu was born in China and studied at the prestigious Tsinghua University before moving to the US to study at UMass Amherst in 2002. Now a US citizen, he returns to China most summers to visit family.

“This motion has resonated with me a great deal,” Judge Young said. “It’s hard to say that Mr. Yu’s race or ethnicity was not a factor here.” Referring to the history of slavery, Japanese internment camps, and the “terrible treatment of ethnic Chinese at the time of the intercontinental railroad,” Young said, “no court can allow any vestige of that conduct to endure in the present day.”

But Young was also cognizant of the prosecution’s position that “China is widely regarded as the greatest threat” to US national security, and said that it was “not up to this court to second guess” the law enforcement officers who decided to open a criminal case.

“I do not deny that there was implicit bias.” Young said. But in the end, he denied the motion to dismiss the case on those grounds.

“It’s disappointing but not surprising,” said Yu’s wife, Yanzhi Chen. “We are just people; we don’t have a big company to support us against the US attorney.”

Yu did have the support of at least two dozen members of the local Chinese-American community, who protested outside the federal court in Boston on Thursday.

“It’s just absurd that because of the tensions between two countries a US citizen is paying the price,” said Han Wei, a supporter who knows Yu through their “middle-aged dad basketball games” played every few weeks.

“Implicit bias is so deeply ingrained that even the judge’s own rational thinking could not overcome it,” said Helen Yang, vice president of Asian Americans for Equal Rights and CALex. “I think it will be a lenient sentencing because he did seem sympathetic.”

Sentencing in Yu’s case is scheduled for May 30. He faces up to ten years in prison and a fine of $250,000. 

Yu is not the only local resident to get caught up in the China Initiative, a Trump-era effort to prevent Chinese espionage and trade secrets theft. The program has been widely criticized by civil rights advocates and the academic community for unfairly targeting scientists of Chinese origin or ancestry. (Yu’s case was technically referred for prosecution just before the China Initiative was announced, but many of the practices formalized by the initiative were already in place).

Last month, another Lexington resident, former Harvard chemistry professor Charles Leiber, was sentenced to six months of home confinement, a fine of $50,000 and $34,000 restitution to the IRS for making false statements to the US government about ties to China. The case against another local Chinese-American scientist, MIT professor and Belmont resident Gang Chen, was dismissed last year. Soon after, the Biden administration’s Department of Justice decided to change the policy, dropping the “China Initiative” name and broadening the initiative to encompass threats from other nations.

Join the Conversation


  1. Thank you Lauren for taking the time to go to the hearing to get first hand information, and for a great write-up.

  2. Thanks to everyone’s name that was mentioned in this article and our
    Lexington Observer and Lauren Feeney for covering the case for Mr. Yu. I am sorry that I just learned about Mr. Yu’s case recently. I believe Mr. Yu’s case just dragged on and on simply because of his ethnicity, he is Chinese! It’s torture! It’s suffering and angrish for the last five looooong years! America is going through the “Hate Chinese ” period in history till we find another country to hate. It is nice that Mr. Yu and his family has support from the brave souls that are supporting and speaking up for Mr. Yu and it’s so important to them the last five years. I like to thank our Lexington’s CALex, the vice-Chair Helen Yang and the Winchester Chinese American Association. Our Harvard professor was sentenced to 6 months home confinement and $50,000 and pay restitution to the IRS. Compare the two cases is like comparing apples and oranges and I just hope that May 30th sentencing for Mr. Yu would be much much lighter then our Harvard Professor’s and I do hope hope that the Judge would surprise us. Amen.

    Even in the federal court. In 5/11’s hearing, Judge spent bulk of the court time talking about his views about China & openly acknowledged there was “implicit bias” in case against U.S. citizen Haoyang Yu, a Chinese American

    “I would be blind myself to say there was no implicit bias here” said the federal judge, rejecting the motion by a Chinese-American who says he was was accused of espionage because of his race. Feds failed to prove 20 out of 21 charges against him.

  4. Justice at last:

    “BOSTON – A Lexington, Mass. man was sentenced today in Boston federal court for possessing the stolen prototype design of a microchip, known as the HMC1022A, which was owned and developed by his former employer, Analog Devices, Inc. (ADI), a semiconductor company headquartered in Wilmington, Mass. This chip is used in both aerospace and defense applications.

