A professor falsely accused of spying for China describes the toll its taken on his household


Xiaoxing Xi, a physics professor at Temple University, remembers attempting to make sense of what was occurring to him and his household that early morning of May 2015, when armed FBI brokers swarmed his Philadelphia house earlier than dawn, shining flashlights of their eyes and rounding them up at gunpoint. Xi was arrested on a cost of financial espionage.

The case in opposition to Xi seven years in the past revolved round a private invention and his alleged disclosure of producing info together with his analysis group in China. Though Xi’s case was abruptly dropped 4 months after his arrest, he stated it is taken a toll on his household and he is now taking authorized motion.

“My wife was telling me that her biggest concern was trying to help our younger daughter, who was 12 years old at that time, to not suffer the mental damages because of this traumatic thing,” Xi stated. “She kept telling her that this was just like a movie, trying to minimize the fact that this was happening.” 

While decrease courts dismissed his case, Xi, who’s amongst a number of different Chinese scientists to have been falsely accused of financial espionage, appeared earlier than an appeals court docket final week in hopes of shifting ahead with a go well with.  

The Department of Justice had accused Xi of sharing schematics for a pocket heater with friends in his analysis group in China. Xi, who had beforehand signed a nondisclosure settlement over the blueprint, was described by prosecutors as partaking in “an effort to assist Chinese entities in becoming world leaders of the superconductivity field.”

“They’ve done wrong and they should be held accountable,” stated Xi, who’s backed partially 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 being falsely charged. And if we are not able to hold the government accountable, they’re going to do more of this.” 

Xi’s group referred to as on the court docket to reinstate his claims for damages in opposition to the U.S. authorities, who they allege violated his Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights, protections in opposition to unreasonable searches and seizures and in opposition to being compelled by the federal government to supply incriminating info, respectively. 

Xiaoxing Xi and his wife, Qi Li.
Xiaoxing Xi and his spouse, Qi Li.Hannah Beier / ACLU

He was threatened with as much as 80 years in jail and a positive of as much as $1 million. Xi, who’s since been reinstated as a professor, was additionally stripped of his place because the interim chairman of the physics division at Temple University and positioned on administrative depart for a time period.

Temple University declined NBC News’ request for remark. 

But testimony from physicists confirmed that the blueprints had been in no way for the know-how in query, however for his personal invention. Interactions with Chinese contemporaries seemed to be “legitimate normal academic collaborations.” And by September 2015, the DOJ’s case fell aside. 

The movement to dismiss the case said that “additional information came to the attention of the government.”

The Justice Department didn’t reply to NBC News’ request for remark. 

“Watching my dad get arrested — he was pinned up against the wall. … They dragged him out. They didn’t even let him put shoes on.”

Joyce Xi

Xi, who initially sued the federal government in 2017, alleges that the prosecution wasn’t only a misunderstanding in know-how, however FBI brokers had “made knowingly or recklessly false statements” to help their prosecution. His arrest, Xi claimed, was discriminatory. And he was focused because of his ethnicity, very like many different students of Chinese descent.

Though Xi’s case was dismissed final yr, his enchantment will set in movement a case whose resolution will possible take a number of months. The problem shall be troublesome. In an amicus transient filed in help of Xi earlier this yr, dozens of organizations famous that the Supreme Court considerably narrowed its already restrictive commonplace of holding federal brokers accountable for violating constitutional rights. But Xi and his household say that they’re ready to maintain combating, in order that, a minimum of some constructive change can come out of their trauma, daughter Joyce stated. 

The arrest, Joyce added, altered the household’s lives in unmeasurable methods. She recounts being house from faculty on the time of the arrest and listening to “strange voices” by means of the darkness, telling her to return out along with her arms raised.

“Watching my dad get arrested — he was pinned up against the wall,” she recalled, her voice shaking from the reminiscence. “They dragged him out. They didn’t even let him put shoes on.”

Xi stated that when he was being pushed away he tried to flip by means of years of recollections, conjuring something in any respect that might’ve prompted such actions. But he was left puzzled. And for the following a number of months, the confusion would solely proceed alongside psychological stress his household would endure, his daughter stated. They’d routinely discover news crews pointing cameras into the blinds of their home, and so they started feeling paranoia over mundane issues like opening emails. 

Professor attracts parallels to the plight of teachers dwelling in Cultural Revolution China

As puzzling because the arrest was for his household, Xi stated he felt some pangs of familiarity. The ordeal harkened again to feelings he felt whereas dwelling beneath the Cultural Revolution in China. The sociopolitical motion, led by Mao Zedong in 1966, resulted within the persecution of students, who had been labeled as a “stinking ninth caste” for his or her unbiased thought. 

At the time, Xi was despatched to work within the countryside like hundreds of thousands of different Chinese youth. By the top of the revolution, when he lastly had the chance to pursue an training, he stated he felt grateful. He picked up physics with out a lot thought. Leaving his village for brand spanking new alternatives “was a great feeling,” he stated. But amid the crackdown on intellectuals, he witnessed many lives being thrown into disarray, he stated.

“We don’t expect that in this country. But it did happen like what had happened during the Cultural Revolution,” he stated. “It was absolutely not unusual that people were taken away and not knowing when they will see their family again.”

In some methods, Xi stated, his childhood had knowledgeable him of the right way to deal with this ordeal. 

“Many people who could not take it anymore either committed suicide or died of their sufferings,” he stated of the students who had been persecuted. “When the Cultural Revolution ended, and many people got rehabilitated, their names got restored. So, in the minds of myself and my wife, we were very clear. We had to live. We had to live through this so that we could clear our name.”

Xi is a part of an extended historical past of Chinese American teachers and scientists who’ve been wrongly accused of spying for China. A pair years after Xi’s arrest, the Trump administration formalized a program referred to as the “China Initiative,” aimed toward addressing Chinese financial espionage. However, as many like Xi had been falsely accused of espionage and their lives thrown into disarray, a rising variety of students alleged that it as an alternative inspired racial profiling. The Biden administration ended this system earlier this yr.  

These days, Xi stated he not applies for federal funding on his analysis. His program is way smaller, he provides, and the concern of a repeat incident is all the time behind his thoughts. Joyce, who was a chemistry main on the time of the arrest, stated the ordeal rerouted her life fully. After commencement, she thrust herself into advocacy work to guard others from being racially profiled.

“All these other people that are also facing this horrible situation — it’s the kids too. It’s their families. It’s not just an individual who’s being targeted,” Joyce stated. 

Several different students who’ve been falsely accused of spying battle to recount the emotional toll the incidents took on their households. Gang Chen, an MIT professor who was equally arrested for espionage in 2021 and exonerated earlier this yr, instructed NBC News that he was additionally arrested in entrance of his household. He struggled to kind phrases round how the arrest impacted his family members, solely saying that he was “lucky” to have their help. 

“I can only say that it’s not a pain that can go away,” Chen stated.   

A survey of virtually 2,000 scientists throughout the nation, launched final yr by the Committee of 100, confirmed that greater than 50% of scientists of Chinese descent “feel considerable fear and/or anxiety that they are being surveilled by the U.S. government.” And amongst those that have had analysis with China prematurely suspended over the previous three years, nearly 80% of scientists of Chinese descent stated they wished to distance themselves from collaborators in China.  

“I know it’s difficult, but we suffer,” Xi stated.  “If we don’t do anything, that’s the end of the story.”