Should be in lab, not court.

Photographer: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Prosecutors' Misplaced Fear of Scientists

Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. His books include “Cool War: The Future of Global Competition” and “Divided by God: America’s Church-State Problem -- and What We Should Do About It.”
Read More.
a | A

There’s a White House visit in the offing for Ahmed Mohamed, the Sudanese-American teenager whose homemade alarm clock was taken for a bomb at school. But it seems unlikely that the White House will be rushing to make public amends for the now-abandoned prosecution of Xi Xiaoxing, the Chinese-American physics professor at Temple University who was mistakenly charged with sending secret plans for sophisticated research machinery to colleagues in China.

That's unfortunate -- because targeting Chinese-American scientists for investigation as the cool war between the U.S. and China heats up is extremely dangerous. Irrational fear of Arabs and Muslims in the post-Sept. 11 era remains a concern, of course. But the emerging new McCarthyism isn't going to be Islamophobic; it's going to be Sinophobic. And it will be more than simply unjust. It’ll deter immigration of the best Chinese scientists to the U.S., which will in turn harm American interests competing with China.

Start with the specifics of Xi’s prosecution. You’d think that, unlike the school authorities in Texas who freaked out about a teenager’s invention without bothering examine it, the FBI and the Department of Justice would make a detailed investigation before bringing serious charges against the professor. But it would appear that such confidence in federal law enforcement is misplaced.

The case against Xi was premised on the charge that he disclosed plans for a piece of machinery known as a pocket heater that's used in superconductor research. But the plans Xi had transmitted weren't for the pocket heater at all -- a fact attested by one of the inventors of the contraption. Apparently the U.S. government never checked with anyone familiar with the plans for the actual pocket heater before charging Xi.

This Keystone Kops behavior is worrisome enough under ordinary circumstances. But it's especially dangerous given that there is, in fact, significant espionage and cyberattack going on in the cool war. (To be sure, it almost certainly runs in both directions, although we only hear about Chinese efforts against the U.S., because it isn't in U.S. or Chinese interests to talk about American espionage on China.)

Recent high-profile spying arrests have included such surprising areas as genetically modified seeds, which the U.S. government appears to have designated as relevant to national security. So it's understandable that U.S. law enforcement should be on the lookout for suspicious information transfer to China.

But these are precisely the circumstances in which precision and care in making charges public is most important. The problem with Senator Joseph McCarthy's witch-hunting during the Cold War wasn’t that the U.S. was free of communist spies or agents. To the contrary, as the released Venona intercepts subsequently revealed, there were communist spies aplenty.

The problem with McCarthy -- and with McCarthyism generally -- is the wholesale public accusation of members of vulnerable groups without meaningful investigation or proof. McCarthyism is about innuendo and guilt by association. Frequently, it also has an ethnic cast. Many, though of course not all, accused communists were Jews. Today those accused are likely to be of Chinese origin, like Xi and Sherry Chen, a hydrologist for the National Weather Service who was also mistakenly accused last year and only cleared in May.

Before you protest that many Chinese spies are probably Chinese, recall that many secret U.S. communists were in fact Jews. But of course, the overwhelming majority of American Jews in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s weren't communists, let alone spies. The same, of course, goes for Chinese-American scientists today.

McCarthyism is problematic for bad inferences like this one. Those bad inferences are often biased, immoral and even unconstitutional. They fail to accord all people the equal protection of the laws.

Yet there's another problem with McCarthyism that’s arguably even more serious in current cool war conditions: The message it sends to Chinese and Chinese-American scientists.

Visit any hard-science department in any serious research university in the U.S. -- or just visit their websites. Chinese-Americans and Chinese nationals lawfully in the U.S. make up a remarkable number of graduate students, and a large and growing number of the faculty -- especially the strongest and youngest.

That's a fantastic thing for science and for U.S. interests. In particular, American interests are advanced every time a brilliant Chinese national who has come to the U.S. to study stays on to research, teach or work in private industry.

Correspondingly, this flow of extraordinarily talented people represents a challenge to China, which wants its best and brightest to train at the world's leading universities, but doesn’t want to lose human capital and the creativity that goes with it.

Chinese scientists may stay in the U.S. because the science is good, but it also matters to them that they’re moving from an unfree society to a free one. Misplaced, botched prosecutions like those of Xi and Chen make the U.S. seem like a hostile environment for people of Chinese origin to do science. This in turn imposes a large and unnecessary external cost on the decision to stay in the U.S.

U.S. authorities need to be extra careful about public accusations of Chinese-American and Chinese scientists. A new Sinophobic McCarthyism is worse than immoral -- it’s stupid.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Noah Feldman at nfeldman7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net