Legal Watch: AAUP Joins Legal Fight against Government Harassment of Asian American Scientists

By Edward Swidriski

In February, the AAUP joined Asian American organizations and civil rights groups in an amicus brief challenging the federal government’s racial profiling of scientists and researchers of Asian descent. The case, Xi v. Haugen, concerns Xiaoxing Xi, a Chinese American physics professor at Temple University whom the FBI and federal prosecutors falsely accused of being an economic spy for the Chinese government. Xi’s case is a particularly egregious instance of the many recent abuses perpetrated by the US Department of Justice, the FBI, and other federal law enforcement agencies against Asian American academics and the larger Asian American community.

An internationally recognized expert in superconducting technology, Xi is a naturalized American citizen who emigrated to the United States from China more than thirty years ago. In 2015, FBI agents appeared at Xi’s home in the early morning hours, detained his wife and daughters at gunpoint, searched and seized the Xi family’s private communications and personal property, and arrested Xi based on federal criminal charges stemming from false allegations that he had shared unlawfully obtained technological information with China. Following his arrest, Xi endured hours of questioning and intrusive searches, was publicly portrayed by the US Attorney’s Office as a spy, and was suspended from his position as interim chair of the physics department at Temple. Once it became apparent that the accusations against him were baseless, the government dismissed the charges. Xi and his family subsequently filed a federal lawsuit against the government and several of the agents who participated in the investigation and arrest. The district court dismissed nearly all of the claims. Its decision, if not overturned, will prevent other individuals from holding the government accountable when it violates citizens’ constitutional rights. Xi and his family have appealed, and the case is now before the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. As AAUP general counsel Risa Lieberwitz has stated, “Professor Xi and his family deserve justice, as do all other victims of this discriminatory targeting. The courts must hold the US government accountable for its unconstitutional racial profiling and persecution of scientists and researchers of Asian descent.”

The physical, emotional, reputational, and financial suffering that government agents caused Xi and his family is just part of the widespread harm that federal authorities have inflicted upon the Asian American community in recent years as they have pursued a law enforcement strategy of baseless harassment grounded in anti-Asian prejudice. Although the roots of these discriminatory practices are deep, the Trump administration’s “China Initiative”—a Justice Department project purportedly designed to crack down on trade-secret theft, hacking, and economic espionage conducted by or for the Chinese government—led to a dramatic increase in racially motivated government investigations of Asian American academics. FBI director Christopher Wray even claimed that the “academic sector” as a whole suffers from “naiveté” about “the China threat” and that “nontraditional collectors” of intelligence, including “professors, scientists, [and] students,” gather information in “basically every discipline” for use by China.

Civil rights groups and independent watchdog organizations have called out both the government’s hyperbolic rhetoric—which has served mainly to perpetuate malicious narratives of Asian Americans as disloyal foreigners who should be treated with suspicion—and the real-world results of its policies in this area. Rather than leading to the successful prosecution of significant cases of espionage or trade-secret theft, the China Initiative has instead given license to the government’s selective and overly aggressive prosecution of minor administrative violations committed by scientists of Chinese ancestry and academics with associations to Chinese academic institutions. Many of these prosecutions have failed, resulting in either acquittal or the dismissal of charges before a trial even begins, as occurred with Xi.

The week after the amicus brief in Xi’s case was filed, the Justice Department announced that it was ending the China Initiative in light of widespread public criticism and a review which found that the program was fueling anti-Asian discrimination and hampering scientific and technological research. This is a welcome development. As the AAUP previously explained in a 2019 joint statement, efforts by the United States to protect against foreign espionage must not employ the authoritarian tactics used by its adversaries and must respect academic freedom, due process, and the privacy rights of faculty and students regardless of their national origin. It is to be hoped that justice will also prevail in Xi’s case.

Edward Swidriski is assistant counsel at the AAUP.