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A professor falsely accused of spying for China describes the toll it's taken on his family

Xiaoxing Xi, a Temple University professor, is attempting to sue the government after being accused of spying for China — an ordeal that has immeasurably impacted his loved ones.
Xiaoxing Xi and his wife, Qi Li, with their daughter Joyce Xi and their younger daughter.
Xiaoxing Xi and his wife, Qi Li, with their daughters.Courtesy Joyce Xi

Xiaoxing Xi, a physics professor at Temple University, remembers trying to make sense of what was happening to him and his family that early morning of May 2015, when armed FBI agents swarmed his Philadelphia home before daybreak, shining flashlights in their eyes and rounding them up at gunpoint. Xi was arrested on a charge of economic espionage.

The case against Xi seven years ago revolved around a personal invention and his alleged disclosure of manufacturing information with his research community in China. Though Xi’s case was abruptly dropped four months after his arrest, he said it's taken a toll on his family and he's now taking legal action.

“My wife was telling me that her biggest concern was trying to help our younger daughter, who was 12 years old at that time, to not suffer the mental damages because of this traumatic thing,” Xi said. “She kept telling her that this was just like a movie, trying to minimize the fact that this was happening.” 

While lower courts dismissed his case, Xi, who is among several other Chinese scientists to have been falsely accused of economic espionage, appeared before an appeals court last week in hopes of moving forward with a suit.  

The Department of Justice had accused Xi of sharing schematics for a pocket heater with peers in his research community in China. Xi, who had previously signed a nondisclosure agreement over the blueprint, was described by prosecutors as engaging in “an effort to assist Chinese entities in becoming world leaders of the superconductivity field.”

“They’ve done wrong and they should be held accountable,” said Xi, who’s backed in part by the American Civil Liberties Union. “It’s also important for the community in general, because of all the Chinese scientists and scientists of Chinese descent — many of them are being falsely charged. And if we are not able to hold the government accountable, they’re going to do more of this.” 

Xi’s team called on the court to reinstate his claims for damages against the U.S. government, who they allege violated his Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights, protections against unreasonable searches and seizures and against being compelled by the government to provide incriminating information, respectively. 

Xiaoxing Xi and his wife, Qi Li.
Xiaoxing Xi and his wife, Qi Li.Hannah Beier / ACLU

He was threatened with up to 80 years in prison and a fine of up to $1 million. Xi, who’s since been reinstated as a professor, was also stripped of his position as the interim chairman of the physics department at Temple University and placed on administrative leave for a period of time.

Temple University declined NBC News’ request for comment. 

But testimony from physicists showed that the blueprints were not at all for the technology in question, but for his own invention. Interactions with Chinese contemporaries appeared to be “legitimate normal academic collaborations.” And by September 2015, the DOJ’s case fell apart. 

The motion to dismiss the case stated that “additional information came to the attention of the government.”

The Justice Department did not respond to NBC News’ request for comment. 

“Watching my dad get arrested — he was pinned up against the wall. ... They dragged him out. They didn’t even let him put shoes on.”

Joyce Xi

Xi, who initially sued the government in 2017, alleges that the prosecution wasn’t just a misunderstanding in technology, but FBI agents had “made knowingly or recklessly false statements” to support their prosecution. His arrest, Xi claimed, was discriminatory. And he was targeted due to his ethnicity, much like many other scholars of Chinese descent.

Though Xi's case was dismissed last year, his appeal will set in motion a case whose decision will likely take several months. The challenge will be difficult. In an amicus brief filed in support of Xi earlier this year, dozens of organizations noted that the Supreme Court significantly narrowed its already restrictive standard of holding federal agents accountable for violating constitutional rights. But Xi and his family say that they’re prepared to keep fighting, so that, at least some positive change can come out of their trauma, daughter Joyce said. 

The arrest, Joyce added, altered the family’s lives in unmeasurable ways. She recounts being home from college at the time of the arrest and hearing “strange voices” through the darkness, telling her to come out with her hands raised.

“Watching my dad get arrested — he was pinned up against the wall,” she recalled, her voice shaking from the memory. “They dragged him out. They didn’t even let him put shoes on.”

Xi said that when he was being driven away he attempted to flip through years of memories, conjuring anything at all that could’ve prompted such actions. But he was left puzzled. And for the next several months, the confusion would only continue alongside psychological stress his family would endure, his daughter said. They’d routinely find news crews pointing cameras into the blinds of their house, and they began feeling paranoia over mundane things like opening emails. 

Professor draws parallels to the plight of academics living in Cultural Revolution China

As puzzling as the arrest was for his family, Xi said he felt some pangs of familiarity. The ordeal harkened back to emotions he felt while living under the Cultural Revolution in China. The sociopolitical movement, led by Mao Zedong in 1966, resulted in the persecution of scholars, who were labeled as a “stinking ninth caste” for their independent thought. 

At the time, Xi was sent to work in the countryside like millions of other Chinese youth. By the end of the revolution, when he finally had the opportunity to pursue an education, he said he felt grateful. He picked up physics without much thought. Leaving his village for new opportunities “was a great feeling,” he said. But amid the crackdown on intellectuals, he witnessed many lives being thrown into disarray, he said.

“We don’t expect that in this country. But it did happen like what had happened during the Cultural Revolution,” he said. “It was absolutely not unusual that people were taken away and not knowing when they will see their family again.”

In some ways, Xi said, his childhood had informed him of how to handle this ordeal. 

“Many people who could not take it anymore either committed suicide or died of their sufferings,” he said of the scholars who were persecuted. “When the Cultural Revolution ended, and many people got rehabilitated, their names got restored. So, in the minds of myself and my wife, we were very clear. We had to live. We had to live through this so that we could clear our name.”

Xi is part of a long history of Chinese American academics and scientists who have been wrongly accused of spying for China. A couple years after Xi’s arrest, the Trump administration formalized a program called the “China Initiative,” aimed at addressing Chinese economic espionage. However, as many like Xi were falsely accused of espionage and their lives thrown into disarray, a growing number of scholars alleged that it instead encouraged racial profiling. The Biden administration ended the program earlier this year.  

These days, Xi said he no longer applies for federal funding on his research. His program is much smaller, he adds, and the fear of a repeat incident is always in the back of his mind. Joyce, who was a chemistry major at the time of the arrest, said the ordeal rerouted her life completely. After graduation, she thrust herself into advocacy work to protect others from being racially profiled.

“All these other people that are also facing this horrible situation — it’s the kids too. It’s their families. It’s not just an individual who’s being targeted,” Joyce said. 

Several other scholars who have been falsely accused of spying struggle to recount the emotional toll the incidents took on their families. Gang Chen, an MIT professor who was similarly arrested for espionage in 2021 and exonerated earlier this year, told NBC News that he was also arrested in front of his family. He struggled to form words around how the arrest impacted his loved ones, only saying that he was “lucky” to have their support. 

“I can only say that it’s not a pain that can go away,” Chen said.   

A survey of almost 2,000 scientists across the country, released last year by the Committee of 100, showed that more than 50% of scientists of Chinese descent “feel considerable fear and/or anxiety that they are being surveilled by the U.S. government.” And among those who have had research with China prematurely suspended over the past three years, almost 80% of scientists of Chinese descent said they wanted to distance themselves from collaborators in China.  

“I know it’s difficult, but we suffer,” Xi said.  “If we don’t do anything, that’s the end of the story.”