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Democratic lawmakers launch investigation into FBI handling of Chinese espionage

“Racial profiling does not protect U.S. interests. It promotes hysteria and has led to arrests of innocent individuals ... ," Rep. Judy Chu said.
Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., and Rep Jamie Raskin, D-Md.
Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., and Rep Jamie Raskin, D-Md.Getty Images

Two House Democrats are launching an investigation into the FBI’s handling of Chinese espionage and intellectual property theft cases and demanding that the agency turn over documents related to its own related inquiries.

Rep. Judy Chu of California, who chairs the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, and Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, who chairs the House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, issued the set of demands last Thursday in a letter to FBI Director Christopher Wray.

They called on the agency to produce a description of investigations and prosecutions involving intellectual property theft. They also cited news reports detailing several instances of Chinese American scientists wrongfully accused of espionage as an impetus for the request.

Chu told NBC News that while there’s “no doubt” that the U.S. must protect against economic espionage and threats to innovation and security, “we must reject xenophobic attempts to broadly target Chinese and Chinese Americans en masse as unique national security threats.”

“Racial profiling does not protect U.S. interests. It promotes hysteria and has led to arrests of innocent individuals where charges were later dropped without any explanation,” she said, adding that through the request, she and Raskin are “looking for quantifiable and concrete metrics that are used to determine threats to our country, not just somebody’s last name.”

In the letter, the lawmakers called on Wray to break the investigations down to year, race and ethnicity, and to category of case among other details. They also asked for any communications with academic organizations on the monitoring of Chinese students and scholars, counterintelligence training materials regarding Chinese people, as well as any communications with the National Institutes of Health related to investigations of those of Chinese descent.

A white paper published by the Committee of 100, a Chinese American leadership group, revealed that Asians were more likely than any other group to be charged with espionage. The percentage of those of Chinese descent charged under the Economic Espionage Act has tripled since 2009. Twenty-two percent of those of Asian descent who were charged with espionage were never convicted. When examining those who were convicted, individuals with Asian-sounding names were given sentences twice as long as those with Western-sounding names.

Chu and Raskin raised several cases of wrongful espionage accusations in their letter, including those of Xiaoxing Xi, a professor, and Sherry Chen, a scientist. In 2015, FBI agents stormed Xiaoxing’s home and rounded up his family at gunpoint before arresting him. He was accused of allegedly sharing sensitive U.S. technology with China, threatened with up to 80 years in prison and a $1 million fine. The Department of Justice abruptly dropped the charges against the professor after it was revealed that the agents and prosecutors had misunderstood the technology that had been used as a key piece of evidence.

“Dropped charges do not erase the trauma and paranoia from FBI surveillance, $200,000 in legal fees, or the many shattered pieces of our lives we still have to put together,” Xi’s daughter Joyce wrote in a blog. “It does not erase the fact that the federal government exerted its overwhelming power to try and criminalize my father in the name of national security, as if he were an enemy of his own country, America.”

Chen, a hydrologist, had a similar experience in 2014 when FBI agents arrested her on charges of using a stolen password to obtain information about U.S. dams and lying about a meeting with a Chinese official. The case collapsed a week before she was to go to trial.

Despite the numerous cases of wrongful accusations, the FBI seems to have increased efforts to monitor students and scholars of Chinese descent. Wray himself drew backlash after accusing Chinese academics of “exploiting the very open research and development environment” during a Senate hearing in 2018. He proceeded to describe China as “not just a whole-of-government threat, but a whole-of-society threat on their end.”

An NPR report also revealed that FBI officials visited at least 10 universities since 2018, urging the entities to develop protocols for monitoring students and visiting scholars from Chinese state-affiliated research institutions.

Many scientists of Chinese descent have voiced that they’ve been working “under a cloud of suspicion,” Charlie Woo, a vice chair of the Committee of 100, said. He added that the organization appreciated the efforts of Chu and Raskin.

“The U.S has always been the leader because we have always been able to attract the best and the brightest from around the world. If Chinese American scientists do not feel welcome in our country, we risk losing our advantage of being at the forefront of these industries,” he said. “We must recognize their full potential and contributions without jeopardizing the future of American advancement."