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
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.”
Headlines around the world sounded like the plot of a Cold War spy movie: An unassuming physics professor was actually a “Chinese spy,” as early coverage described.
But the narrative shifted as more details of the case emerged over the following months, thanks in part to a loose network of Chinese American activists who felt that Xi had been wrongfully persecuted because of his race. They called for an investigation into the FBI’s alleged racial profiling. Xi, too, felt he had been discriminated against by the FBI and often described his real crime as “doing science while Chinese.” He hoped that the public outcry in response to his experience would lead to changes at the bureau.
Instead, the already strained relationship between the U.S. and China continued to deteriorate, worsening as the Obama era gave way to the Trump administration. Hundreds more Chinese American scientists have been scrutinized as a result. The U.S. maintains that it is doing so to protect against the threat of Chinese espionage, an argument it has maintained for decades. But a growing network of advocates and scientists fear that the FBI is targeting scientists based on racial discrimination, and that is not only destroying the livelihoods of Chinese American scientists but also damaging American science output as well.
Xi, who has filed a lawsuit against the FBI, is one of the few Chinese American scientists willing to speak publicly about the racism they face and the impact it’s had on their work. “I realized that it’s not going to improve unless the scientific community and the Chinese and Asian American communities speak up,” Xi says. “I felt compelled.”
During World War II, many immigrant scientists escaping persecution and conflict fled to America. The U.S. benefited from their contributions, but it viewed many of them with suspicion and even accused some of spying on behalf of the countries they left behind. These immigrants nevertheless made significant contributions to American innovation: Asian American scientists have won 16 Nobel Prizes since World War II, and Chinese Americans eight. (In 2019 alone, half of America’s eight Nobel Prize recipients were immigrants.) But these honors did not change the fact that they were perpetually perceived as foreigners and, during times of global suspicion, questioned about their loyalties.
In 1955, Chinese-born rocket scientist Qian Xuesen was deported to China after five years of house arrest, accused of being a CCP sympathizer. Qian had lived in the United States since 1936, helped develop technology to counter German rockets, contributed to the Manhattan Project, and was named the first head of Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Lab. The evidence against him was scant, and Dan Kimball, a former Secretary of the Navy who fought to keep Qian in the United States, later described Qian’s departure as “the stupidest thing this country ever did. He was no more a Communist than I was, and we forced him to go.” In China, Qian continued his scientific pursuits, playing a key role in helping to develop Communist China’s nuclear weapons and space programs.
Last year, journalist Mara Hvistendahl revealed that from the late ’60s to ’70s, the FBI ran a classified surveillance program targeting Chinese American scientists with suspected Communist links — that is, any connection to mainland China.
“If you wanted to do science, you went to the United States. There was no question.”
The most egregious case of profiling occurred in 1999, when a Taiwanese American scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory named Wen Ho Lee was charged with leaking nuclear weapons designs to China. After nine months of pretrial solitary confinement, Lee was found guilty of mishandling classified material but not of espionage. The presiding judge made an unprecedented apology for Lee’s harsh treatment, for which he approved a $1.6 million settlement.
For many in the Chinese American community, Lee’s case was a seminal moment. It forced them to contend with the reality that no matter how long they were in the United States, they would be perpetual foreigners. For others, it was a call to action, mobilizing a group of activists on Lee’s behalf that would later rally around Xi and other Chinese American scientists who have come under suspicion.
In the wake of Lee’s experience, a large contingent of Chinese-born weapons scientists working in the United States returned to China. They became known as the “Los Alamos Club,” as Hvistendahl writes in The Scientist and the Spy, a recent book about Chinese industrial espionage. Other Chinese American scientists decided to work only on non-classified projects to avoid suspicion.
