Guest Opinion: American dream or American nightmare?-Xinhua

Guest Opinion: American dream or American nightmare?

Source: Xinhua

Editor: huaxia

2023-01-09 22:50:46

by Xin Ping

BEIJING, Jan. 9 (Xinhua) -- It is not a good time, perhaps, for scientists not born American to be famous in the country they now call home. Those of Chinese origin have learned it the hard way.

Last November, Xiafen (Sherry) Chen, a hydrologist and American of Chinese descent, won a historic settlement of about 1.8 million dollars from the U.S. government for her wrongful prosecution and subsequent termination from the National Weather Service, after years of fighting for her rights.

Justice may have prevailed for Chen, whose life was turned upside down when she was arrested in 2014 for allegedly providing sensitive information about American dams to China. What she actually did was accessing a database for her work with a password widely shared in her office.

The lack of evidence for espionage eventually led the Department of Justice (DOJ) to drop the charges against Chen in March 2015.

The investigation let the cat out of the bag. The security unit installed by the Commerce Department at Chen's workplace that produced the faulty alert was found "engaged in broad patterns of unfounded, discriminatory investigations aimed at Chinese-American and other employees."

For "political correctness" in the United States, racial slurs are unacceptable to the public, but not necessarily in algorithms or in some people's minds. Minor conflicts or mere stress could let out the deep-seated fissure between people of different races. And outright racism is even pronounced in the sci-tech sector where fierce competition between China and the United States is underway.

Due to arrogance and ignorance, some U.S. politicians are bent on suspecting China of stealing whenever the latter makes scientific breakthroughs. In such a poisonous environment, the American scientists of Chinese origin have become a target.

The administration of former U.S. President Donald Trump, for example, launched a so-called China Initiative to combat "China's espionage" and suspected American scientists of Chinese heritage of "stealing" intellectual property and tech secrets from the United States to China.

According to the MIT Technology Review, over the three years under the China Initiative, more than 150 defendants were prosecuted in 77 cases. Only 25 percent of the cases that involved Chinese American scientists were "convicted."

But enough harm was done, whatever the result of each case might be. The surveillance of scientists has directly hampered the ongoing research of the Chinese American scientists concerned. The suspension of funds and grants from the government and even termination from work has brought financial and psychological stress to the experts. Moreover, the misguided and often hostile narrative has hindered their future research with Chinese counterparts.

In the United States, professionals who are old enough know how toxic McCarthyism was. Many apolitical experts were involved and even purged based on flimsy evidence when the United States and the Soviet Union were in the Cold War featuring ideological confrontation and all-out competition. But even the arbitrary legal judgment back then is nothing compared to blatant racial profiling nowadays in the United States.

In fact, 88 percent of defendants in cases brought by the DOJ under the China Initiative were of Chinese heritage. Hardly had any of these scientists thought that they would dream an American dream like this before setting foot on the so-called land of opportunity.

In terms of distrusting their own people, Trump is certainly not an "aberration." Way before Trump made his way into U.S. politics, Lee Wen Ho, a Los Alamos National Laboratory physicist from Taiwan, was accused of stealing secrets concerning the U.S. nuclear arsenal in 1999.

Lee spent nine months in solitary confinement, only to be acquitted of espionage. The judge apologized to Lee for the "demeaning, unnecessarily punitive conditions" and denounced officials for having "embarrassed our entire nation."

Fast-forward to early 2022, the DOJ again dropped charges of espionage against MIT Professor Chen Gang and University of Tennessee Professor Hu Anming without incriminating evidence. But nothing could ever make up for the damage to their reputation as well as human dignity.

The meddling of politics with a heavy racist undertone has generated widespread fear and led to a noticeable exodus.

In 2021, more than 1,400 U.S.-based Chinese scientists switched their affiliation from American institutions to Chinese ones, according to a study by scholars from Harvard, Princeton and MIT.

That figure marked a 21.7-percent jump from 2020 and more than doubled that of 2011. The walkout of scientists means that many have woken up from their American nightmare.

Throughout much of its history, the United States had embraced scientists worldwide regardless of their backgrounds, because it is well aware that it can hardly become what it is today without the best brains in the world.

However, in recent years, U.S. politicians have abused the convenient concept of national security to get ahead of its competitors on the path of sci-tech advancement.

It is high time that U.S. politicians stopped undercutting the scientific endeavor for the common good of humanity as well as themselves. Otherwise, the United States will lose its appeal with further brain drain.

(Xin Ping is a commentator on international affairs, writing regularly for Xinhua News Agency, Global Times, CGTN and China Daily. He can be reached at