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.
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.