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As anti-Asian bigotry rises across the US, a Temple professor’s civil rights suit becomes more relevant

Sept. 16, 2022 Updated Fri., Sept. 16, 2022 at 9:48 p.m.

Xiaoxing Xi, entering the federal courthouse in Philadelphia on June 4, 2015. False charges that he schemed to provide sensitive U.S. defense technology to China were quickly dropped by the federal government.    (DAVID MAIALETTI/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)
Xiaoxing Xi, entering the federal courthouse in Philadelphia on June 4, 2015. False charges that he schemed to provide sensitive U.S. defense technology to China were quickly dropped by the federal government.   (DAVID MAIALETTI/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)
By Massarah Mikati The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA – The events that have transpired in the United States over the past two years, community members say, have proven what Xiaoxing Xi and his allies have been saying since 2015: that there is a systemic discrimination and targeting of Asian Americans.

The Temple University physics professor falsely accused of being an economic spy for China filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government in 2017, alleging that the FBI targeted him because of his Chinese ethnicity and willfully misinterpreted evidence to fit a false narrative that he stole secrets from a U.S. company. His lawsuit was dismissed last year, but Xi – a naturalized U.S. citizen and world-renowned expert in the field of superconductivity – returned to court Wednesday to get his lawsuit reinstated.

“The case was dropped seven years ago,” Xi said, referencing the false charges against him that the FBI dropped within months of his 2015 arrest after government officials realized that they had fundamentally misunderstood the science behind their case. “People often said, ‘You went through a traumatic experience,’ and they shrug it off. What has happened since has proven many things I’ve been telling people.”

It took the coronavirus pandemic and a nationwide racial reckoning for parts of American society to recognize the generational trauma Asian Americans face from decades of systemic racism and marginalization. Since the pandemic, however, hate crimes and bigotry against Asian Americans have also increased significantly – a January study by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism found that anti-Asian hate crime increased by 339% from 2020 to 2021. And in 2020, anti-Asian hate crimes increased by 124% from the year prior.

“So much has happened since 2015, and I think the pandemic and all of the anti-Asian hate that’s going on has also shined a light on some of this history,” said Helen Zia, a writer and activist. “The targeting and scapegoating of Asian Americans didn’t begin this century. It’s been going on for hundreds of years. This is the role that has been assigned to Asian Americans: Are we really American, or are we foreign invaders?”

Wei Chen, civic engagement director with Asian Americans United, said Xi’s experience is disappointing to him and other Asian Americans.

“Many people move to this country because they’re seeking new hope, a new life. There are many reasons they cannot continue in their own land – they have to give up so much. And then the newer generation can follow the American dream,” Chen said. “But (Xi’s) case … is giving an example to the AAPI community that, whatever you’re doing, no matter how successful, one day you will get shut down.”

Xi said that he learned three lessons from his experience: When the federal government charges somebody with a crime, it’s not necessarily true; Chinese scientists are treated unfairly; and the federal government is criminalizing academic collaboration with China.

Under the Trump administration, the Justice Department launched what was known as the China Initiative – an initiative that led to indictments against a series of Chinese American scientists, though such indictments have been taking place for decades.

“Until the Biden administration fundamentally reforms the FBI and DOJ rules that enable discriminatory profiling in the name of national security, we will continue to see baseless prosecutions like Professor Xi’s,” said Patrick Toomey, one of Xi’s lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union. “This biased approach has led to failed prosecutions around the country with horrific consequences for the lives of those people affected.”

Through the targeting of the federal government, Zia said, Asian American scientists and businesspeople were immediately labeled with espionage – whereas non-Asian Americans would be facing civil matters for the same actions.

“The double standard being applied to Asian Americans is because (they) have been labeled as the existential threat to America,” Zia said. “And after 9/11, all people who could possibly look like Muslims have been labeled as terrorists. So whether you have East Asian, South Asian, Southeast Asian, or West Asian Americans, all have been tarred with this ‘threat to American national security’ label.”

Community members emphasized that there is an intersectionality between Xi’s experience (and Asian Americans as a whole) and that of other marginalized communities. While Muslim American communities were surveilled by the government before 9/11, they were swept up in a massive dragnet after the attacks – and the New York Police Department ended up settling a lawsuit in 2018 for illegally spying on Muslims. The federal government also has a long history of spying on Black civil rights groups and leaders.

“Whatever the geopolitics are – whether China, Russia, Iran, North Korea – you cannot treat people just by what their race is, and where they come from, as criminals,” Xi said. “We don’t want to be sent to internment camps, or the equivalent of that. And in order to prevent that, we have to fight to protect our rights.”

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