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Mistaken identity

Aiming to halt Chinese threats, the U.S. government sometimes labels innocent researchers as spies

Mistaken identity

Xiaoxing Xi, at his home in Penn Valley, Pa. (Mark Makela/The New York Times/Redux)

On May 20, 2015, Xiaoxing Xi, a physics professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, gave a lecture at an Irish pub before picking up his wife from the airport and trying out a new Korean fried chicken restaurant with his two daughters.

The next morning before 7 o’clock, Xi and his family woke up to urgent knocking at their door. Xi was shocked to find FBI agents, some armed and others holding a battering ram, standing at his doorway. One agent announced Xi’s arrest and handcuffed him, and other officers brought Xi’s wife and daughters out of their bedrooms at gunpoint.

Agents brought Xi to an FBI field office where they fingerprinted, interrogated, and strip-searched him and took his mugshot. An agent told him he was charged with illegally sharing the blueprints for a pocket heater—a device used in superconductor research—with a Chinese collaborator. Later that day officials released Xi on $100,000 bail and allowed him to reunite with his family. Once he arrived at home, FBI agents arrived with a search warrant and carted away his belongings. 

But the allegations weren’t true: Xi had never shared secret information with China. As his lawyers and other leading physicists proved over the next four months, the blueprints the FBI accused him of sharing were not for the pocket heater but a different device Xi had invented and made public as part of normal academic collaboration. The FBI agent who launched the case had misunderstood complicated technology and targeted an innocent man. In September 2015, officials dropped all charges and returned the evidence, claiming “additional information” had come to their attention.

Yet the damage had been done. For four months, Xi was suspended from his job, his friends stopped talking to him, and his reputation was shattered as media reported on the case. He had mounting legal fees and worried about the effects of the arrest on his wife and daughters. 

Xi, who came to the United States in 1989 to study and became a naturalized citizen, questions whether the FBI targeted him rather than other scientists because of his Chinese ethnicity. Cases like his have caused fear among ethnically Chinese scientists and academics, especially those in sensitive fields. Could they be racially profiled for normal collaborations with Chinese colleagues?

According to research by Andrew Kim of South Texas College of Law, the number of Economic Espionage Act cases involving Chinese nationals or Chinese Americans tripled from the period of 1996-2007 to the period of 2008-2015. Of those with Chinese names, 20 percent were charged and later found not guilty, a rate twice as high as for other races. Of those found guilty, Chinese defendants received sentences twice as long—25 months—as those with Western names.

Exacerbating the racial profiling concerns are the genuine threats the United States faces from China, a Communist-ruled nation that has increased its economic espionage and intellectual property theft in recent years as it aims to dominate tech industries. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 80 percent of all economic espionage cases involve alleged activities that would benefit China.

In 2018, then–Attorney General Jeff Sessions created the China Initiative to prioritize and prosecute Chinese trade theft cases. Since then, investigations of U.S.-based scientists with undisclosed connections to the Chinese military or Chinese talent-recruitment programs have increased, as have charges of stealing trade secrets or sensitive technology. FBI Director Christopher Wray noted the department is opening a new China-­related case every 10 hours.

This reality creates a challenging balancing act as the U.S. government attempts to combat real Chinese threats while not sweeping up innocent, ethnically Chinese scientists like Xi. It raises questions of how U.S. universities can continue to attract top talent from around the world and engage in open research while protecting U.S. science and technology. While activists say the current U.S.-China tensions have a chilling effect on ethnically Chinese scientists, law enforcement is working to build trust with universities and the science community. 

Mark Mulligan/Houston Chronicle via AP

People look on as the Houston Fire Department responds to reports of a fire inside the Chinese Consulate on July 21. (Mark Mulligan/Houston Chronicle via AP)

ON THE EVENING OF JULY 21, 2020, residents in high-rises neighboring the Chinese Consulate General in Houston noticed people in the consulate courtyard burning documents in what looked like garbage cans. They called firefighters and police, who arrived at the consulate but were unable to enter because it is considered sovereign territory.

The next day, it came to light that the U.S. government had ordered the Houston consulate’s closure within 72 hours to “protect American intellectual property and Americans’ private information,” according to the State Department. China’s foreign ministry called the move an “unprecedented escalation” in tensions between the two superpowers and retaliated by closing the American Consulate in the southwest Chinese city of Chengdu.