Born in Beijing in the late 1950s, Xiaoxing Xi came of age during the Cultural Revolution, a decadelong period of upheaval and violence in China that resulted in the deaths of up to two million people. It also shut down the country’s educational system, sending Xi’s generation to the countryside for “re-education.” Xi was pig farming when college entrance exams were reinstated in the late 1970s, and he was among the first cohort to take the exam. His results landed him a spot at prestigious Peking University, where he studied physics — not because of any great passion, he says, but because that was what the brightest students did. There, he earned a doctorate in physics and met his wife, a fellow physicist. In 1989, the pair emigrated to the United States.
At that time, “if you wanted to do science, you went to the United States,” Xi explains. “There was no question.”
Over the next three decades, Xi’s career flourished: He taught physics, material science, and engineering at Penn State University for 14 years, receiving an award from the National Science Foundation. He became a fellow with the American Physical Society and was named a Chang Jiang Scholar by the Chinese Ministry of Education, an honor that subsequent awardees were later scrutinized for. His career arc culminated in his interim chairmanship at Temple University.
On the same day that Xi was arrested, the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, a bipartisan group of congressmen and senators working to ensure the representation of Asian and Pacific Islanders in U.S. policy, held a press conference in Washington, D.C. They condemned the racial profiling of Sherry Chen, another wrongfully accused Chinese American scientist. In 2014, Chen, a hydrologist at the National Weather Service, was arrested and charged with espionage by FBI agents, who accused her of illegally accessing a government database to share information about American dams with Chinese scientists. There was no evidence for this.
Five months later, the charges against her were abruptly dropped with no explanation, but she was later fired from her job for the already dropped charges. In her case, too, the FBI had gotten its facts wrong. Chen now also has a pending lawsuit against the U.S. government for malicious prosecution and false arrest.
The FBI’s errors in Xi’s and Shen’s cases occurred because the agency was “rushing to investigate under pressure,” says Aryani Ong, a civil rights lawyer who has worked on Asian American issues for decades. That pressure came partly from the Obama administration’s efforts, launched in 2013, to combat economic espionage. Under that initiative, the Department of Justice made prosecuting the theft of trade secrets a priority, with a focus on cyber attacks and hacking.
Between 2009 and 2015, the number of people of Asian descent charged under the Economic Espionage Act more than tripled to 62%. Ethnically Chinese defendants made up 52% of those cases, notes a 2018 article in the Cardozo Law Review. Twenty-two percent of the people charged were ultimately not convicted. In other words, one in five Asian Americans charged were actually innocent — double the rate of other races prosecuted under the Economic Espionage Act.
Since the report was released, U.S.-China relations have further deteriorated. Chinese American scientists, once seen as bridges between the countries of their birth and citizenship, are increasingly viewed as threats by the FBI. While the government’s scrutiny is aimed at protecting American competitiveness in science and technology, the effect is often the opposite: Talented Americans are pushed out of their fields — or out of the U.S. entirely — and the U.S. is losing its global scientific edge as a result.
In August 2018, President Donald Trump reportedly told a group of CEOs at a closed-door dinner at Mar-a-Lago that “almost every [Chinese] student that comes over to this country is a spy.” Earlier that year, FBI director Christopher Wray described the “China threat” as uniquely dangerous, saying that anyone of Chinese descent could be working on China’s behalf as spies. China’s “whole of society” approach to espionage, he continued, required an equal response from the United States. In November 2019, the Department of Justice announced its new China Initiative, focused specifically on combating Chinese economic espionage.
The threat of Chinese corporate espionage is real: For years, businessmen and scientists affiliated with China have been indicted for trying to steal everything from fighter jet schematics and genetically modified corn seed to the exact pigment of the white stuffing of Oreo cookies. Chinese military hackers, meanwhile, have been connected to cyber intrusions into American companies in the energy sector as well as the data theft of over 1.4 million Americans during the Equifax breach. A 2018 Department of Justice report said that between 2011 and 2018, China was behind 90% of its economic espionage cases.
“There are real cases. There is real spying going on.”
