“To this day, we carry many scars from our experience.” — Joyce Xi ’16
In May 2015, FBI agents raided Joyce Xi’s childhood home and pointed guns at her and her younger sister. The agents arrested her father, Temple University professor Xiaoxing Xi, and accused him of spying for the Chinese government. They threatened him with 80 years in prison and a $1,000,000 fine. The case fell apart months later when it became clear that Xi had in fact not shared any sensitive information with China, but the damage to him and his family had already been done.
Six years later, the racial profiling of Chinese American scientists remains a problem — and it’s only gotten worse. In November 2018, the Department of Justice created the China Initiative to investigate national security threats originating from China. Although the initiative was intended to address instances of economic espionage, it has increasingly targeted scientists at American universities for administrative errors unrelated to espionage, like failing to properly disclose relationships with Chinese universities in grant applications and routine paperwork. Academic institutions have previously rewarded collaboration with foreign scientists, and the federal government has even acknowledged that its disclosure requirements are complicated and often contradictory.
While there is a legitimate threat of Chinese espionage, the China Initiative as our current counterespionage strategy raises serious concerns. During the June 2021 trial of University of Tennessee, Knoxville professor Anming Hu, the first academic to go to trial under the China Initiative, FBI agents admitted to using false information to justify a litany of actions against Hu: spying on him and his college-aged son for two years, misrepresenting him as a Chinese spy to university administrators and attempting to persuade him to spy for the United States. After a lengthy trial, Hu was ultimately acquitted of all charges.
So why should we at Yale care about Xi, Hu and others like them who have been caught in the crosshairs of the Justice Department? Beyond the implications of racial profiling — which should be enough cause for concern in itself — the heightened scrutiny of ethnically Chinese scientists has created a culture of fear. A recent Committee of 100 study found that 50.7 percent of Chinese scientists surveyed experienced considerable anxiety at being surveilled by the United States government, compared to only 11.7 percent of non-Chinese academics. 42.1 percent of Chinese scientists surveyed were reconsidering their plans to stay in the United States. Undoubtedly, these same patterns are playing out across classrooms and laboratories here at Yale.
In a recent panel hosted by the Committee of 100, Yale Vice President for Global Strategy Pericles Lewis acknowledged the detrimental effects of the China Initiative and outlined steps that the University has taken internally to help faculty members to navigate disclosure requirements. While we applaud Lewis for drawing attention to this issue, we believe faculty and administrators at Yale have a responsibility to speak out more directly against the racial profiling of Chinese American scientists.
Last month, 177 Stanford University faculty, 214 University of California, Berkeley faculty, 167 Temple University faculty and 198 Princeton faculty signed open letters to US Attorney General Merrick Garland requesting the termination of the China Initiative. More than 1,000 other faculty at 217 universities across the country have done the same. Members of the Yale community should join them in calling for an end to the China Initiative.
Yale has a special place in Chinese American history. In 1854, Yung Wing became the first Chinese student to graduate from an American university. Yale’s official ties to China date as far back as 1901, when a group of Yale graduates founded the Yale-China Association to bridge the two countries through education and collaboration. With today’s tense geopolitical relations between China and the United States, it’s more important than ever for Yale to ensure that students and researchers from around the world feel welcome at Yale and in the country.
As UC Berkeley’s Vice Chancellor for Research Randy Katz has stated before the House Oversight Committee, recent investigations of ethnically Chinese scientists “have been conducted in a manner that does not adhere to our American values.” Throughout our history, we have failed to live up to our country’s ideals, but we have the ability to acknowledge faults in our government and actively work to correct them.
Shortly after the United States dropped its charges against her father, Joyce Xi wrote, “This is not the America I thought I knew.” By taking the first step of ending the China Initiative, we can work toward the America that all of us would want to know.