A primary reason for the closure in Houston: The consulate was helping Chinese researchers avoid U.S. investigators who suspected them of stealing medical research and sensitive materials from academic institutions in Houston. Assistant Attorney General John Demers, the head of the China Initiative, said the consulate had long been on the FBI’s radar as a source of intellectual property theft and foreign influence. He pointed to FBI investigations of 50 Chinese nationals on student visas in 30 cities who were hiding their affiliation with the People’s Liberation Army, China’s armed forces. Four of them were charged with visa fraud and could face up to 10 years in prison and a fine of $250,000 if convicted.

“What you’ve seen publicly … it’s still just the tip of what’s going on under the surface and what we were trying to disrupt,” Demers said in a talk with the think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

Chinese agents have often used data leaks and hacks to recruit informants in the United States. (In 2014, suspected Chinese actors hacked the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, targeting the records of 22 million people, including Social Security numbers, names, birthplaces, and addresses.) The foreign agents would then entice them with the usual incentives: money, sex, or clandestine tradecraft. Their targets are sometimes ethnically Chinese and sometimes Westerners. 

Chinese companies and individuals also engage in trade secret theft for their own financial gain, apparently without the prompting of the Chinese Communist Party.

Charles Krupa/AP

Charles Lieber leaves the Moakley United States Courthouse in Boston. (Charles Krupa/AP)

ANOTHER STRATEGY the Chinese government uses to gain intellectual property is to employ 200 talent recruitment initiatives. The most well-known is the Thousand Talents Plan (TTP), created in 2008 as a way to reverse China’s brain drain: In 2013, 84 percent of Chinese who received Ph.D.s in the United States in science or engineering stayed in the country for at least five years afterward.

By offering high salaries, TTP aimed to bring scientists back to China. The program also allows researchers to hold simultaneous posts in both U.S.- and China-based institutions. While the overt aims of the program are legal and promote research collaboration, job recruitment, and networking, TTP has come under scrutiny due to its close relationship with the Chinese government, misconduct among participants (including grant fraud), and instances of intellectual property theft. An investigation by Texas A&M University found that 100 staff members were linked to Chinese talent recruitment programs, but only five had disclosed such connections as required.

The Chinese government views TTP as a tool enabling it to dominate the tech and science sectors and modernize its military. According to an August report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, the Chinese Communist Party has established more than 600 overseas talent recruitment stations. Party-controlled United Front groups run the stations and collect data on scientists and research based on the needs of Chinese institutions. They have recruitment quotas and earn bonuses for each recruit.

A 2019 U.S. Senate report noted that some of the contracts TTP recipients sign give Chinese universities ownership of intellectual property created during the contract, including property created at U.S. institutions, using U.S. funds. 

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute also found China’s military was carrying out talent recruitment, too: The National University of Defense Technology, a Chinese military university, recruited at least four professors from abroad through TTP. The Chinese Academy of Engineering Physics, which runs the military’s nuclear weapons program, has recruited 57 scientists. 

In one case of economic espionage, a U.S. federal judge in February sentenced Hongjin Tan to two years in prison for stealing a trade secret worth $1 billion from the Oklahoma petroleum company where he had worked. He had downloaded to a flash drive company documents dealing with an innovative battery technology and was planning to resign and move back to China. According to the FBI, Tan started accessing the sensitive files around the same time he applied to the TTP.

After the China Initiative began to scrutinize the program more closely, the Chinese government scrubbed from the internet the names, affiliations, and projects of scientists connected to the TTP. Chinese authorities said their talent programs recruited as many as 60,000 overseas scientists from 2008 to 2016. Currently 600 U.S. corporate personnel and 300 U.S. government researchers receive TTP money.

In one of the most high-profile charges of misconduct with TTP, a grand jury in June indicted Charles Lieber, the former chair of Harvard University’s Chemistry and Chemical Biology Department, for two counts of making false statements to federal authorities about his participation in TTP. A leading specialist in nanotechnology and a recipient of grants from the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Defense, Lieber allegedly failed to make required disclosures about his participation in TTP from 2012 to 2015, during which he received a salary of up to $50,000 a month, plus living expenses. He then lied about it, according to prosecutors.

