Falsely Accused: Chinese-American Physicist Recounts Being Branded A Spy

Xiaoxing Xi stands in his lab. (Xiaoxing Xi)

Early in the morning of May 21, 2015, Temple University physicist Xiaoxing Xi was awoken at his Pennsylvania home by FBI agents carrying a warrant for his arrest. He stood accused of illegally giving restricted technology for an American-made “pocket heater” used in semi-conductor research to Chinese collaborators. He was immediately suspended from all his work at Temple. The potential consequences of this arrest were grave: If convicted, Xi faced up to 80 years in prison.

However, several other scientists, including an inventor of the pocket heater in question, submitted sworn affidavits saying that Xi’s designs were for a completely different and non-restricted device that he himself had invented — and that his collaborations with Chinese scientists were normal scientific exchanges. Citing “additional information” that had come to light, the Justice Department dropped all charges against Xi with little explanation.

Born in Beijing in 1957 and raised during China's Cultural Revolution, Xi was among the first batch of students admitted to Peking University after the college entrance exam was reinstated in 1977. After earning his Ph.D, he moved to the United States in 1989 and later became an American citizen. His arrest came amid a crackdown on Chinese espionage in the United States — a drive that has ensnared a number of other Chinese-American scientists later found to be innocent. In an interview with Asia Blog that kicks off our annual Asian Pacific American Heritage Month interview series, Xi recounted his ordeal, its significance for Chinese-Americans, and how it affected his view of the United States.

Can you describe the day of your arrest?

It was before 7 am and I was woken up by a very loud knock on the door. It's much more intense than you would normally expect. So I ran down from my bedroom and didn't even have my clothes on. If I hadn't done that, they could have broken down my door because when I opened it, I saw some agents holding a battering ram.

An FBI agent asked my name, showed his badge, and they threw handcuffs on me. I was shocked. I thought it must be a mistake. I’d seen news of other Chinese people being arrested and charged, but I had no idea why this was happening to me. I really hadn't done anything remarkable. And there really were a lot of people there to arrest me — around a dozen. I thought it must be costing taxpayers a lot of money.

My wife heard all this commotion and opened the bedroom door. An agent pointed a gun at her and said, "Hands up, come out!" Then they went room to room to collect my two daughters. My younger one was only 12. It must have been very frightening for them.

I asked the agents why they were doing this and they wouldn't tell me. We went to FBI’s field office in the city and they still didn't tell me there. They took fingerprints and mug shots. I didn't have experience with this kind of thing and I didn't have a lawyer standing by. But I answered their questions because I wanted to know why.

They interrogated me about my work and everything for two hours and eventually at the end they told me what it was about — that I’d made this pocket heater for a collaborator in China. The first thing I said was, "That's absurd, that's false." But they said they had evidence that I knowingly did it, which I knew there wasn’t a shred of truth to. I was released that day, but when I got back home, there were a lot of agents there. They searched our house for several hours, tearing everything up looking for things, and they took some boxes away at the end.

Why do you think they used such a show of force in arresting you?

This is a very good question. My lawyer said that normally for such charges, they give you notice, say they have some questions, and then you bring your lawyer in and explain. I don't know why they did this. I have my suspicions that it was about politics and that they wanted to use “shock and awe” to make big news and make an example of me. Once the Obama Administration decided to catch Chinese spies and increase prosecutions, maybe these people wanted to rack up some performance points. I don't know. I don’t have evidence. But I think what they did was wrong.

It was four months between that day and when the charges were dropped. What was that time like for you?

It was very tough. There were news trucks outside our home, so we were afraid of going out. Friends stopped talking to us and the university didn't allow me to come back to campus, so I couldn't talk to my students. I was a researcher and department chair, then overnight I became painted as a Chinese spy all over the news. The pressure was there every day. It was just humiliating — sometimes it felt unbearable.

But my wife and I lived through the Cultural Revolution. We knew we were right and that the government was wrong, and if we couldn't take it, if we collapsed, folded, then we would have nothing. So in a sense, the Cultural Revolution experience prepared us. But you always knew that kind of thing could happen in China in the 60s and 70s. It isn’t supposed to happen in America.

We understood that we had to survive, but we also understood perfectly well that even if we were right, it didn’t necessarily mean that we would prevail. Also financially, that's very tough. Lawyers are not cheap. We were really lucky that it finished after four months. If it had gone longer, we had no idea how we could pay for it.

