Xiaoxing Xi, a physics professor at Temple University, recalls trying to figure out what was happening to him and his family that morning in May 2015, when armed FBI agents invaded his Philadelphia home. before daybreak, shining flashlights in their eyes and walking around them. under the threat of a weapon. Xi was arrested for economic espionage.
The case against Xi seven years ago revolved around a personal invention and his alleged disclosure of manufacturing information with his research community in China. Although Xi’s case was abruptly dropped four months after his arrest, he said it had an impact on his family and he is now taking legal action.
“My wife was telling me that her biggest concern was trying to help our youngest daughter, who was 12 at the time, not suffer mental damage from this traumatic thing,” Xi said. “She kept telling him it was like a movie, trying to downplay the fact that it was happening.”
While lower courts dismissed his case, Xi, who is among several other Chinese scientists to have been falsely accused of economic espionage, appeared in an appeals court last week hoping to clear the way. forward with a trial.
The Justice Department had accused Xi of sharing diagrams of a pocket heater with peers in his research community in China. Xi, who previously signed a nondisclosure agreement on the plan, was described by prosecutors as engaging in “an effort to help Chinese entities become world leaders in the field of superconductivity.”
“They did wrong and they should be held accountable,” said Xi, who is backed in part by the American Civil Liberties Union. “It’s also important for the community in general, because of all the Chinese scientists and scientists of Chinese descent – many of them are falsely accused. And if we are not able to hold the government accountable, it will do more.”
Xi’s team called on the court to reinstate its claims for damages against the U.S. government, which they say violated its Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights, protections against unreasonable search and seizure, and against the obligation by the government to provide incriminating information, respectively.
He was threatened with 80 years in prison and a fine of up to $1 million. Xi, who has since been reinstated as a professor, was also removed from his post as acting chairman of Temple University’s physics department and placed on administrative leave for a period.
Temple University declined NBC News’ request for comment.
But testimonies from physicists showed that the plans were not for the technology in question at all, but for his own invention. Interactions with Chinese contemporaries appeared to be “legitimate and normal academic collaborations.” And in September 2015, the DOJ case collapsed.
The motion to dismiss the case said “additional information has been brought to the government’s attention.”
The Justice Department did not respond to NBC News’ request for comment.
“Watching my dad get arrested, he was pinned against the wall. … They dragged him out. They didn’t even let him put on shoes.
Xi, who originally sued the government in 2017, alleges the lawsuit was not just a misunderstanding in technology, but that FBI agents “knowingly or recklessly made false statements” to support their prosecution. His arrest, Xi claimed, was discriminatory. And he was targeted because of his ethnicity, just like many other scholars of Chinese descent.
Although Xi’s case was dismissed last year, his appeal will trigger a case that will likely take several months to decide. The challenge will be difficult. In an amicus brief filed in support of Xi earlier this year, dozens of organizations noted that the Supreme Court had significantly lowered its already restrictive standard of holding federal agents accountable for violating constitutional rights. But Xi and his family say they are ready to keep fighting, so that at least some positive change can come out of their trauma, his daughter Joyce said.
The arrest, Joyce added, changed the family’s lives immeasurably. She says she had been home from college at the time of the arrest and heard “strange voices” in the dark, telling her to come out with her hands up.
“Watching my dad get arrested – he was stuck against the wall,” she recalled, her voice shaking with the memory. “They dragged him out. They didn’t even let him put on shoes.
Xi said that when he was driven out, he tried to go through years of memories, reminiscing about anything that might have prompted such actions. But he remained puzzled. And for the next few months, the confusion will only continue alongside the psychological stress her family will endure, her daughter said. They regularly found news crews pointing cameras at the blinds of their house, and they began to feel paranoia about mundane things like opening emails.
Professor draws parallels with plight of academics living in China’s Cultural Revolution
As confusing as the arrest was for his family, Xi said he felt feelings of familiarity. The ordeal recalled the emotions he felt while living under the Cultural Revolution in China. The socio-political movement, led by Mao Zedong in 1966, resulted in the persecution of scholars, who were branded as the “stinking ninth caste” for their independent thought.
At the time, Xi was sent to work in the countryside like millions of other young Chinese. At the end of the revolution, when he finally had the opportunity to pursue an education, he said he was grateful. He learned physics without thinking too much. Leaving his village for new opportunities “was a great feeling”, he said. But amid the crackdown on intellectuals, he witnessed many lives turned upside down, he said.
“We don’t expect that in this country. But it happened like what happened during the Cultural Revolution,” he said. “It was absolutely not unusual for people to be taken away not knowing when they would see their families again.”
In some ways, Xi said, his childhood informed him how to handle this ordeal.
“Many people who couldn’t take it anymore committed suicide or died of their suffering,” he said of the persecuted scholars. “When the Cultural Revolution ended and many people were rehabilitated, their names were restored. So in the minds of myself and my wife, we were very clear. We had to live. We had to go through this to be able to clear our name.
Xi is part of a long history of Chinese-American scholars and scientists wrongly accused of spying for China. A few years after Xi’s arrest, the Trump administration formalized a program called the China Initiative, aimed at combating Chinese economic espionage. However, as many like Xi have been falsely accused of spying and their lives turned upside down, a growing number of scholars have argued that this instead encourages racial profiling. The Biden administration ended the program earlier this year.
These days, Xi said he no longer seeks federal funding for his research. His schedule is much smaller, he adds, and the fear of a repeat incident is still in the back of his mind. Joyce, who was a chemistry student at the time of the arrest, said the ordeal had completely changed her life. After graduating, she embarked on advocacy work to protect others from racial profiling.
“All these other people who are also facing this horrible situation – they are also the children. It’s their families. It’s not just an individual that’s being targeted,” Joyce said.
Several other researchers who have been falsely accused of espionage struggle to recount the emotional toll the incidents took on their families. Gang Chen, an MIT professor who was also arrested for espionage in 2021 and exonerated earlier this year, told NBC News he was also arrested in front of his family. He struggled to form words about the impact the arrest had on his loved ones, saying only that he was “lucky” to have their support.
“I can only say that it’s not a pain that can go away,” Chen said.
A survey of nearly 2,000 scientists across the country, released last year by the Committee of 100, showed that more than 50% of Chinese-born scientists “feel considerable fear and/or anxiety about ‘being watched by the US government’. And among those who have seen their research with China prematurely suspended in the past three years, nearly 80% of Chinese-born scientists said they wanted to distance themselves from collaborators in China.
“I know it’s difficult, but we are suffering,” Xi said. “If we don’t do something, that’s the end of the story.”