The U.S. attorney for the District of Massachusetts, Andrew E. Lelling, said that when Lieber worked with Chinese partners in the TTP he was “by definition conveying sensitive information to Chinese.”

Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

Sherry Chen speaks about the dropped charges against her. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

UNDER THE CHINA INITIATIVE, the Justice Department has looked into thousands of potential cases, many dealing with lack of disclosure. It has also increased scrutiny of Chinese students and researchers as they return to China, screening their electronic devices at the airport. According to South China Morning Post, U.S. border agents carried out more than 1,100 searches of Chinese nationals in 2019, up 66 percent from the previous year.

Some fear this suspicion toward Chinese scientists will hurt the development of U.S. science and technology, which relies on immigrant scientists, many ethnically Chinese. They point to cases such as that of Sherry Chen, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Ohio who was accused of spying and arrested in 2014. The government dropped her case the following year without explanation—yet she was fired from her job and is still going through litigation related to the accusations.

Demers, the head of the China Initiative, said in the CSIS talk investigators are targeting people based not on their ethnicity but their behavior. He noted the airport screens are targeted, examining the students’ school affiliations in China as well as their field of study: “What we are trying to do is to write with a fine-pointed pencil, as opposed to a big Magic Marker.”

The FBI has also held roundtable discussions with U.S. institutions and the Chinese science community in order to build trust and hear concerns. Aryani Ong, a former civil rights lawyer and activist, sees this as a step in the right direction: “The problem was the FBI using law enforcement as the community education tool.” 

Ong believes the government should separate the issue of scientists who don’t fully report their funding from actual economic espionage cases. The TTP is not illegal to join, and universities as well as the U.S. government had encouraged international collaborations until recently. Many researchers apply to grants from all over the world and turn to China because it has the most generous offers. Rather than prosecuting failure to report on a federal level, Ong suggested officials handle such cases by administrative means.

“Some [scientists] don’t appear to fit the profile of spies who have malicious intent to benefit a foreign country,” she said.

Xi, whose home was raided, has since filed a lawsuit against the lead FBI agent who investigated him. Because of the ordeal, his daughter Joyce decided to go into racial justice work after graduation.

In a Talks at Google video, Xi said the experience had reminded him of growing up in Beijing during the Cultural Revolution, when the Red Guard would burst into homes and separate family members. 

“We were not expecting it here in the United States,” Xi said. “At least here there is a legal process that allows me to defend myself and clear my name if I have enough money and enough will.” 


Student insecurities

As U.S.-China relations deteriorate, Christian ministries to Chinese students on U.S. campuses are feeling the toll as well. Nick Romanin, who oversees Chinese student ministries at six universities in the Midwest, said many Chinese students want to stay in the United States after graduation but are now creating contingency plans, fearing their visas could be taken away. Geopolitical tensions have left many students feeling frustrated and scared about their futures.

Romanin said some students felt they were viewed with greater suspicion when going through airport security. Others experienced instances of racism at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, he said.

With the Chinese government increasing surveillance on students who study overseas, some Chinese students have become more reluctant to join Bible studies, especially as the pandemic has forced many of these studies online. One ministry worker found that some Chinese scholars weren’t comfortable joining Zoom video app–based Bible studies from their personal devices, but were willing to attend after he lent them tablets.

This year’s pandemic has led to both opportunities and difficulties for international student ministries: On the one hand, it has paused the influx of Chinese students (except for those coming from U.S. high schools or undergraduate studies) and made in-person gatherings more difficult. On the other hand, Romanin found that students who spend much of their time cooped up in their rooms are eager to join outdoor activities like hikes or barbecues. It also allows Romanin to discuss with them how to lean on God when their world is shaken.

Even current U.S.-China politics leads to gospel discussions, Romanin said. “Those are opportunities to talk about what Paul said about Rome: He said to pray for the king, so we teach about recognizing that the government is broken and that we long for the kingdom of heaven.” —J.C.

—Please read WORLD’s report on U.S. presidential candidate Joe Biden’s expected foreign policy toward China at wng.org/biden_china_policy.

June Cheng

June Cheng

June is a reporter for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and covers East Asia, including China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Follow June on Twitter @JuneCheng_World.