It simply boggles the mind that with an African American in the White House and an African American as the Attorney General, persecution of Chinese American scientists based on racial profiling not only has not abated but actually intensified.
Professor Xiaoxing Xi, former head of physics department at Temple University, was the latest of a bumper crop of Chinese Americans that became victims of racial profiling.
Joyce Xi reminded us of this development recently when she gave a series of presentations at Stanford, UC Berkeley and Hastings Law School describing how her father and family were brutalized by the FBI.
Early dawn in May, the agents broke into their home with guns drawn, manhandled Professor Xi, handcuffed him behind his back and took him away without any explanation on the reasons for his arrest. The agents insisted on keeping Mrs. Xi in another room and interrogated her for hours. Joyce happened to be home from college and could see that her 12-year old sister was traumatized.
According to Peter Zeidenberg, legal counsel for Xi and the family, the government accused Xi of wire fraud based on his having borrowed a piece of test equipment, a so-called pocket heater, in 2006. Zeidenberg went to the inventor of the heater who confirmed that none of the “evidence” Xi was accused of sending to China was related to the design of his invention.
Furthermore, the invention was patented but never commercialized so that even if Xi had sent the drawings to China, the government would not have a case that economic damage was done.
The government investigators could have just as easily verified the findings as Ziedenberg did, but the Obama Administration has been so fixated by the idea that China is out to steal everything that hysteria and paranoia have replaced judgement.
In lieu of a professional investigation, the government leaps to prosecution. If the suspect is a Chinese American, he is ipso facto guilty.
Xi’s case harkens back to the celebrated case of Dr. Wen Ho Lee, then a scientist working at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Lee was accused of leaking the design of multi-head missile to China and incarcerated in solitary confinement for 10 months.
Eventually, the presiding judge apologized to Lee for gross government misconduct before releasing him, but even then Lee had to plead guilty to one charge in exchange for time already served.
Preserving the reputation of the American judiciary system that the government is never wrong is far more important than any damage done to the civil rights of its citizens.
If the government couldn’t get Lee to accept one guilt plea, the government would have no justification for having kept him in jail and that meant the government made a mistake.
No different from the governments under Nazi Germany or Stalin’s Soviet Union, our government does not make mistakes — none that they could admit. For the US government to apologize is out of the question.
Professor Ling-chi Wang, then head of Asian American studies at UC Berkeley, was outraged by the injustice Lee suffered in the hands of the government. He organized a national boycott of the national laboratories and urged Asian American scientists to stop applying for jobs at the laboratories.
Whether it was because of the sobering effect of Lee’s treatment or the subsequent boycott, new applicants to the national labs did drop off significantly and senior staff were leaving for non-government sector or taking early retirement.
Because Asian Americans make up 5% of the US population but 25% of PhDs in the technical disciplines, the management of the national laboratories was rightly alarmed and concerned.
What to do with unfilled vacancies in the labs? Fill them with the best-trained lawyers and politicians and let them conduct weaponry development?
A typical response attributed to a Nobel laureate and scientific advisor to Congress: “Every physics, engineering and life sciences department has brilliant young scientists born in Asia and the Pacific Rim, and we’d be in deep trouble if we didn’t have them here.”
It was true fifteen years ago and even more so today. When Professor Xi came to the US, he was already a recognized world authority in his field of superconductive thin film. How he has been treated will surely give pause to others considering their career options.
In recent years there were other cases of Chinese Americans that were targeted and arrested. They were charged with espionage or committing economic crimes against American interest on behalf of China.
Unlike Xi’s case, some of the victims spent years in mental suspension, not to mentioned the constant financial drain in legal bills, before the government abruptly dropped the charges. Invariably there would be no explanation and, of course, no apology. Not all the victims want to relive their agony by going public with their taste of American justice.
The Sherry Chen case became public because of reports by the New York Times. She was also arrested, handcuffed and taken away in front of her co-workers. She was accused of unauthorized access to certain data about dams. Zeidenberg was also her attorney and he pointed out that the person that gave her password for computer access was not Chinese and was recently promoted.
After federal prosecutor dropped all charges, her employer the Department of Commerce is apparently suffering from the embarrassment of bringing the charges against her and is not going to re-hire her.
To add insult to injury, Joyce explained that the government’s case against her father was dropped “without prejudice,” meaning that the case is technically live and the government has the right to re-open the case in the future — consistent with the government’s inability to face up to admitting a mistake.
Thus in addition to the legal expense Xi incurred to prove his innocence, the cloud of suspicion will continue to dog him for the rest of his life in the US.
One of the advantages of working in academia as opposed to a national lab is the freedom to collaborate with anyone in the world. Such collaboration can take the form of joint research, sharing of ideas and papers and in Xi’s case sharing of samples. Other experts consider Xi’s sample films wonderfully pure and excellent for testing their ideas and experiments.
Academic collaboration and exchanges benefit all parties that participate in them. It is a principle fundamental to the advancement of science and knowledge. Putting Xi under surveillance and suspicion is equivalent to restricting his ability to do unfettered research.
The ultimate loser in this xenophobia will be the United States.
At Hastings Law School, the San Francisco-based Asian Law Caucus handed out a 6 point advice under “Know Your Rights,” as briefly summarized below.
Rule 1 – If FBI or law enforcement come calling, you have the right to say, “I want to speak to a lawyer before speaking with you.”
Rule 2 – It’s a crime to lie. An honest mistake such as mixed up on dates could be held against you. That’s why you need a lawyer by your side.
Rule 3 – Asking for a lawyer won’t make you more suspicious and talking to lawman without one could get you in trouble.
Rule 4 – Just because FBI contacts you do not mean you’ve done anything wrong or that you are under investigation.
Rule 5 – FBI has no right to ask you about your political or religious beliefs, such as how you feel about US China relations.
Rule 6 – If you think you are being discriminated by your employer, consult an attorney immediately
The contact at Asian Law Caucus is Yaman Salahi, firstname.lastname@example.org for a copy of the handout.
Dr. George Koo recently retired from a global advisory services firm where he advised clients on their China strategies and business operations. Educated at MIT, Stevens Institute and Santa Clara University, he is the founder and former managing director of International Strategic Alliances. He is a member of the Committee of 100, the Pacific Council for International Policy and a director of New America Media.
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