Career of top Chinese-American physicist destroyed by unjustified US espionage accusations

By Li Tianyang Source:Global Times Published: 2018/12/17 18:16:39

A series of cases of the Chinese-born scientists accused of "espionage" in 2015 were part of the actions taken by the US to quash China-US technology exchanges

Suspected Chinese intelligence agents are "collateral damage" in the US-China dispute, with their lives ruined or at least disrupted

America has a long history of hunting for Chinese scapegoats as part of their efforts to curb China's scientific and technological development

Chen Xiafen (center), a hydrologist at the US National Weather Service, and Xi Xiaoxing (first from left) hold a press conference on September 15, 2015, in Washington DC to tell their experience of being arrested by the FBI and being accused of "espionage." Photo: VCG

In the early morning of May 21, 2015, world-renowned superconductor expert and Temple University physics professor Xi Xiaoxing was awakened by furious knocking at his house in the Philadelphia suburbs.

A dozen FBI agents broke down his door, pointing guns at Xi and his family.

Five days before Xi was arrested, a professor at Tianjin University named Zhang Hao was invited for an international conference about microwaves. He was charged with offenses including economic espionage and theft of trade secrets by the US Department of Justice at the Los Angeles international airport.

Half year before Xi was arrested, another Chinese-American scientist, Chen Xiafen, a hydrologist at the US National Weather Service (NWS), was arrested in her Ohio office.

Although the US Justice Department has dropped charges against a number of Chinese-born scientists accused, the damage to their reputations and careers has been made and may haunt their whole lives.

The series of "espionage" cases in 2015 was part of the actions taken by the US to quash China-US technology exchanges, long before the Chinese were surprised about the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou this December. The US may have already finished the work of "threatening" or "cleaning out" some Chinese-Americans or pro-China Americans.

The unconvincing evidence, pervasive surveillance, inhuman treatment, long lawsuits and costly bail have brought scars to these experts' lives. 

Charge without evidence

The US Justice Department charged Xi on four counts of wire fraud, specifically, passing American superconductor secrets to China. In addition to serious federal charges and the threat of 80 years behind bars, he had to pay a $1 million fine if convicted.

Xi was later released on $100,000 bail.

The indictment claimed Xi exploited a superconductor device which was bought with a grant from the US Department of Defense "for the benefit of third parties in China, including government entities," with the aim of helping China lead the world in superconductor technology.

Prosecutors said in 2002, Xi had participated in a technology research and development program ("863 plan") sponsored by the Chinese government. In return, the indictment said Xi could retain senior positions with both high prestige and benefits.

The evidence from the prosecutors was four emails that Xi sent to his Chinese peers, with the content of design papers of a type of "heater." This heater is a key component in superconductor research.

Xi's students said he was annoyed with the headlines of US media, such as "Chinese Spy Caught," at that time.

Some Chinese netizens also condemned Xi and said he deserved this treatment. They believed the US Justice Department must have "evidence" and Xi should have been "loyal" to his country as an American citizen.

Some US media had wondered why the prosecutors did not publicize their key evidence. Now that the case was related to confidential information, why they didn't prosecute Xi for the crime of espionage?

However, after several months, the US Justice Department dropped the charges and returned all the evidence it seized.

Several world-famous physicists testified for Xi that FBI agents had misunderstood the complicated technology because the design paper in Xi's emails was open to the public, not confidential.

As a result, prosecutors in Philadelphia dropped charges against Xi but refused to comment publicly.

Collateral damage

"Collateral damage" is a term that was first used by American army during the Vietnam War for avoiding blame over the civilian causalities caused by the war. The phrase makes it seem like the civilian deaths are inevitable, sacrificed in an American "crusade for justice" against the Vietnamese.

Xi Xiaoxing found himself undergoing such "collateral damage."

Before the event, his life was very smooth. He was a leading pioneer in the field of magnesium diboride superconducting thin film technology, and also candidate for director of the Department of Physics at Temple University in the US. He managed nine government research programs and more than $1 million of federal funding.

