It was the break of dawn at Xiaoxing Xi’s home in the suburbs of Philadelphia when FBI agents began pounding on the front door: at first with clenched fists, but with a battering ram at the ready in case of resistance. Startled awake by the noise, Dr. Xi, a Chinese-born physics professor at Temple University and naturalized American citizen, rushed to the door to investigate the strange disturbance.
As Dr. Xi recounted this traumatic encounter during a recent panel hosted by Stanford’s Asian American Activism Committee, he shuddered. The story sent chills through the audience, too, who sat frozen in their seats, listening intently.
You have the wrong house, he planned to say to the officials. This has to be a mistake.
Only it wasn’t an accident. In May 2015, Dr. Xi was put under arrest and handcuffed, his wife and young daughters standing in shock and despair with guns held to their heads. Later, he would find out that he had been charged with espionage for sharing confidential technology with China, a crime he had not committed.
Although Dr. Xi continued to defend his innocence, his pleas were dismissed, and he would spend the rest of the summer in a cell, stripped of not only his title as chair of Temple University’s physics department but also his status as a loving father to his family and as a highly respected academic.
The FBI finally dropped all charges against him in September, concluding that it had, in fact, made a mistake in the arrest. It initially concluded that Dr. Xi was a spy after coming across a set of emails to Chinese physicists, which included detailed blueprints for a “pocket heater,” a classified design used for superconductivity research. However, a slew of affidavits from Dr. Xi’s peers confirmed that the blueprints depicted an entirely different (and openly available) technology. There was no espionage committed. The charges had been false.
Ever since, Dr. Xi has been allowed to return to his work and his research at Temple. However, it would be a folly to label his experience as a one-off blunder, a minor lapse in judgment or technical expertise. Rather, the U.S. federal government has demonstrated a troubling pattern of unwarranted suspicion toward Chinese American scientists.
It was only one year earlier in 2014 when Sherry Chen, a hydrologist working for the National Weather Service, was interrupted at work by six FBI agents during a meeting with her boss. They accused her of stealing classified information about American critical infrastructure and sharing it with Chinese officials. Like Dr. Xi, she was bewildered by the charges. And like Dr. Xi, she was suspended from her job and confronted with a legal and financial nightmare as she struggled to prove her innocence to an audience of skeptics.
Worse, the infractions don’t end at the individual level; rather, they are built into the legal system itself. Consider the Wolf Amendment, championed by retired Republican representative Frank Wolf, which bans the use of federal funds to collaborate with China on space research in any way, shape or form. Wolf asserts a moral obligation to oppose bilateral space initiatives, even comparing alleged Chinese espionage to Joseph Stalin.
However, NASA has openly denounced the amendment as antithetical to American space interests, suggesting that it encourages opacity and dangerous competition. Policies like these emphasize that the United States has yet to mature from the rabid McCarthyism of the 1950s, demonstrating a willingness to forgo scientific advancement and international cooperation in favor of irrational xenophobia.
While scientists and researchers have been many of the latest targets of America’s “Red Scare” tactics, it is crucial to contextualize these incidents as part of the broader framework of orientalism in U.S.-China policy. First described by postcolonial scholar Edward Said, orientalism is an attitude that highlights the deviant “otherness” of Asia in opposition to the familiarity, transparency and virtue of the West. Beyond overtly racist tactics, orientalism is also reproduced subtly through attitudes and legislation that view China through a feminized lens: mysterious, irrational and never to be trusted.
After all, from the Seattle anti-Chinese riot of 1886 to Japanese internment to Dr. Xi and Mrs. Chen’s experiences just a few years back, we have repeatedly portrayed Asian culture as oppositional to American identity and Asian immigrants as threats to our national security. And unfortunately, this perception doesn’t simply change with someone passing a citizenship test or a new Panda Express opening in town.
Fortunately, Said has offered a beacon of hope for change in our thought practices. He suggests that “history … [can] be unmade and rewritten, so that ‘our’ east, ‘our’ orient becomes ‘ours’ to possess and direct.” Therefore, just as Frank Wolf was able to construct an image of China as a barbaric enemy state, it remains possible to shift academic and cultural narratives to center the agency of Asian and Asian American subjects.
Ultimately, it is up to us students as members of a diverse academic, civic and cultural community to reject orientalist perceptions of Chinese Americans. Whether through initiatives demanding a more diverse faculty at Stanford or through further efforts in the scientific community to amplify experiences such as Dr. Xi’s, college campuses function as a crucial space to redefine cross-cultural interactions. Failure to accomplish this critical task gives free license for the worst parts of human history to repeat themselves.
Contact Jasmine Sun at jasminesun ‘at’ stanford.edu.