Espionage concerns only recently spilled over into academia. In April 2019, news broke that the U.S. National Institutes of Health was investigating three Chinese American researchers from the prestigious MD Anderson Cancer Institute in Houston, Texas, for failing to disclose their Chinese sources of funding. By spring of this year, the NIH had opened investigations on 189 scientists at a minimum of 85 institutions, 93% of which received their problematic funding from China. Fifty-four scientists have been fired or resigned. The FBI, meanwhile, says that it has over 1,000 active espionage investigations in all 50 states. The vast majority are Chinese American.
Most of the researchers under investigation participated in China’s “talent programs,” which are funded by the Chinese government to attract foreign scientific talent — often ethnic Chinese that have naturalized elsewhere — back to China. (Xi had also participated in a talent program, though this did not come up in the case against him.)
The NIH maintains that its investigations are about grant fraud. It says that it targets researchers stealing U.S.-funded intellectual property, including those who share NIH grant proposals submitted for peer review for Chinese colleagues to copy; moonlighting outside of their universities for millions of dollars that they fail to disclose to their universities or the NIH; promising to credit Chinese institutions on patent applications funded by NIH grants; or setting up shadow laboratories in China.
Members of the academic community interviewed by OneZero argue that most of the academics under investigation never sought to hide their Chinese affiliations, listing them publicly on their university biographies. Any grant disclosure failures, they say, should be corrected internally with the university as administrative or personnel issues rather than as criminal or national security.
“There are real cases. There is real spying going on,” says Frank Wu, a lawyer and legal historian at the Hastings College of Law who has advised many Chinese American scientists since the investigations came to light. But when it comes to academic collaborations, especially between China and the United States, he says, “The question is, are the standards changing, and are there double standards?”
Before Chinese talent programs began receiving extra scrutiny around 2014, American institutions actively encouraged academic collaborations between China and the United States. Since 2010, the NIH has offered $5 million in grants specifically for Chinese-American joint projects — a figure that has been supplemented by an additional $3 million from a Chinese counterpart, the National Natural Chinese Science Foundation. Now, the same collaborations that were encouraged just a few years ago are cause for suspicion.
Xi and many other Chinese American scientists are concerned that the U.S. government’s scrutiny into cross-border academic collaborations is crippling American science.
Xi’s research on thin films, for example, was no secret. It had been published in journals and shared broadly among scientists around the globe. The same goes for the schematics he shared in his emails to scientists in China. This kind of science, meant to be shared globally and built upon, is termed “fundamental” science; in contrast, “applied” science refers to more practical applications of research, the kind that a country might use to improve its defense, agriculture, or tech industries. By persecuting the Chinese American scientists who do fundamental science, Xi and other critics of the government’s approach say that the U.S. is shooting itself in the foot. There is no applied science without openly shared, fundamental research.
In an email to OneZero, a representative of the NIH Office of Extramural Research stated that the NIH makes no distinction between fundamental and applied research. “NIH and the biomedical research community have a vested interest in mitigating any breaches of trust and confidentiality that undermine the integrity of all research we support,” they said.
As a result of the increased scrutiny, the American scientific community is beginning to curb collaborations with China. The early evidence suggests that doing so is detrimental to the United States.
The U.S. and China are already the world’s most productive research collaborators. A study published in 2020 shows that American collaborations with Chinese scientists and funding from Chinese organizations have contributed significantly to U.S. scientific input, contradicting the narrative that China is stealing U.S. innovation.
A number of scientists who have come under investigation — including the former director of MD Anderson’s Center for Public Health and Translational Genomics, Xifeng Wu, MD — have left the United States to take up positions in China. Wu is now the dean of the School of Public Health at China’s Zhejiang University and has become an expert on the coronavirus response. Another cancer researcher, Weihong Tan, PhD, left the University of Florida for Hunan University. He recently led a team of 300 Chinese academic scientists and the private sector to develop an experimental coronavirus vaccine, according to reporting by ProPublica.
