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Lawmakers Condemn Targeting of Chinese-American Scientists

Members of Congress call for investigation of Department of Justice allegations of economic espionage

November 18, 2015  |  Emily Conover

Xi hearing
Photo: Emily Conover

Lawmakers are seeking answers on the Xi indictment. (L to R) Rep. Judy Chu, Rep. Ted Lieu, Xiaoxing Xi, Sherry Chen, and Rep. Mike Honda

Lawmakers spoke out about recent indictments of Chinese-American scientists at a press conference in Washington, DC on Tuesday, November 17. The indictments, politicians said, point to a pattern of unjustly targeting scientists based on their race and national origin. Members of Congress called on the Department of Justice (DOJ) to investigate why federal prosecutors indicted several Chinese-American scientists on suspicion of economic espionage, only to later drop the charges without explanation. The subjects of two recent cases, physicist Xiaoxing Xi of Temple University and National Weather Service hydrologist Sherry Chen, joined lawmakers to tell their stories.

In May, Xi was charged in federal court with four counts of wire fraud for sharing proprietary technology with China, but his lawyers argued that the government was mistaken — the technology Xi was discussing with his collaborators was unrelated to the device the government claimed he illegally shared. In October 2014, Chen was accused of illegally providing information to a colleague in China related to U.S. dams. In both cases, the charges were dropped a few months later, but not before they had harmed the scientists' careers and reputations, and — by their accounts — inflicted significant psychological and financial damage on themselves and their families.

Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA) said that Xi and Chen "fell victim to what appears to be a practice and pattern of the federal government profiling Chinese-American scientists as spies for China, even when there's no credible evidence to support it." Chu, the chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC), a group of lawmakers with an interest in Asian-American/Pacific Islander issues, added, "Congress will not tolerate Chinese Americans or Asian Americans being treated like second-class citizens."

Other members of CAPAC joined Chu in calling for an investigation: Representatives Ted Lieu (D-CA), Mike Honda (D-CA) and Grace Meng (D-NY) also spoke at the press conference.

"We have our blind spots, and one of those blind spots is a history of discrimination against Asian Americans," Lieu said, referencing examples such as the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which restricted Chinese immigration.

In addition to Chen and Xi's cases, two former Eli Lilly scientists accused of economic espionage, Guoqing Cao and Shuyu Li, had their charges dropped in December 2014. "If it was just one case, that might be a mistake. But when it's multiple cases, we now have a pattern; we deserve an explanation from the Department of Justice," Lieu said.

Xi said that he would like an apology from the government and a clear statement that he is innocent. He would also like to know why he was targeted for investigation, as he said that his work involved only routine collaboration with Chinese colleagues, of the kind that many researchers do every day. "My case has sent a chill across the Chinese-American and academic community. An answer from the DOJ is needed to stop this state of fear."

Although the charges were dropped, Chen is currently fighting to be allowed to return to her job at the National Weather Service. "The impact can be felt in every aspect of my life," she said. Large legal fees are now hanging over her head, and her career and reputation, built over two decades, was "gone overnight."

Following the press conference, Chu questioned Attorney General Loretta Lynch on the cases at a DOJ oversight hearing. Lynch stated that she was unable to comment on the specifics of the cases, replying, "I can state to you unequivocally that the Department of Justice does not focus an investigation on any individual on the basis of their race or their national origin." A meeting between Lynch and CAPAC is scheduled for Tuesday, November 18.

A recent Washington Post op-ed by Peter Zeidenberg, the lawyer who represented both Xi and Chen, called for the government to more carefully vet cases before bringing charges. "It is far easier to make an allegation than to disprove one. And once an allegation has been made public, it is nearly impossible to remove the stain on a person’s reputation," Zeidenberg wrote.

Xi and Chen say they still believe in the U.S. legal and political system. "I think the lesson I would draw from this is for every citizen to get involved in the system, and talk to their representative," Xi said. "If you see a bad policy, if you see a bad practice, speak out."