Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus Members Hold First Congressional Hearing to Address Racial Profiling of Chinese Americans
Asian American scientists and researchers, particularly of Chinese descent, have been subjected to heightened scrutiny as a result of government overreach under the Department of Justice’s “China Initiative.”
By Danica Yu and Gisela Kusakawa
This month, Representative Jamie Raskin, Chair of House Oversight Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and Representative Judy Chu, Chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC), held the first Congressional hearing ever to address the racial profiling and surveillance of Asian American scientists, particularly of Chinese descent. The roundtable, “Researching While Chinese American: Ethnic Profiling, Chinese American Scientists and a New American Brain Drain,” is coming at a much needed time as Advancing Justice | AAJC sees government overreach under the “China Initiative” resulting in mass investigations, surveillance, prosecutions, and targeting of Asian American and immigrant scientists across the country. We provided a statement to the House Oversight Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties citing our concerns and recommendations.
As a result of this overreach and targeting, Asian American and immigrants have growing increasingly fearful of being targeted based on being of Asian descent. As a testament to concerns with the Department of Justice’s “China Initiative” within the Asian American community, Advancing Justice | AAJC delivered a petition that had nearly 30,000 signatures urging President Biden to end the “China Initiative.” Not only has the “China Initiative” resulted in rising fear within our communities, it has also subjected individuals to irreparable harm. Asian American and immigrant scientists have lost their research funding, suffered employment backlash, been disincentivized from leading grant proposals, and experienced life-long trauma in addition to severe financial hardships.
The roundtable included testimonies from two Asian Americans whose lives have been upended as a result of government overreach: Sherry Chen, a renowned hydrologist, and Dr. Xiaoxing Xi, a professor of physics. Sherry Chen became a citizen in 1997 and started working for the National Weather Service in 2007, receiving national recognition through the Larry R. Johnson Special Award for her life-saving river forecasting models. In October 2014, Sherry Chen was arrested by the FBI and accused of stealing government property, illegally accessing a government database, and making false statements to officials, facing up to 25 years in prison and $1 million in fines.
The government dropped charges against Ms. Chen in March 2015, less than a week before her trial was set to start, but the impact of the false accusation is still ongoing. The Department of Commerce refused to allow Sherry Chen to return to work because of the charges, a decision she appealed. A judge ruled in her favor in April 2018, saying that Sherry Chen was a “victim of gross injustice” and the agency was “more concerned about being right than doing what’s right.” Even still, the Department of Commerce refused to apologize or rehire Sherry Chen, instead filing an appeal.
Sherry Chen still does not have her job back, nor has she received any back pay owed to her.
“My life is still in limbo,” Sherry Chen shared during the roundtable. “My reputation is still under a cloud. The ordeal has taken away precious time in my professional career, and I can never recover the years I have lost. This injustice has now entered its tenth year and sadly there is still no end in sight. I keep fighting not only for myself but to do my part to make sure no one should ever be harmed because of their race or country origin.”
Dr. Xiaoxing Xi is a Professor and former Chair at the Physics Department at Temple University. On an early morning in May 2015, FBI agents arrested Dr. Xi based on false accusations that he had sent information on the design of a pocket heater, which was considered restricted American technology. Dr. Xi shared the trauma that his family experienced, “armed agents in bulletproof vests burst into my house…[and] pointed their guns at my wife and two daughters,” the youngest of whom was only 12 at the time.
Dr. Xi faced up to 80 years in prison and $1 million in fines. The government dropped the case once leading experts in the field confirmed the information he had shared with Chinese colleagues had nothing to do with pocket heaters and was a completely legal sharing of information to further scientific knowledge. The Department of Justice failed to understand the complex technology they accused Dr. Xi of sharing, and they also failed to consult experts before charging him. Although he no longer faces charges, Dr. Xi says his family’s “life had been wrecked, professionally, emotionally, physically, and financially…I could not appear on campus, could not talk to my students, and I was no longer the Principle Investigator of my research grants. We were isolated, and worried about my career, reputation, our livelihood, the mounting legal fees, and even my personal safety.”
Representative Chu shared the story of Dr. Anming Hu, Dr. Anming Hu is yet another researcher whose life, career, and family continue to be impacted by the “China Initiative.” Dr. Hu was a tenured professor for the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Tennessee Knoxville (UTK). He is a Canadian citizen who was working in the U.S. under an H-1B visa when he was falsely accused in February 2020 for defrauding NASA and hiding his affiliations with Chinese universities. In reality, Dr. Hu had been forthcoming to the administration of UTK throughout the duration of his career.
