As FBI Tackles Chinese Espionage, Some Fear A New Red Scare

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A Huawei logo is seen at the entrance of the Huawei Cyber Security Lab at a Huawei production base during a media tour in Donggguan, China's Guangdong province on March 6, 2019. Chinese telecom giant Huawei gave foreign media a peek into its state-of-the-art facilities on March 6 as the normally secretive company steps up a counter-offensive against US warnings that it could be used by Beijing for espionage and sabotage. (WANG ZHAO/AFP via Getty Images)
A Huawei logo is seen at the entrance of the Huawei Cyber Security Lab at a Huawei production base during a media tour in Donggguan, China's Guangdong province on March 6, 2019. Chinese telecom giant Huawei gave foreign media a peek into its state-of-the-art facilities on March 6 as the normally secretive company steps up a counter-offensive against US warnings that it could be used by Beijing for espionage and sabotage. (WANG ZHAO/AFP via Getty Images)

Chinese espionage is a real problem for this country. But is the FBI overreacting to Chinese theft of intellectual property, and creating a new red scare?


Peter Waldman, investigative reporter for Bloomberg News.

Larry Diamond, senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and ch-chair of a 2019 study on Chinese influence campaigns and espionage on American college campuses. (@LarryDiamond)

Xi Xiaoxing, professor of physics at Temple University. In 2015, he was arrested by the FBI on charges of espionage, but all charges were dropped. He is now suing the FBI. (@CST_TempleU)

Interview Highlights

It was an early morning in May 2015 when Xi Xiaoxing woke up to a loud knock on his door.

It was an urgent-sounding knock, Xi Xiaoxing says. So urgent, he adds, that he ran to open the door without getting fully dressed.

When he got to the door, Xi saw many FBI agents outside of his house, some armed, Xiaoxing says.

Xiaoxing was then arrested and handcuffed, he says.

“I had absolutely no idea why this was happening. And they wouldn’t tell me,” he says.

So, why was the FBI at Xi Xiaoxing’s door?

“I was charged for having made a device [a pocket heater] that was followed by a nondisclosure agreement with a U.S. company for a Chinese collaborator, which is totally false,” Xi Xiaoxing says. “The fact is, that I have never shared any information of the hot pocket heater with anybody in China.”

Xi Xiaoxing joined On Point guest host Robert Siegel to discuss the moments after his arrest, why he believes he was arrested and the possibility of a new red scare.

On what happened next on the morning of the arrest

“The armed agents in bulletproof vests rushed into my house, running around and yelling, ‘FBI, FBI.’ They point their guns to my wife and daughters. And one by one, they walked out of their bedroom with their hands raised. I was really very worried that this must be very frightening to them. And the only thing I can think off was, ‘Don’t do anything that will lead them [to] shoot us.’ When they took me away from my house, I had absolutely no idea when I would see my family again. I grew up during Cultural Revolution in China. In that time, it was not unusual for people being taken away and could not feed our family for a very, very long time.”

Less than four months after your arrest by the FBI, charges were dropped. How were your charges dropped?

“My lawyers contacted expert in my field and gave them all my email communications with my Chinese collaborators. Because, you know, there were four crimes against me, all based on four emails I sent to my colleagues in China. And so my lawyer gave them all my emails and asked them to see whether there was any evidence that I shared the pocket heater information with people in China. And also, he contacted an inventor, one of the inventors of the pocket heater. And all of them said that there was no evidence that I share any information about a pocket heater from the communication that I had with Chinese colleagues.”

What he learned from his arrest

“After my case, I learned several things. First of all, when the government charges somebody of stealing secret for China, it is not always … necessarily true, like in my case. They were all false. The second thing is that the Chinese families are being treated unfairly. And the third point I want to say is that these people, these FBI agents in my case, they had absolutely no idea how academia research is done. And what they are doing is threatening the open environment in fundamental research. You know, Peter mentioned this. I'm not talking about classified information. I'm not talking about sensitive information. I'm talking about the fundamental research and the government policy that governs this, their so-called NSDD-189 that's issued by President Reagan. That says that the fundamental research should be unrestricted to the extent possible. So these people are trying to quiet down the fundamental research, which is actually hurting American leadership in science and technology.”

Would you dispute the argument that FBI director Christopher Wray made, that there is a strong Chinese campaign to steal intellectual property from wherever they can in the United States, including university laboratories?

“What I can say is I recommend you to read JASON report. Which is released, commissioned by the National Science Foundation. And that examined the fact that these elite groups of scientists, they have access to all the classified information from the intelligence community after they study this. They were saying that the scale and the scope of the foreign influence is poorly defined. And this kind of failure to disclose. And so this should be investigated and adjudicated by the funding agency and the arrestees as the presumptive violations of research integrity, with the consequence similar to those currently in place for scientific misconduct. Not by FBI, not throwing in the jail. You know, when I heard the case of Charles Lieber, I wanted to tell people, one, that Charles Lieber is presumed innocent until proven guilty. Two, from my own personal experience, what the government charges is not necessarily true.”

