As Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives in the United States for a state visit, Washington and Beijing are trying to smooth over tensions. But that doesn’t mean things are going well in the relationship – and espionage continues to be a major point of contention.
For all the focus on cyber espionage, more conventional forms of spycraft — involving undercover work to illicitly gather and pass on information — remain a prominent concern for both sides. And it’s on this front that Chinese-Americans find themselves caught in the crossfire of growing mistrust on both sides.
On September 12, the U.S. Justice Department dropped espionage charges against university professor Xi Xiaoxing. Xi , then the chairman of the physics department at Temple University, was arrested in May and charged with sharing the blueprints of sensitive technology with Chinese scientists. The charges were dropped after it became apparent investigators has misidentified the blueprints Xi sent; Xi’s lawyer, Peter Zeidenberg, said the technology in the design was not restricted information. Even though they have been dropped, the charges had a real effect on Xi’s reputation. Temple University removed his title as physics chair, and placed him on administrative leave.
Xi’s case recalls a similar ordeal faced by Chinese-American, Sherry Chen, who was also arrested for passing on sensitive information to China. As in Xi’s case, the charges against Chen were dropped after further investigation. Chen, who worked for the National Weather Service, was accused based on emails she exchanged with a former classmate who is now a Chinese official. Though the charges were dropped, Chen was still notified in September that the government had decided to fire her.
Chen and Xi traveled to Washington D.C. last week to talk about their cases, describing how the arrests affected their families and disrupted their lives.
“Unfortunately I think this is influenced by the politics of the time,” Xi told the New York Times. “But I think it’s wrong. We Chinese-Americans, we contribute to the country, to the national security, to everything.”
Some members of Congress are also concerned about racial profiling in espionage cases. In May 2015, 22 members of Congress wrote a letter to U.S. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch, asking her to conduct “an investigation to determine whether race was a factor in the [Sherry Chen] case” and whether there is a pattern of investigators targeting federal employees based on their race. Ted W. Lieu, a Democratic Representative from California and the letter’s first signatory, also raised his concerns in an interview with the New York Times. Referring to Chen, he said, “If she was not a Chinese-American, she would not have been arrested, indicted and would not now be in the process of being fired.”
Over in China, Americans can also face suspicion and arrest. Peter Hahn, a Korean-American missionary who ran a nonprofit school near the China-North Korea border, was arrested in December 2014 and brought to trial in July 2015. Three of the four charges against him were dropped (leaving only a charge of counterfeiting receipts, according to his lawyer), but he was still imprisoned for nine months before being released in September.
China also recently arrested an American businesswoman for spying. Sandy Phan-Gillis was accompanying a business delegation from her hometown of Houston to China when she was detained on March 19. Six months later, her arrest was officially announced. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei confirmed that Phan-Gillis was under investigation for “endangering China’s national security.” The official details of the charges have not been revealed even to her lawyers in China, a family friend told the New York Times, but the family was previously informed she was suspected of stealing state secrets.
Her husband, Jeff Gillis, rejected the charges: “Sandy is not a spy,” he told the New York Times. “Sandy is a hard-working businesswoman who has spent years doing nonprofit-type work to build Houston-China relations.” He also believes the charges were racially motivated, as Phan-Gillis, who was born in Vietnam, is ethnically Chinese.
“Chinese authorities are very much of the mind that if you are ethnic Chinese, we own you,” Gillis said.