Katie Tam explores the consequences of building barriers around knowledge, telling the story of a man caught up in the U.S. and China’s ongoing battle for scientific supremacy.
The past year has made clear that we need experts from around the world to work together to tackle global challenges. The rapid development of the COVID-19 vaccine is in part thanks to researchers across borders who analyzed — and shared — the viral sequence. But recent policies in the U.S. threaten to curb collaborations with China — jeopardizing not only the advancement of science but the careers and livelihoods of Chinese American scientists. This episode explores the consequences of building barriers around knowledge — and the story of one man who got caught up in an ongoing battle for scientific supremacy.
Credits / Show Notes:
Special thanks to Rory Truex. Audio excerpts from the Committee of 100 (YouTube) and WHYY Radio. Music from album Still Life (2020), by Haruka Nakamura: “Better Day,” “One Light,” and “Your Sonnet.” Photo courtesy of the Xi family.
The past year has made it clear that we need experts from around the world to work together to tackle challenges like a global pandemic. The rapid development of the Covid-19 vaccine is in part thanks to researchers who analyzed—and shared—the viral sequence. But recent policies in the U.S. threaten to curb collaborations with China—jeopardizing not only the advancement of science but the careers and livelihoods of Chinese American scientists. Reporter Katie Tam tells us about the consequences of building barriers around knowledge—and the story of one man who got caught up in an ongoing battle for scientific supremacy.
May 20th, 2015 was an ordinary, busy day for Xiaoxing Xi. Xi is a physics professor at Temple University. And at the time, he was juggling research with a new role as interim chair of his department. On top of that, his older daughter had just come home from college, and his wife was back from a conference in China.
[Xi] “And obviously she brought back some, you know, candies and goodies from from China. So the girls enjoy, you know, going through them and taste, whatever candies and so on and so forth. So that was pretty late, when we when I went to bed.”
A few hours later, Xi’s life would change forever.
“What happened, when did it all begin?”
[Xi] “It was before seven o’clock and very, very loud pounding on my door and very strange, and so I was thinking who would, you know, knock people’s doors like that. And so I run to open the door and and I saw all these people outside on my house, and some of them were armed, two guys had the battering ram just near my door. I was thinking, you know, if I were slower, they would have knocked my door down. You know, the very first thing I thought that they must have a mistaken identity, that I didn’t do anything to deserve that.”
But it wasn’t a case of mistaken identity. An agent came over and handcuffed him, while others rushed into his house. They rounded up his wife and two daughters, who were sleeping in their bedrooms.
[Xi] “And they were all in pajamas. And so then all these agents pointing their guns at them and asked them to come out together. And so, it was very, very scary. I was thinking, don’t do anything that would lead them to shoot us.”
Xi didn’t know why he was arrested until later that afternoon, when he read his indictment: He was being accused of sharing classified blueprints of a device called a pocket heater to collaborators in China.
[news clip] “47 year-old Xiaoxing Xi is a world-renowned expert in superconductor technology. But it was a breakthrough made by other researchers at a private company that he allegedly copied and sold to entities in China. According to court documents, Xi, a naturalized U.S. citizen…” [fade out]
[Xi] “And the fact is, that I have never done that. So, as simple as that. I have never done that.”
In charging Xi, the FBI had misunderstood the basic scientific facts. Xi did send emails to his colleagues in China—but they concerned a completely different type of technology, one that Xi himself developed and published in papers. After four long months in limbo, prosecutors dropped the case. But the damage had already been done. Here’s Xi speaking at the Committee of 100, a Chinese American leadership organization, in 2019.
“So, even though the case was dropped, our lives were wrecked. Overnight, I was changed from a respected researcher and department chair to be painted as a Chinese spy, all over the Internet and news, and face 80 years in prison, and a million dollars in fines…And everything I have worked for over 30 years, the reputation, the career, the livelihood, would all be gone.”
This isn’t the only time something like this has happened. Xi’s case was only the latest in a string of arrests of Chinese American scientists. Their charges, too, were dismissed before going to trial—raising questions about racial profiling and discrimination against researchers of Asian descent. The problem has only worsened in the past several years, as tensions between the U.S. and China continue to grow. In 2018, the Trump administration introduced the China Initiative to crack down on economic espionage by the Chinese government. The policy has led to even more prosecutions—like that of MIT engineer Gang Chen this past January.
