Mathematician’s trial is next test of US lawsuits against academics under China Initiative | Science

Applied mathematician Mingqing Xiao will enter a federal courtroom in Benton, Illinois next week to face charges of defrauding the U.S. government by failing to disclose his ties to Chinese universities that allegedly supported his research. Several of his colleagues from Southern Illinois University (SIU) in Carbondale, where Xiao has been a faculty member since 2000, also plan to be there when his trial opens on April 25, wearing buttons proclaiming, “We are alongside Mingqing Xiao”.

Their presence will be a rare public expression of support for 60-year-old Xiao, whose indictment a year ago made him the latest of some two dozen American academics to be prosecuted in a controversial law enforcement effort in 2018 called China Initiative. This campaign, which has yielded a mixed record of guilty pleas, dropped cases, two convictions at trial and a notable acquittal, aims to stop the Chinese government from stealing intellectual property.

Most of the cases, however, did not involve accusations that scientists improperly transferred US-funded research results. Instead, they usually focus on financial fraud and tax charges similar to what Xiao faces.

Xiao’s case has largely escaped the media radar, with more attention given to cases involving researchers at top institutions such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University. But the trial will be another important test of the government’s dogged strategy of prosecuting scholars whose actions allegedly harm national security.

Many academics and civil rights groups have strongly criticized the lawsuits, calling the China Initiative a witch hunt for Chinese American scientists and a misguided attack on legitimate research collaborations. Two months ago, the Department of Justice (DOJ) acknowledged these criticisms and rebranded the initiative as a “Strategy to Counter Threats from Nation States.”

But opponents say they are still waiting for signs that the government has changed course. “From where I sit, the demise of the China Initiative is greatly exaggerated,” says Peter Zeidenberg, attorney for Franklin Tao, a University of Kansas, Lawrence, chemical engineer convicted earlier this month in a ruling some legal experts think could be overturned.

Legal observers say the outcome of Xiao’s upcoming trial could determine whether the government’s effort is ultimately seen as justified or unjust.

A question of intention

Born and raised in Guangdong, China, Xiao came to the United States after the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising to complete his education. He obtained a doctorate. from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, in 1997, and was granted tenure after only 2 years on the faculty of SIU. He became a US citizen in 2006 and a year later was promoted to full professor. In 2016, the SIU named Xiao an Outstanding Academic, and in 2020 the university’s public radio station presented him with its “Neighborhood” award for community service at Carbondale.

These achievements, however, are not likely to affect the outcome of his case. The question for the federal jury is whether Xiao broke the law by winning a 2019 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop new mathematical tools for analyzing high-dimensional data sets. Government says he failed to tell SIU and NSF about his ties to Shenzhen University and Guangdong University of Technology, and did not disclose the compensation he received of these entities on its federal income tax returns. Prosecutors will claim he did it deliberately, with the intent to defraud the government. He is charged with seven counts and, if convicted, faces up to 20 years in prison and a substantial fine.

Xiao’s lawyer, Ryan Poscablo of Steptoe & Johnson, will argue that there is not enough evidence to prove the allegations and, moreover, that there was no criminal intent behind the incorrect statements that Xiao could have done.

It is not illegal for American scholars to receive research funds from foreign sources. In fact, until recently, most American universities encouraged faculty to connect with burgeoning scientific powerhouses such as China, and Xiao’s background was seen as a boon to making such connections. But any link must be disclosed. How this was done – and whether certain relationships were omitted or deliberately concealed – became a central question as the China Initiative intensified.

The government’s tactics in the Xiao case resemble those it has used against other academic scientists under the China Initiative. DOJ officials have not said how they learned of Xiao’s alleged criminal violations. But early on December 2, 2020, FBI and Department of Homeland Security agents came to his home under the guise of investigating a separate case involving a visa violation.

Officers spent 2 hours questioning Xiao about his interactions with several Chinese institutions. He complied with requests to hand over his passport and share his passwords for two phones, and he tried to explain the different sources of funding for his research.

At some point, however, Xiao’s adult daughter realized that her father was in fact the target of the investigation and tried unsuccessfully to get the investigators to back down. “I’m uncomfortable with you… try to put words in his mouth when he’s already said he’s confused,” she said, according to a transcript of the interrogation. (Xiao’s attorney unsuccessfully sought to have the transcript suppressed as evidence.) Four months later, Xiao was charged, placed under judicial supervision, and told he could not leave the state.

Friends of Xiao say he has spent the past 20 years trying to improve the lives of people in the Carbondale community while pursuing his research and teaching undergraduate students at SIU. In 2013, for example, Xiao opened a free math academy on Saturday mornings for the children of teachers and their classmates because he felt local public schools were not preparing them adequately for the high-tech economy. technology today.

“He did it out of the goodness of his heart and because he was so determined to live in a small American town,” says Jonathan Wiesen, a history professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, whose children have attended Saturday Academy when Wiesen was on the SIU faculty.

In 2015, Xiao accompanied the music faculty of SIU on an exchange trip to China. He hoped to help the SIU reverse more than 10 years of declining enrollment by recruiting promising Chinese students, says Edward Benyas, the music teacher who invited Xiao and who helps organize the flow of visitors to the federal courthouse, to approximately 35 miles from the SIU campus. . “As unjust as the Chinese Initiative is,” says Benyas, “it is particularly egregious that Ming is a victim. All he did was help the SIU.

Set up legal invoices

The university placed Xiao on paid administrative leave immediately after his indictment and launched its own investigation. He declined to comment further on what he calls “a personnel matter”.

His SIU colleagues initially refrained from making public statements on his behalf. Some apparently feared that as state employees they would face professional backlash. And Benyas notes that “we didn’t have any information beyond what the Justice Department had said, and we didn’t want to compromise his defense.”

In November 2021, the SIU Carbondale Faculty Association took a stand on Xiao’s case, saying the government should drop all charges and asking the university to reinstate Xiao and fund his legal defense.

Asian American groups who have spoken out on behalf of other academics targeted by the China Initiative acknowledge that they have done little on Xiao’s behalf. They say scarce resources and lack of bandwidth have prevented them from being more proactive.

Although Xiao continued to receive his college salary, he failed to pay his legal fees despite his savings running out. A GoFundMe campaign launched by Benyas’ wife, Kara Benyas, a professional musician and SIU graduate, has raised $26,000 towards a goal of $350,000, though supporters say the real need is over $800,000.

In contrast, a GoFundMe campaign for Gang Chen, the MIT engineering professor whose case was dismissed before going to trial, raised $400,000 in 1 day before MIT agreed to cover his legal costs. . Organizers of Chen’s fundraiser say the money will be donated to support scientists like Xiao who face similar government lawsuits.

The Benyas are unsure whether the daily courtroom vigils will impact jury deliberations. “But we think it’s important to show that people support him,” says Ed Benyas. “It’s the least we can do.”

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