Leading Chinese Americans, gathering Saturday in Silicon Valley, decried what they say is alarming and growing racial profiling of their community by federal agencies cracking down on China.
Federal officials warn that an increasingly aggressive China is exploiting America’s open academic environment to steal intellectual property and innovations in a quest for economic and military dominance.
But many of the attendees — who included former U.S. Cabinet secretaries, a Nobel laureate, high-tech entrepreneurs, elected officials, scientists, educators and community activists — warned that a “toxic environment” against ethnic Chinese scientists and scholars was driving away intellectual talent and jeopardizing the kind of international academic collaboration that has led to U.S. leadership in research and scientific progress.
They also highlighted cases of Chinese American scientists who were arrested on federal espionage-related charges, only to have the charges dropped and their lives ruined.
One of them is Xiaoxing Xi, who was the respected chairman of Temple University’s physics department 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.
Xi shared his story at the gathering in Palo Alto, breaking down in tears as he described how the traumatic experience caused his wife to suffer health problems, irreparably harmed his research and brought his family to near financial ruin from the enormous legal bills. He lost his university chairmanship and most of his nine federal research grants and contracts.
Former Washington state Gov. Gary Locke, who served as U.S. ambassador to China and commerce secretary in the Obama administration, said espionage and intellectual property theft by China threatened U.S. economic prosperity and endangered national security. But he also decried federal actions against innocent Chinese Americans.
“As loyal Americans ... we must all condemn any such wrongdoing and illegal activity and unequivocally believe that all such crimes must be prosecuted and punished according to our rule of law,” he said. “But in recent years there have been so many cases of wrongful prosecution, of lives ruined because of a rush to judgment.”
One 2017 study by three legal experts found that Chinese and other Asian Americans are disproportionately charged under the Economic Espionage Act, receive much longer sentences, and are significantly more likely to be innocent than defendants of other races. The study was commissioned by the Committee of 100, a leading organization of Chinese Americans that convened what conference chair Charlie Woo called a historic gathering of community leaders to fight the rising bias.
But federal officials assured the gathering that they are targeting illegal conduct, not particular groups of people.
“Our concern is not focused on any ethnic groups or nationalities,” David Stilwell, assistant secretary of State and an East Asia expert, said in a live video linkup.
Still, he added, the FBI is investigating more than 1,000 cases of attempted theft of intellectual property, and “almost all lead back to China.”
John Hemann, chief of the special prosecutions section of the U.S. attorney’s office for Northern California, said more Chinese Americans might be caught up in cases because China has explicitly sought out ethnic Chinese in the United States and other countries to obtain intellectual property — appealing to “patriotic overseas Chinese” in hundreds of documents he said he has read.
“It is happening, it is happening intentionally, and the United States government is going to do something about it,” he said of China’s attemped espionage.
Leading scientists said that growing restrictions on research collaboration with foreign scholars is jeopardizing their work.
Steven Chu, a Nobel laureate in physics who served as U.S. energy secretary under Obama and now teaches at Stanford University, said the National Institutes of Health is requiring that U.S. researchers disclose any “significant support” from foreign collaborators — and possibly ask permission before accepting it. It is unclear what qualifies as “significant,” Chu said, and the added regulatory burdens are slowing down approvals of grants and creating widespread fear among scientists that they may inadvertently fail to fill out disclosure forms properly and be targeted.
Chu said the United States has richly benefited from immigrants who have helped the nation make sizable leaps in science and technology — including those fleeing Nazi Germany who advanced the field of atomic energy and many Chinese scientists who came or stayed here during the Cultural Revolution. He said Stanford’s “stars” in battery storage research today are largely Chinese immigrants — and questioned whether the Trump administration’s more restrictive immigration policies would alter that.
A survey last year by the American Physical Society found that Chinese applicants to U.S. PhD programs in physics dropped by 16.4% from 2017 to 2018 — larger than an overall decline of nearly 12% among all international applicants. There are widespread reports that Chinese students are facing visa delays and rejections, which many universities fear will cause a sharp decline in their numbers, research talent and tuition revenue. (Stilwell, however, said the federal government has rejected on grounds of espionage only 0.0001% of all student visa applications from China so far this year.)
“Are we seeing the last generation of Chinese immigrants come here and contribute to the technological power of America?” Chu asked.
Silicon Valley officials expressed similar concerns. About 60% of employees in Silicon Valley’s high-tech “innovation industries” are foreign born — primarily from China and India — said Carl Guardino, president of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, a public policy organization representing 350 of the area’s employers. Restricting that flow of talent would be “catastrophic for our economy,” he said.
Several speakers noted that Chinese Americans have fought racism for more than a century. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act cut off immigration from China until a 1965 law reopened the door. And Chinese American scientists have come under suspicion for decades — including 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.”
U.S. Rep. Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park) said racial profiling is getting worse. She said she is constantly fighting what she called anti-Chinese legislation, including a current effort to essentially prevent transit agencies from using public funds on rail cars or buses from companies owned, controlled or subsidized by the Chinese government. That would bar any contracts to BYD, a Chinese leader in electric buses with which LA Metro has contracted for 100 such vehicles.
Chu urged the audience to educate the public about the effect of the federal crackdown on Chinese Americans, seek allies and speak out.
That’s exactly what Xi, the Temple University physicist who was wrongfully arrested by the FBI, said he is trying to do. But when conference chair Woo asked him for advice for Chinese Americans, Xi’s answer was not reassuring.
“Don’t think this won’t happen to you,” Xi said. “You don’t have to do anything wrong to be accused of Chinese spying.”