On a May 2015 morning, a scientist opened his front door in suburban Philadelphia and his life was turned completely upside down.
“It was so urgent, the pounding was so urgent that I run here to open the door without even being fully dressed,” recounted Xiaoxing Xi. He was being interviewed by Bill Whitaker of CBS’ “60 Minutes” for a piece titled “Collateral Damage.
The segment aired on May 15, 2016, and addresses the U.S. government’s fight against economic espionage conducted by China to gain American trade secrets and intellectual property. Xi, the then chair of the Temple University physics department, is the “collateral damage.”
On opening his door that May morning, Xi was greeted with men in bulletproof vests with guns who handcuffed and arrested him on the spot. The men were from the FBI. He was accused of selling U.S. technology secrets to China. In September 2015, the Department of Justice dropped all charges against him. But damage to his career and finances were done.
Sad to say, Xi’s case is not an isolated incident:
In October 2013, two Chinese scientists at Eli Lilly were arrested and jailed for passing proprietary information to a Chinese drug company. Turned out the information was not proprietary after all and the charges were changed to wire fraud.
Then there’s Sherry Chen, a Chinese American hydrologist with the National Weather Service, whose career was disrupted in October 2014 with accusations of downloading and passing on information of the nation’s dams and reservoirs to a top Chinese official. Charges were dropped in March 2015 but she was fired from her job. Her case was also featured in the “60 Minutes” segment.
And then there is Wen Ho Lee, a Taiwanese American who was arrested in December1999 on accusations that he had given U.S. nuclear secrets to China. Prior to 9/11, his case was deemed “the greatest threat to national security.” Ultimately, no charges were brought, no evidence of espionage was found, and after nine months in jail, Lee pleaded guilty to one count of mishandling data and released.
These cases have the serious potential for tarnishing the reputation and image of Chinese Americans, not to mention the potential for weakening U.S.-China relations.
These were some of the cases Frank H. Wu, chair of the Committee of 100 (C-100) since April 2016, mentioned when he met with a few members from the local Chinese press on Sept.12.
To counter the unfair practice of targeting Chinese American immigrants for espionage is just one of C-100’s initiatives. The committee has been leading a series of educational workshops across the country for Asian Americans in the scientific community and government on how to navigate the risks and sensitivities involved in their fields. And there is no one better to lead the charge than Wu.
At 49, Wu has a list of accomplishments longer than most people twice his age. Son of Taiwanese immigrants, he was born in Cleveland, Ohio, and raised in Detroit, Mich., where his father worked at Ford Motor Company as an engineer. As the only Asian American in school, he experienced his share of schoolyard taunting, which showed him at an early age the reality of racial inequalities. He also found that the more he tried to assimilate and refuse to be labeled “Asian,” the more it made him stand out from his peers.
Wu received a B.A. from the Johns Hopkins University, a J.D. from the University of Michigan, and completed the Management Development Program of the Harvard University Graduate School of Education.
He is a prolific contributor to the Huffington Post and appears regularly as a media commentator and speaker. He is the author of “Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White,” which offers a unique perspective on how changing ideas of racial identity will affect race relations in the 21st century and confronts damaging Asian-American stereotypes such as "the model minority" and "the perpetual foreigner." He co-authored “Race, Rights and Reparation: Law and the Japanese American Internment,” for which he received the largest grant issued by the federal Civil Liberties and Public Education Fund.
“It’s about time we stood up and spoke out,” said Wu, “For so long, Asian-Americans have been thought of as submissive or passive … This pattern of wrongful prosecutions, based potentially on targeting people due to race, ethnicity or country of origin goes against the fiber of what this country is about.”
Wu is currently on sabbatical from the University of California where he was the Chancellor and Dean of the Hastings College of Law and holds the Distinguished Professor title there. C-100’s outgoing chair Herman Li said, “Not only has he [Wu] been a vocal and effective advocate against racial bias, he also has a long history of commitment to a variety of philanthropic and cultural causes that will be of tremendous benefit to our members.”
The influential non-profit C-100 was established in 1990 to promote full inclusion and equal protection of Chinese Americans in American society and to provide public policy resource for the Chinese-American community. Among its 100-plus by-invitation-only prominent members are Steve Chen, YouTube co-founder; Michelle Kwan, figure skater; Yo Yo Ma, renowned cellist; I.M. Pei, architect.
In 1982, a 27-year-old Chinese American named Vincent Chin was severely beaten in a Detroit suburb. Chin died from his injuries a few days later. His attackers were two white autoworkers who took out their anger of numerous layoffs in the Detroit auto industry on Chin, whom they thought was Japanese. One of the two was convicted of manslaughter and for violating Chin’s civil rights, the latter of which was overturned on appeal. Both were sentenced to three years of probation and never saw a day behind bars. The Chin case galvanized Asian-Americans and was key in Asian-American civil rights history.
Even though Wu was only a teenager when Chin was killed, the incident and outcome inspired Wu to pursue an active role in civil rights advocacy and law. “It was the Chin case that taught me how important it was to stand out and speak up. Coalition building is the key,” Wu said. He is currently working on a book on the Vincent Chin case.
Wu is a big believer in “bridge building. “I believe strongly in [C-100’s] mission and the powerful impact it can have on U.S.-China relations and the standing of Chinese Americans,” he said on becoming chair of the committee. “A strong relationship between the U.S. and China is now more important than ever and the distinguished Chinese-American membership of C-100 is uniquely positioned to serve as a bridge between the two countries. I look forward to working with my fellow members and the greater Chinese American community to ensure that we can be a force for positive, lasting change.”
Historically, Chinese Americans have been subjected to much unfair treatment, but have seldom made themselves heard. Wu urges Chinese Americans to be mindful of self-isolation, especially linguistically (Mandarin vs. Cantonese) and to bust out of our circumspect comfort zones because it is crucial to be part of the civics culture on an everyday basis. Remaining silent is not an option.