After the incident, his life was ruined. He lost his position, and was banned from entering the campus or talking to any students. Faced with endless suspicion, his daughter had to clarify endlessly that her father was not a "spy" to her classmates.

After the charges were dropped, Xi's horror has never disappeared. He worries about being monitored, and fears a gun suddenly being put against his head. His position as an acting director is gone forever. A previous invitation for him to be a president of a reputed scientific organization was rescinded. He was locked out of all scientific and technological conversation between China and the US.

To restore his reputation and prevent the FBI from investigating him, Xi filed a federal lawsuit on May 10, 2017, accusing the FBI agent who led the case of misrepresenting the core evidence and repeatedly ignoring warnings of misjudgment. Xi has also demanded compensation over his physical and psychological suffering.

Xi does not believe it was an "honest mistake" at all. He claims that Andrew Haugen, the FBI agent who was investigating him, knew from the start that the graph was not a core secret.

The FBI spokesman declined to give any comment. In most lawsuits against FBI employees, agents are unlikely to be punished. Xi therefore began giving speeches across the US about the FBI's error.

Xi suggests that his arrest was partly due to a prejudice against Chinese-Americans, who are believed to be particularly under scrutiny. "We always worry that everything we do is monitored by the FBI, and then our words and deeds may be distorted. That's what we've always feared," Xi said in a press conference.

In the latest development in the case, federal prosecutors announced they would no longer charge and gather new evidence against Xi, and return his confiscated property. But an apology and compensation have not been forthcoming.

Compared with Xi, who finally retained his position in school, Chen Xiafen, who was also eventually proved wronged, was not only expelled by her company, but also faced a huge legal bill. The case of another, Zhang Hao, who was entrapped, is still pending.

Earlier this year, Wang Chun, a prominent Chinese-American oceanographer, was sentenced for getting paid from China while he was a US government employee. Wang reached a plea deal with US federal prosecutors before the trial, according to his lawyer.

He pleaded guilty to a felony charge of soliciting payment from an organization other than his US employer, in exchange for avoiding a lengthy and expensive trial.

In court, however, the judge questioned the prosecution's case against Professor Wang, saying it was "regrettable" that the case had to be decided when it was not necessary to prosecute.

Hunt for scapegoats

"It is a common practice for politicians in the United States to scapegoat the Chinese. I have experienced so many cases involving Chinese people in which none of them are real spies. All of them are normal business and academic contacts," Hai Ming, a Chinese lawyer who has worked in New York state for more than 30 years, told

Li Wenhe, a wronged hydrodynamics expert who shocked China and the US in the 1990s, wrote in his autobiography My Country Versus Me: "No matter how wise and hard working I am, Asians like me and Chinese like me will never be accepted by American society and will always be 'foreigners.'"

These professors usually focus on doing research. They pay poor attention to relevant laws. They do not care much about international politics, and do not realize that they may be involved in huge trouble.

According to an earlier report by quoting the Economic Espionage Act, at least 55 of the 180 cases of economic espionage by the end of 2017 involved Chinese citizens or Chinese Americans.

Some  22 percent of Asians charged with espionage don't end up with a conviction. That means more than a fifth of Asians indicted could be innocent, double the number of cases in which other ethnic groups are acquitted after being charged. At the same time, Asians who are convicted receive twice as long prison terms as other ethnic groups who have committed similar crimes.

The hunt for economic spies against Chinese has been going on for at least 15 years, from the Bush administration to the Obama administration, Thomas Nolan, who was responsible for representing the case of Chinese accused of being "economic spies" by the US government, told

According to Thomas, over the past decades, America has benefited from talented people coming from China and other Asian countries. Now because of China's economic boom, many talented people from China are going back, raising US concern about losing their ability, as well as the technology those people understand.

The employers of the talented people are turning to cooperate with the US government to interrupt any individual who could possibly sharing tech information with their Chinese compatriots.

Thomas believes that the Chinese employees are like "slaves" to a large American company, who are not allowed to leave. It reminds Thomas of what the US government did when he was young to isolate Japanese in the United States during World War II, putting them in concentration camps.


Newspaper headline: Wronged scientists

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