Margaret Lewis, a law professor at Seton Hall University, says that there are indeed real, credible threats. But the focus on the China part of the China Initiative puts people with any kind of what Lewis calls “China-ness” under scrutiny—whether that be Chinese nationality, ethnicity, or other ties.
[Lewis] “I also very much worry about both explicit bias, which was front and center in the Trump administration with terms like, you know, the Wuhan virus, the Chinese virus, Kung flu, but also implicit bias…I worry that the framing of China Initiative pushes prosecutors, whether they realize it or not, to look at certain types of people as enhanced risks.”
Many of the cases brought under the China Initiative are built upon what amount to paperwork errors. Forgetting to list a collaborator or funding source—or sometimes, just running out of space to do so—could have huge consequences. The fear of making a misstep weighs heavily on researchers.
[Cheng] “That has a negative effect on science in terms of whether or not the scientists might think about whether or not they would go to China for a conference, whether or not that would negatively impact their ability to get federal grants in the future.”
Yangyang Cheng is a trained physicist now at Yale Law School. And she says that there are other ways to address these types of mistakes.
[Cheng] “These are academic misconduct and there are mature academic mechanisms, and they don’t have to be criminalized in the first place…They shouldn’t arise to anything that is geopolitical like this, is scientists somehow becoming soldiers or agents of competing nations.”
Professor Xi was not a foreign agent. But he was being treated like one. After his arrest, the FBI searched his family’s home in the suburbs of Philadelphia. They seized personal devices and papers. News trucks and phone calls from reporters became routine. Xi’s older daughter Joyce remembers feeling paranoid—like they were still being surveilled.
[Joyce Xi] “After my dad was arrested, we were pretty afraid to go out in public because his face had been all over the news and he had been accused on, you know, on local TV and also nationally of, you know, supposedly being a Chinese spy. And we were afraid to go outside. We were afraid that he might get targeted. We were afraid that, you know, we might get followed. We were just afraid to be out.”
The whole experience changed the course of Joyce’s life. Before, she had been studying chemistry. But when she returned in the fall of 2015 for her senior year of college, Joyce found herself spending more time advocating for her family and speaking out about her dad’s case. It’s work that she continues today.
[Joyce Xi] “You know, I wish this had never happened to my family. And if it hadn’t, I might not have gone down this path. But at the same time, like it has been rewarding to really be able to, you know, fight for justice, to try and make sure that these kinds of cases of racial profiling, of injustice by law enforcement and by the government doesn’t happen to other people.”
Her father, too, has dedicated himself to activism, founding an advocacy organization for scientists targeted by the government and sharing his experience with researchers across the country. In 2017, Xi filed a lawsuit against the FBI, in part to get some answers: how and why had he been charged? Xi draws parallels between his arrest and growing up in China during the Cultural Revolution, when many people were falsely accused of crimes and taken away from their families.
[Xi] “The Cultural Revolution ended after 10 years. And there are many people who are falsely accused and their name cleared. But those who died, you know, they will never have a chance…that kind of educated us that we have to be strong. We have to live through this. If you don’t live through this, you will not have a chance to see yourself cleared.”
Xi is still fighting for his chance. In April of this year, a judge dismissed most of the claims in his lawsuit. Xi says he plans to appeal the ruling. He and his family want an explanation for why this happened to them and want recourse for the harms they’ve suffered—the effects of which linger today. Ultimately, Xi hopes that their suffering won’t be for nothing: That other scientists will learn from his story and that the public will understand the deeply human costs of putting borders around knowledge.
Selected links and works by the people featured in this episode.
More from Xiaoxing Xi
Talk at USC in Feb. 2021 on defending Chinese-American researchers
Talk at Google in 2018
Coverage on 2017 lawsuit against the FBI in the New York Times
Watch Xi on 60 Minutes
More from Yangyang Cheng
Her work at Sup China
More from Margaret Lewis
More from Joyce Xi
Recently published opinion in USA Today
Princeton University professor Rory Truex’s article at theatlantic.com
Feature on Xiaoxing Xi at futurehuman.medium.com
Other cases to know
Sherry Chen, hydrologist at the National Weather Service
Franklin Tao at the University of Kansas
In 1999, Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee
Harvard chemist Charles Lieber