It appears as though the United States Justice Department might have been a little hasty when it arrested the chairman of Temple University’s physics department earlier this year on charges of sharing sensitive American-made technology with China. Turns out if they had bothered to consult a scientist beforehand they could have avoided ruining the guy’s life.
In May of this year, about a dozen F.B.I. agents stormed Professor Xi Xiaoxing’s home with gun drawn, searching the house and taking Xi away in handcuffs as his wife and two daughters looked on.
Originally, U.S. prosecutors believed they had a slam dunk case against the Chinese-born Professor Xi, who is an American citizen living in the US since 1989. They had in their possession a damning piece of evidence: the schematics of a sophisticated laboratory that revealed the design of a secret device known as a pocket heater that is used in superconductor research, which Xi had sent to scientists in China.
After a few months of investigation, further research revealed a tiny flaw with their rock-solid case. Funny thing, the blueprints were not for a pocket heater at all.
The Justice Department dropped all charges against Xi on Friday afternoon in what The New York Times called “an embarrassing acknowledgement” that the federal investigators didn’t know enough science to actually handle the case and hadn’t bothered to ask anyone who did. A vindicated Professor Xi told the Times:
I don’t expect them to understand everything I do. But the fact that they don’t consult with experts and then charge me? Put my family through all this? Damage my reputation? They shouldn’t do this. This is not a joke. This is not a game.
The Justice Department has been under increased pressure to crack down on Chinese economic and scientific espionage, but critics now worry that their efforts have turned into nothing more than a witch hunt against innocent Chinese-born scientists working in America.
“If he was Canadian-American or French-American, or he was from the U.K., would this have ever even got on the government’s radar? I don’t think so,” one of Xi’s lawyers told the New York Times.
Earlier this year, six Chinese nationals, including three university professors, were charged with stealing sensitive mobile phone technology and trade secrets.
The “spy vs. spy” saga between the US and China has been going on for some years now, with both countries trading accusations of conspiracy and clandestine attempts to steal sensitive information—from the arrest of an ex-NASA contractor to the conviction of two men for stealing Oreo’s precious recipe.
For his part, Professor Xi just feels grateful to be declared innocent, at least for now.
“At the right time, I will tell my side of the story,” he said. “Not just to clear my name and repair my reputation, but to do my part in making sure that no American citizen, regardless of where he or she was born, should have to be put through the ordeal that I have gone through.”