Chinese American physicist Xiaoxing Xi with symbols of the U.S. and Chinese flags, formulas, and prison bars over his photo.
Photo illustration, sources: Hans Neleman, Robert Brook/Science Photo Library, Gualtiero Boffi/EyeEm via Getty Images

The U.S. Crackdown on Chinese American Researchers Endangers the Future of Science

Ethnically Chinese scientists are fighting a long history of U.S. persecution

Eileen Guo
Future Human
Published in
14 min readAug 6, 2020

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Shortly after dawn on May 21, 2015, FBI agents came to physicist Xiaoxing Xi’s front door with guns drawn and a battering ram for backup. They arrested him on charges of wire fraud and released him only after he put his house up as collateral against a $100,000 bond.

Xi, who lived in a quiet suburb of Philadelphia, attracted attention as a world-renowned expert in thin films, substances used for building superconductors. The 57-year-old had just been named interim chair of Temple University’s physics department. He was the principal or co-principal investigator on nine federally funded research projects on thin films, had grants totaling over $1 million per year, and led a team of 14 researchers.

The professor was charged with four counts of wire fraud by the U.S. Department of Justice for allegedly sharing confidential scientific information with Chinese entities — specifically, illegally sharing the proprietary blueprints of a pocket heater device, citing four emails he sent to Chinese scientists in 2010 as evidence. According to the federal indictment, Xi’s emails had suggested collaborating on research in exchange for “lucrative and prestigious appointments.” If convicted, he faced a prison sentence of 80 years and $1 million in fines.

But the case unraveled before going to trial. Xi’s lawyers proved through the testimony of experts, including one of the pocket heater’s actual inventors, that Xi had actually shared the schematics of different devices that were not considered confidential. Further, everything Xi had shared was already publicly available in scientific journals.

Still, Xi paid dearly for this. His family spent over $200,000 in legal fees. Within weeks, he was put on paid leave, lost his chairmanship, and, later, most of his research funding.

“Very often, when people see other people being charged, they’ll think that this guy must have done something wrong,” Xi tells OneZero.

“I felt compelled.”

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Eileen Guo
Future Human

Trilingual journalist covering inequality, injustice, + unintended consequences. Recovered entrepreneur, amateur surfer. Assignments + tips: hi@eileenguo.com