During that time my daughter’s college tuition was due. We borrowed from relatives and took out our savings. We ended up paying over $200,000 in legal expenses, and we were never compensated for that — the government never said they were wrong. They just dropped the case.

For the next person who gets into this situation, there will immediately be two questions that they have to find an answer to. One is how to find a good lawyer. That’s critically important and not easy at all. The other is money. Even though there's a legal system where you can fight false charges, my lawyer told me that many people just don’t have the resources to fight. That obviously factors in to how they plead. They might plead guilty to some minor offenses even though they know they’re innocent and it's bad for them.

How much do you think your ethnicity played a role?

My lawyer has said this many times: Would this have happened if I were a French or Canadian-American? He said he didn't think so. I don't have evidence that they targeted me because I'm Chinese, but the fact is my case is not the only one. There are many. There was also Sherry Chen, Guoqing Cao, Shuyu Li, and others.

In all these cases they were charged and the charges were later dropped. Then there are many other cases where Chinese were charged with a serious crime and then they had to plead guilty to some minor offenses that nobody else would be charged for. There is a pattern, so it's not just me saying they're targeting me because of my race. There were 42 members of congress who wrote a letter to the Department of Justice to investigate whether race played any role. There are requests from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and many groups. They are raising this question.

Even though your name was cleared nearly two years ago, besides the financial aspect, do you still feel any lingering repercussions?

The biggest effect is peace of mind. This experience was very traumatic and my wife is still suffering from this mentally and even physically. Maybe it'll be better as time goes on, but I don’t think that will ever totally go away.

There are other subtle things too. For example, as we talk on the phone now, there’s some paranoia in the back of my mind as to whether the FBI is listening. And when I'm applying for funding or writing a research report, in the past I may have looked over it two or three times to make sure everything was precise and accurate. Now I’ll look five or six times. Somebody told me that he often found African Americans driving so carefully because they're always afraid of being pulled over by police. Things like this are always subconsciously in the back of my mind now.

A special town hall event hosted by Asia Society Northern California discusses the numerous issues that affect Asian Pacific Americans from across the political spectrum. (1 hr., 9 min.)

Do you think cases like yours are starting to move the needle at all in how government and law enforcement agencies handle suspected espionage cases?

Since my case, I’ve given speeches at many Chinese-American community events because I hope more Chinese-Americans, Asian Americans, and every other ethnic group will understand that this is going on. Even if you have done nothing wrong, you could still get into trouble like me. It depends on the political whims of the day.

The Obama Administration had a very clear goal of prosecuting Chinese spies, which is what I got caught up in. Now you see targeted groups like illegal immigrants and Muslims. The reason I'm telling my story is so people understand that you cannot just try to keep distance from trouble. Trouble may come looking for you and the only way to prevent it is to be vocal and participate in civil discourse.

I'm moved whenever I go to talk about this — people are very supportive. And the participation of Chinese-Americans in the last election was more than ever. I think this is a very good thing. It doesn't really matter who you vote for. The fact that Chinese-Americans vote is the important thing because then we are a voice that people have to take seriously.

Has this ordeal disillusioned you about America at all?

Every country has their problems, but we all understand that in the U.S., we value liberty and rule of law. This is why I'm talking — because I can. I have my rights. I apply my right to try to raise awareness among Chinese-Americans, Asian Americans, and the scientific community, and I do this precisely because I value this right that I have in the United States. In many other places, I may not be able to do all this.

I'm not losing my faith in the system of this country. On the contrary, because of my faith in democracy, in liberty, in rule of law, I'm doing what I'm doing now because there is a process that we can follow. We need to be more civilly active, elect more Asian Americans to the Congress, and participate in democracy. There are many problems in America, but we have a way to influence the process to overcome these problems.

Has the ordeal dissuaded you from collaborating with scientists in China?

As a scientist, my goal is to create knowledge and help mankind. There are areas like sports, arts, and science that concern our entire species. And I have long believed that the world’s future depends on the mutual understanding of different people. My position as a scientist with a background in China and the United States can help build bridges between the two sides.

Collaboration among scientists from all over the world is good for everybody, and not just in terms of scientific discovery. Science in China is doing great — there’s rapid progress. So I’ll definitely continue my collaboration with scientists there and in other countries — for my own research, for my institution, and it's also good for the United States. That's why the U.S. government has been encouraging people to collaborate with scientists in China. They’ve said it very clearly many times. So that's not my word, it's the word of many U.S. agencies.  

About the Author

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Eric Fish was a Content Producer at Asia Society New York and is author of the book China's Millennials: The Want Generation.