When I met Xi Xiaoxing five years ago, he was trying to reclaim his life.
In some ways, he still is.
In May 2015, Xi, a professor of physics at Temple University, was arrested at his suburban Philadelphia home in front of his wife and two daughters. He was accused of secretly passing research to authorities back in his native China in exchange for what prosecutors called “lucrative and prestigious” appointments.
When I spoke
with Xi’s physics colleagues, they were baffled by the charges. Not only did Xi have a reputation as a stand-up guy, but his area of research, superconducting thin films, was not sensitive or secret. Authorities seemed to have misunderstood the science. Four months after the initial charges, prosecutors conceded as much, dropping the case against Xi.
Xi later filed suit against the FBI, accusing agents of ignoring warnings from his fellow scientists that they were misconstruing normal academic collaboration as something criminal. He’s still waiting for a judge to rule if the case can move forward.
Last week I reached out to him to talk about the case of Gang Chen. Like Xi, Chen, a professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, has been charged with hiding his affiliations with China. Many of Chen’s colleagues have protested that much of what he is accused of is part of the day-to-day activities of a professor in a highly global research environment. (You can read my coverage of the Chen case here
Xi’s life, professionally and personally, has never returned to normal. Federal grants are the life blood of the type of basic research Xi does, but he now largely avoids applying for them, fearful that he could be caught in the dragnet of investigations that snared Chen. “I’m scared,” he told me.
Once a prolific researcher, Xi’s output is much smaller as a result. He spends more time giving speeches about the scrutiny of academic research and of Chinese-American scientists.