    Haoyang Yu, 45, was sentenced by U.S. Senior District Court Judge William G. Young to six months in prison to be followed by three years of supervised release, during which he may not work in the microchip industry. Yu was also ordered to pay a fine of $55,000 and restitution to be determined at a later date. In May 2022, following a month-long trial, a federal jury convicted Yu of possessing ADI’s stolen trade secret. The jury acquitted Yu of alleging possession of other stolen trade secrets, wire fraud, immigration fraud, and the illegal export of controlled technology.

    “This prosecution demonstrates the Department of Justice’s commitment to protecting the integrity of the semiconductor market, as this technology plays a critical role in both our country’s industrial policy and geopolitical strategy. Mr. Yu stole intellectual property from his employer, plain and simple, and used that pilfered information to line his own pocket. I commend the work of the Department of Commerce, the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, and the Naval Criminal Investigation Service in their dedicated work to the investigation and prosecution of this matter,” said Acting United States Attorney Joshua S. Levy.

    “Yu was convicted by a federal jury of stealing trade secret associated with the design for a semiconductor utilized in defense and aerospace industries. As a result of an intensive investigation, Yu is facing federal prison for his crime,” said Michael J. Krol, Acting Special Agent in Charge of the Homeland Security Investigations in New England. “HSI works tirelessly with our local, state, and federal partners to ensure the security of sensitive U.S. strategic technologies and will continue to disrupt and dismantle any attempts to obtain them for financial gain.”

    “Today, Mr. Yu learned his fate for possessing a stolen semiconductor trade secret for his own financial gain. Thankfully, his actions did not destroy his former employer’s business,” said Joseph R. Bonavolonta, Special Agent in Charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Boston Division. “While we all welcome fair competition, the FBI will not tolerate stealing and cheating. It’s illegal, unethical, and unfair, and this type of criminal conduct hurts American businesses, jobs, and consumers.”

    Between 2014 and 2017, Yu worked at ADI, where he designed microchips used by the communications, defense, and aerospace industries. Through his employment, Yu had access to various kinds of ADI intellectual property, including present and future microchip designs, schematics, layouts, modeling files, customer lists, and ordering histories.

    While employed at ADI, Yu used this information to start his own microchip business, Tricon MMIC, LLC. Forensic analysis later showed that Yu’s personal, at-home computer held exact, bit-for-bit copies of hundreds of ADI intellectual property files. Trial evidence showed that Yu had accessed these files on ADI’s secure servers, copied them, changed their filenames – often to those of cartoon characters, and then saved them on his personal electronic accounts and devices.

    Trial evidence showed that all of the chips Yu’s business sold were built with ADI’s stolen intellectual property. In particular, Yu used the stolen HMC1022A design to manufacture two knock-off versions of ADI’s chip. Yu then began selling his versions of the HMC1022A to ADI’s customers and others even before ADI went to market with its own completed design. In all, before his arrest, Yu manufactured about 10,000 chips built with stolen ADI property and grossed about $235,000. ADI cooperated fully in the government’s investigation.

    Acting U.S. Attorney Levy; Rashel Assouri, Special Agent in Charge of the Department of Commerce, Bureau of Industry and Security, Office of Export Enforcement, Boston Field Office; HSI Acting SAC Krol; FBI SAC Bonavolonta; and Michael Wiest, Special Agent in Charge of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, Northeast Field Office made the announcement today. U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Coast Guard Investigative Service, Defense Criminal Investigative Service, Massachusetts State Police and the Lexington and Hingham Police Departments provided assistance with the investigation. Valuable assistance in the case was provided by the National Security Division’s Counterintelligence and Export Control Section. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Amanda Beck, Jason A. Casey and John A. Capin of Levy’s National Security Unit prosecuted the case.”

    After all the distorted one-sided reporting and false accusations against the US officials who uncovered Yu’s theft and did their job, it’s time for Lexington to hear the truth. The jury and judge were fair to him, but he was still very guilty of a crime. Another criminal imprisoned for his criminal activity, not his race — he is not an example of, or for, our communities — AAPI or Lexington.

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