From The Reading List

National Security Foundation: "Fundamental Research Security: JASON Report" — "The National Science Foundation (NSF) celebrates its 70th anniversary this year (2019). Over seven decades it has transformed U.S. fundamental research and enabled a world-leading scientific enterprise built upon open intellectual exchange, collaboration, and sharing. Several incidents in recent years have led to concern that the openness of our academic fundamental research ecosystem is being taken advantage of by other countries.

"This sense of unfair competition is entwined with concerns about U.S. economic and national security in a rapidly changing world. The NSF wishes to assess these concerns and respond to them where appropriate, while also adhering to core values of excellence, openness, and fairness. NSF has charged JASON to produce an unclassified report that can be widely disseminated and discussed in the academic community, providing technical or other data about specific security concerns in a classified appendix."

Bloomberg Businessweek: "The U.S. Is Purging Chinese Cancer Researchers From Top Institutions" — "The dossier on cancer researcher Xifeng Wu was thick with intrigue, if hardly the stuff of a spy thriller. It contained findings that she’d improperly shared confidential information and accepted a half-dozen advisory roles at medical institutions in China. She might have weathered those allegations, but for a larger aspersion that was far more problematic: She was branded an oncological double agent.

"In recent decades, cancer research has become increasingly globalized, with scientists around the world pooling data and ideas to jointly study a disease that kills almost 10 million people a year.

"International collaborations are an intrinsic part of the U.S. National Cancer Institute’s Moonshot program, the government’s $1 billion blitz to double the pace of treatment discoveries by 2022. One of the program’s tag lines: 'Cancer knows no borders.' Except, it turns out, the borders around China."

The Washington Post: "Scrutiny of Chinese American scientists raises fears of ethnic profiling" — "Two years ago, the director of the National Institutes of Health hailed genetic research from Emory University as a promising advance in the quest to treat Huntington’s disease, a devastating neurological disorder.

"A Chinese-born couple, Xiao-Jiang Li and Shihua Li, both Emory professors, were among the authors of the study on gene editing in mice. NIH Director Francis S. Collins called the results 'reassuring news' as scientists explore the 'potential curative power' of gene editing. Published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, the study was a prime display of the globalization of science and the deep Chinese connections to U.S. higher education.

"Now, the Lis are booted from Emory, their laboratory shuttered, their tale an example of the rising scrutiny of ethnic Chinese scientists that has rattled campuses from coast to coast."

Bloomberg: "U.S. Targeting of Chinese Scientists Fuels a Brain Drain" — "It was a big opportunity for a small research university. In 2013, Xin Zhao, a prize-winning Ph.D. from the College of William & Mary, landed venture funding to commercialize some of the school’s patented nanotechnology. Zhao’s startup rented space nearby, hired local graduates and agreed to fund $1 million of new research at the Williamsburg, Virginia, campus.

“'It was what everyone wants to see—a success story of a university spinout,' says Jason McDevitt, the school’s director of technology transfer. Six years later, Yick Xin Technology Development Ltd. is up and running, but not in Virginia. The company’s R&D and new patent registrations—the lifeblood of any technology startup—have moved to China.

"The planned William & Mary spinout left the U.S. after federal agents hounded its founder, Zhao, for two years, and prosecutors accused him of trying to smuggle a robotic arm from Florida to a university in China that U.S. officials had linked to the nation’s top nuclear weapons lab. The charges were dismissed in December 2017—but Zhao, shaken by the ordeal, gave up his U.S. research operations."

CBS News: "FBI director and attorney general warn that Chinese espionage is growing threat" — "The two chief law enforcement officers in the U.S. warned against the growing threat of Chinese espionage to American national security. Attorney General William Barr and FBI Director Christopher Wray described a 'diverse and multilayered threat' posed by the Chinese government. Speaking separately at a conference Thursday morning, each explained how China's 'Made in China 2025' goal puts the country at risk with state-sponsored espionage efforts across U.S. industry.

"Barr and Wray warned that the communist country is using both lawful and unlawful tactics to achieve its goals.

"Wray said there are about 1,000 ongoing investigations into Chinese theft of U.S. technology across all 56 of the bureau's field offices. Barr also hinted that there would be more indictments brought by the Justice Department targeting hacking attempts by the Chinese government."

This program aired on February 19, 2020.


Robert Siegel Guest Host
Robert Siegel was co-host of NPR's All Things Considered from 1987 until his retirement in January 2018.


Headshot of Stefano Kotsonis

Stefano Kotsonis Senior Producer, On Point
Stefano Kotsonis is a senior producer for WBUR's On Point.



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