Since being charged, Dr. Hu has been placed under house arrest, and his wife stated that “despite suffering from type 2 diabetes and needing regular medical care, Anming was not allowed to see a doctor and or even get some fresh air at the deck of his home for almost a year.” Dr. Hu “has become extremely depressed and has trouble sleeping and eating,” but remains dedicated to furthering his field and “used the time detained at home to write and edit a book on laser manufacturing.”
The false accusations have also negatively impacted Dr. Hu’s entire family. His eldest son, who was a student at UTK at the time, “feared that he [could] no longer pursue his dream to study computer science in the U.S.” after his father’s arrest. Upon losing status because of his father’s indictment, he was forced to abandon his studies and return home to Canada. Dr. Hu’s younger son has been continually haunted by nightmares and unable to concentrate in school, while his five-year-old daughter regularly asks when she will be able to see her father. All of this trauma has occurred as a result of a case with evidence so flimsy that a juror stated “all [she] saw was a series of plausible errors, a lack of support from UT, and ruthless ambition on behalf of the FBI.”
The roundtable provided a platform for impacted persons to share their story and provided a voice for many others who have been harmed as a result of the government’s overreach under the “China Initiative.” Racial bias and targeting of Asian Americans is not new in our history, but a continuing reality that has been fueled in recent years by a growing xenophobic and racist backlash against immigrants. Despite being part of the fabric of American society for centuries, Asian immigrants and their descendants are viewed as “perpetual foreigners” and not American. This racism has manifested itself at many points throughout U.S. history, including with the “Yellow Peril” and Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the incarceration of over 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II, and the scapegoating and violence directed against the Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim, and South Asian communities after 9/11. Asian Americans are now living in the midst of the latest wave of resurgent xenophobia that is inextricably tied to this nation’s history.
Xenophobic, anti-immigrant, and racist rhetoric used by former President Trump and other elected officials fueled this resurgent xenophobia against immigrants and those of Asian descent. Former President Trump and other elected officials blamed China for COVID-19, and called it the “Chinese virus,” “Wuhan virus,” “kung flu,” and “China plague.” Public health experts have advised that language around infectious disease that stigmatizes communities must not be used.
While there are valid reasons to critique the policies and actions of China’s government, broader anti-China statements can contribute to and inflame bias against Asian Americans. There have been over 7,500 anti-Asian hate crimes and hate incidents recorded since February 2020 from web-based self-reporting tools hosted by Stop AAPI Hate, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, Asian Pacific Policy & Planning Council, Chinese for Affirmative Action, OCA-Asian Pacific American Advocates, South Asian Americans Leading Together, and other organizations. As Chairwoman Chu stated, “We need to make sure we don’t repeat the mistakes of the Cold War. That means not spreading unfounded suspicions that paint all Chinese people as threats and which put innocent Chinese Americans at risk.”
Many Asian American and immigrant scientists came to this country because they believe that our liberal democracy and academic institutions would offer them the best opportunity to contribute to science. Instead, some have found themselves subjected to the very government targeting and surveillance that they sought to escape.
According to Representative Raskin, “That is not acceptable in the United States of America, which was founded on principles of equality and justice. We reject guilt by association, we reject notions of collective guilt or ethnic or racial guilt. The United States is a welcoming place, it is open to people of all backgrounds and to creative ideas, and to scientific research and inquiry. That is how we established ourselves as a world leader in innovation and technology, by allowing for free-flowing thoughts and theories. By targeting people who are ethnically Chinese, without evidence, we are hampering our ability to be that world leader and we are harming an entire community.”
Advancing Justice | AAJC calls on the government to live up to our democratic ideals and uphold our principles. The government must put a moratorium on the “China Initiative,” conduct oversight on the DOJ initiative to address concerns of racial profiling, and commit to allowing scientists the opportunity to adjust their previous forms and provide any additional disclosures without being prosecuted or facing negative employment consequences.
Asian Americans Advancing Justice commends CAPAC and the House Oversight Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties for holding this important roundtable. We appreciate the attendance of the following members of Congress: Representative Jamie Raskin, Representative Judy Chu, Representative Ted Lieu, Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton, Representative Mark Takano, and Representative Rashida Tlaib.
Gisela Kusakawa is the NAPABA Law Foundation Fellow and Danica Yu is the Policy and Programs Graduate Intern at Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC.