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Chilling tales of spying accusations recounted

By May Zhou in Houston | China Daily | Updated: 2016-11-07 13:42

Chilling tales of spying accusations recounted

From left: legal expert Nelson Dong, Temple University professor Xi Xiaoxing and former federal hydrologist Sherry Chen respond to questions from the audience on Saturday in Houston. [Photo/China Daily]

Sherry Chen recounted how she was confronted by FBI agents one morning upon arriving at her job and whisked away in handcuffs in front of all her colleagues. She was shocked and bewildered.

"It's a scene I only saw in movies. I was so humiliated," she said. 

Chen, a former federal hydrologist for the US National Weather Service in Ohio, was suspected of espionage by the US government.

She and Xi Xiaoxing, a physics professor at Temple University, recalled their ordeals at a seminar for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) professionals on Saturday in Houston. 

To help Chinese-American STEM professionals understand the current climate and potential risks, the Committee of 100, with the help of local Chinese-American civil rights organizations, presented the seminar on the legal risks of advancing technology between the United States and China. Noted physicist Paul Chu was among the audience members.

In recent years, an increasing number of Chinese-American scientists have been charged with espionage. While some of the cases were legitimate, several Asian Americans were wrongfully prosecuted, resulting in serious financial, psychological and career damage to them, as in the cases of Chen and Xi.

The charges against her were dropped a week before a scheduled trial. Despite that, Chen was fired from her job and became unemployable.

"I worked hard, built one of the largest hydraulic models used by US companies and the government. I contributed to the country. I couldn't believe that all I had worked for was taken away by a government witch hunt," Chen said tearfully. 

Xi also shared his personal nightmare: He woke up early one morning in May 2015 to loud knocks by FBI agents. He was immediately handcuffed, and his family members, including his 12-year-old daughter, were rousted out of their bedrooms at gunpoint.

More humiliation awaited him at an FBI facility, where he was stripped naked and body searched, Xi recounted in a faltering voice.   

It was not a case of mistaken identity, as Xi had thought. He was arrested and charged with sharing US technology with a Chinese company, a baseless accusation that was later dropped.

Both Chen and Xi said they went through tremendous psychological suffering and career setbacks. When their names were cleared, they were left with large legal bills. 

Their injustices prompted Chen and Xi to speak out about their experiences in Asian communities around the country. "I want to do my part to make this land a better place to live and work," Chen said. 

"There is a pattern to charge Asian Americans with espionage crimes, only to have the charges dropped later," Xi said. "These are race-based prosecutions. The scary aspect of this is that the wrongful prosecution could happen to anyone. I am still not clear how I got targeted. We need to speak out; Asian Americans deserve equal protection." 

Joyce Xi, Xi's daughter and a recent STEM college graduate, said her father's experience prompted her to take a job at a civil rights organization.   

The personal testimonies of Xi and Chen were used as cautionary tales to illustrate the risks that Chinese-American STEM professional face in their daily work lives.

Nelson Dong, a legal expert and a member of the Committee of 100, said that due to the geopolitical power struggle between the US and China, Chinese Americans are at risk of being crushed in the turbulence.   

"A career you spent your entire life to build could all be destroyed due to wrongful prosecution by the government," said Dong, who at the seminar reviewed US policies, regulations and laws related to espionage.  

Dong advised the audience to understand the law and its complexities, the contracts signed with employers and to be cautious about sensitive information stored on laptop computers and smartphones when traveling across borders.

"Anything in your possession could become evidence against you in a criminal case. Things can be far more sinister and guilty than you mean," warned Dong. 

Event organizers Edmond Gor, national president of the Chinese American Citizen Alliance, and Cecil Fong, president of the Organization of Chinese Americans–Houston chapter, said that although most cases are concentrated on the East and West coasts, the large number of STEM professionals in Houston made the discussion vital to helping them prepare for such possibilities.

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