Spying charges against Temple prof dismissed, but cloud hangs over family

    Xiaoxing Xi

    Xiaoxing Xi

    Joyce Xi doesn’t think she’ll ever forget that May morning, around 6:30 a.m., when a dozen armed federal agents raided her Montgomery County home and hauled her dad away in handcuffs. He was accused of being an international spy.

    “They pointed guns at us as we walked down the stairs,” Xi said.

    “We saw him get dragged away. After that, we were kind of at a loss of words,” said the Yale undergraduate. “It was hard to sleep. It was hard to concentrate. It was hard to do any work.”

    Weeks after federal prosecutors in Philadelphia moved to dismiss charges against Xiaoxing Xi, the family of the vindicated world-renewed technology expert is still reeling.

    Joyce Xi said her dad is trying to figure out his next move at Temple University, where he was put on administrative leave as chair of the physics department when the charges of wire fraud, aiding and abetting were announced. She and her mother are constantly fielded questions about what really happened, and even her 13-year-old sister continues to be pestered at school about their dad.

    “It’s a huge burden to overcome this reputational issue. It’s going to take a lot of work to clear his name,” Xi said. “It will always be on the Internet, it will always be searchable, and people will always have their doubts.”

    Xiaoxing Xi, a physcist who specializes in the field of thin films, used in superconductors, was accused of leaking secret information to a Chinese entity in a project funded by the Department of Defense. But what the government portrayed as spy-level disclosures, Xi’s attorney, Peter Zeidenberg, termed as typical academic collaboration.

    Zeidenberg said federal prosecutes failed to do their own due diligence, such as consulting with superconductor experts, before filing the charges.  Xi’s emails to China set off alarm bells for the government, he said.

    But Zeidenberg’s experts were able to demonstrate that the emails Xi sent to a Chinese entity were not related to the sensitive information that triggered the government investigation.

    “I find it very hard to imagine that if this was a French company, if these emails were with a French company, that this would have ever have gotten any attention from anyone,” Zeidenberg said in a previous interview.

    What exactly went wrong with the government’s case against Xi is still a mystery. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Philadelphia won’t comment on the dismissal. But a spokesman noted that the case was dismissed “without prejudice,” which means that it’s possible to reintroduce charges against Xi. Assistant federal prosecutors are still investigating Xi, and there’s a chance the government could take another swing at him. 

    Experts view the charges as part of the Justice Department embarking on an aggressive attack against hackers and others suspected of leaking trade and economic secrets, especially to China.

    “That’s the climate that we’re in. These kinds of cases, like with my dad, it seems like reckless prosecution without real strong evidence to show that there was spying or there was a passing of secrets,” Joyce Xi said. “And that’s very concerning. It’s sending a dangerous message.”

    Meanwhile, the Xi family has set up a legal defense fund to help defray the legal costs  associated with the case. Despite a slew of articles describing the dropped charges, and the editorial boards of the Philadelphia Inquirer and the New York Times scolding federal prosecutors for their handling of the Xi case, many, according to Joyce Xi, still haven’t made up their mind.

    “We’ve been dealing with this emotional roller-coaster for months, and now that it’s been dropped, he’s still trying to figure things out,” she said. “We’re all trying to get back into our normal lives, but it’s difficult.”

    Xi said she’s hoping that one upshot of the widespread attention on the case is that the government won’t target other Chinese-Americans based on flimsy evidence.

    “If the government can charge people like my dad with heavy crimes for something as simple as academic collaboration, people need to be aware of this,” she said.

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