Is it police work or racial profiling? U.S. crackdown puts Chinese scholars on edge

Xiaoxing Xi
Xiaoxing Xi, a Temple University physics professor, works with superconducting thin film in his lab. He is suing the federal government, which alleged in 2015 that he illegally sent technical information to China. The charges were dropped four months later.
(Courtesy of Xiaoxing Xi)

With three patents and more than 300 research papers to his name, Xiaoxing Xi was the respected chairman of Temple University’s physics department.

That is until May 2015, when FBI agents burst into his home outside Philadelphia with guns drawn and accused him of being a spy. He was hauled away in handcuffs in front of his wife and young daughters, fingerprinted and strip-searched. He also was threatened with 80 years in prison and a $1-million fine.

Four months later, federal prosecutors dropped the charges after experts provided affidavits that the information Xi sent to scientists in China was widely known and publicly available on the internet. Federal authorities offered no apology, no explanation and no compensation — leaving Xi struggling to rebuild his shattered life.


Xi’s case, and several others like it, have sparked widespread fears that the federal government’s recent crackdown on China is leading to racial profiling of ethnic Chinese students and scholars. Xi was arrested during the Obama administration but pressure on China over trade, technology and security has intensified under President Trump, prompting federal officials to more aggressively police efforts to steal intellectual property and innovations.

One attorney, Peter Zeidenberg of Arent Fox in Washington, says he is defending about 20 ethnic Chinese scientists and scholars against charges related to China. His clients include Xi and Sherry Chen, who was a hydrologist with the National Weather Service when she was arrested in 2014. Five months later, federal prosecutors dropped all of the espionage-related charges against Chen but she is still fighting to get her job back. Both Xi and Chen are naturalized American citizens born in China.

“This is the broadest attack against Chinese Americans in recent memory,” said Stewart Kwoh, executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice in Los Angeles, a legal defense and civil rights organization. “It’s alarming to Chinese Americans to be swept up in this tension between the U.S. and China. Their civil rights are being abridged, but the tensions are so high people aren’t finding a lot of support.”

The Committee of Concerned Scientists, an international organization of leading scientists, physicians, engineers and scholars, sent a sharply worded letter to President Trump last month urging an immediate end to “the campaign of intimidation of ethnic Chinese scientists.” The committee said they were being subjected to video surveillance and searches of their email accounts, correspondence and phone calls.

“Ethnic profiling and indiscriminate investigations of Chinese scientists have no place in our country,” the letter said. “Besides damaging the image of the United States, it is also damaging to our national security by inflicting irreparable harm on some of our best scientists and making them think about leaving the country.”

University leaders also are speaking out. MIT President L. Rafael Reif, in a letter to the campus community last month, warned that managing risks of academic espionage must not create a “toxic atmosphere of unfounded suspicion and fear” against ethnic Chinese researchers. He called “heartbreaking” reports from his faculty, researchers and students that they feel “unfairly scrutinized, stigmatized and on edge -- because of their Chinese ethnicity alone.”

Federal officials, however, say the threat is real — and that they are colorblind in rooting it out.

Yi-Chi Shih, for example, was an adjunct UCLA professor of electrical engineering. He now faces up to 219 years in federal prison after being convicted last month of conspiring to export semiconductor chips with military applications to China. UCLA says his crimes were unrelated to his university work.

“We’re looking for behavior, not individuals,” said Michael Lauer, deputy director for extramural research at the National Institutes of Health, which has contacted 61 institutions about whether their scientists, most of them ethnic Chinese, followed all federal grant rules.

NIH officials recently said in a letter to three ethnic Chinese scientific organizations that raised civil rights concerns that they would work to avoid “overreaction, stigmatization, harassment, and profiling” and “use our influence and bully pulpit as necessary to speak out against such prejudicial actions, for which there is no place in the biomedical research community.” But the NIH letter, published in Science magazine in March, said that “instances have recently come to light where certain scientists, including some with links to foreign institutions and/or governments, have violated the honor-based systems and practices of the American research enterprise.”

U.S. Rep. Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park) said she recently attended a federal intelligence briefing on Chinese threats to American universities and corporations, and agreed that concerns about Chinese efforts to steal U.S. intellectual property were legitimate. But she said the presentation failed to acknowledge the fears of racial profiling and gave the impression that “every Chinese person is evil and a spy.”

Chu said she raised those concerns with intelligence officials. She said she does the same with her colleagues in Congress during her “never-ending effort” to bird-dog growing legislative efforts to require more scrutiny of Chinese students and scholars.

“I’m very concerned about an entire ethnic group [being] painted with a broad brush, where they’re guilty until proven innocent,” Chu said. “We’re at a point where Chinese students and scholars could be guilty of the crime of studying while Chinese.”

The current political climate has unnerved even Leslie E. Wong, who retired this month as president of San Francisco State University. What used to be routine trips to China to attend university alumni events have become fraught with anxiety, he said.

“The paranoia started seeping in,” Wong said. “You think, ‘Oh my god. The records show I go to China.’ You become sensitive to the fact that your last name is Wong and you go to Asia. It’s sort of a niggling thing in your head that says let’s be careful, keep extra diary notes, keep all of our I’s dotted and Ts crossed.”

This isn’t the first time that the ethnic Chinese community has been unfairly targeted during times of tension with China, said Charlie Woo, public policy chairman of the Committee of 100, a national organization of leading Chinese Americans.

One of the earliest cases involved Qian Xuesen, a prominent Chinese scientist at MIT and Caltech who was accused of being a communist sympathizer and stripped of his security clearance in 1950, despite protests by his colleagues. After five years under house arrest, he returned to China in 1955 and helped lead development of the Chinese nuclear weapons program, becoming known as the “Father of Chinese Rocketry.”

In 1999, a Taiwanese American scientist, Wen Ho Lee, was indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of stealing U.S. nuclear secrets for China while working at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. The following year, federal prosecutors dropped all but one of the 59 charges, with Lee pleading guilty to one charge of mishandling sensitive documents after spending months in solitary confinement.

Woo said the federal crackdown is driving away top scientists, such as Chunzai Wang, one of the world’s leading experts on climate change who worked for 17 years for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Wang, a naturalized U.S. citizen, was accused of taking a salary from a source other than the U.S. government while serving as a guest professor at a Chinese university. In a plea deal last year, Wang pleaded guilty to one felony charge and returned to China, where he is continuing his research.

To address the rising unease among ethnic Chinese, Woo is planning a major symposium on racial profiling this fall in Silicon Valley.

As for Xi, the scientist said the false arrest has forever altered his life. He lost his university chairmanship and most of his nine federal research grants and contracts. He says he can’t sleep soundly or concentrate, losing the laser-focused mind that helped him excel in science.

Xi is suing the federal government but faces $220,000 in legal bills.

“Everything that I worked on for 30 years could be gone — my career, reputation, livelihood,” Xi said. “But if I can help the Chinese American community and the scientific community to become more aware of what’s going on and speak up, then there will be something positive to come out of this.”

Times staff writer Don Lee contributed to this report.