The Committee of Concerned Scientists (CCS), an independent, international organization that advocates for scientific freedom, wrote in an open letter last year that the U.S. government’s persecution of ethnically Chinese scientists not only affects academics but also creates an unwelcoming culture for Chinese graduate students. Students from China make up 13.5% of U.S. science and engineering doctorates — the largest group of any nationality.
“China is not what it used to be 30 years ago,” CCS co-chairs Eugene Chudnovsky and Alexander Greer wrote. “Universities offer competitive salaries for their professors and provide educational environments for their students. The idea that science innovations flow one way from the U.S. to China, promulgated in some circles of the U.S. government, is completely outdated.”
As his lawsuit winds its way through the courts, Xi’s life has changed significantly. The FBI investigation cost him the permanent chairmanship of the physics department as well as much of his funding. He still leads a research team at Temple but with two graduate students rather than his previous team of 14. Much of his time is now dedicated to advocacy — and providing frightened scientists with firsthand advice on how to overcome such an ordeal. His advice, however, is largely geared toward avoiding accusation in the first place: “Be as careful with the paperwork and with as much due diligence as you would on the research project,” he says.
This was not how the academic expected to spend his early sixties. “Every time I talk about it, I relive the ordeal, and that is really painful,” Xi says. Through his lawsuit and advocacy efforts, he continues to try to prove his innocence.
The scientific community has supported him from the beginning, with multiple colleagues from the field writing affidavits in his case.
“You have a democratic right to speak up, to change the policies. That’s precisely why I’m doing this now.”
Earlier this year, that support got a bigger platform. On the evening of March 4, Xi was scheduled to take the stage before thousands of peers at the American Physical Society’s annual meeting in Denver, Colorado, to accept the Andrei Sakharov Prize for “steadfast advocacy in support of the U.S. scientific community and open scientific exchange.” It was the first time that the honor, awarded biannually since 2006, was given to an American scientist. For Xi, it was a public repudiation of the accusations leveled against him by the U.S. government years before.
The APS meeting, where Xi was supposed to publicly accept his award, was canceled due to the pandemic, but it was still symbolic. After all, if the Andrei Sakharov Prize was given to a scientist fighting persecution on behalf of scientific openness, it was a tacit recognition that the United States was no longer just a refuge for scientists fleeing authoritarian regimes but also a threat to open scientific exchange.
“It’s certainly not the intention of the committee to be sending a message to the United States government,” Don Howard, the former chair of APS’s Committee on International Freedom of Scientists, tells OneZero. “The committee’s responsibility is simply to be alert to threats to scientific freedom wherever they might occur in the world and specifically then to honor the individuals whose efforts … are exemplary.”
In April, Xi was optimistic that growing awareness about ongoing racial profiling would lead to wider mobilization within the science community and among Asian Americans. But by late May, as coronavirus deaths in the United States approached 100,000 and both the American and Chinese governments pointed fingers at each other, his enthusiasm waned. It was unclear where anything, let alone science, would fall after the pandemic.
In April, the NIH canceled a $3.7 million grant to the EcoHealth Alliance to study bat-human transmissions of novel coronaviruses in China. Days before, Trump had said he would immediately end the grant in his response to a reporter who suggested, without proof, that the grant had funded the lab in Wuhan that was accused, also without proof, to have created the new novel coronavirus. The move was widely condemned by scientists, including 77 Nobel laureates. Harold E. Varmus, former director of the NIH, told the New York Times in May that the move was “an outrageous abuse of political power to control the way science works.”
At the end of May, the president signed an executive order barring the entry of some Chinese graduate students into the country. Another order suspending H1B visas, which affects most visa holders working in STEM fields, was signed in late June. Chinese citizens made up 11.2% of H1B visa petitions in 2018, the second-highest country of origin after India.
But amid this ominous backdrop, Xi is determined to move forward.
“We’re in a country where Americans can contribute to the institutions. You have a democratic right to speak up, to change the policies,” he says. “That’s precisely why I’m doing this now.”