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Southern Illinois media fail to report whole story of Chinese-American professor wrongly targeted by feds

In April 2021, the federal government indicted a Southern Illinois University Carbondale professor under the “China Initiative,” alleging two counts of wire fraud and one count of making a false statement in regards to a National Science Foundation grant application made on behalf of the university. If convicted, Mingqing Xiao could have faced up to 20 years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine.

The local Southern Illinois media were quick to report on the indictment. But when he was completely exonerated of all the initial charges earlier this year, there was no follow-up.

Mingqing Xiao has been a resident of the United States since 1991 and a citizen since 2006. Since 2000, Xiao has served on the faculty of the SIU Department of Mathematics, having been granted promotion to full professor in 2007. His research area is mainly in applied mathematics, such as differential equations and computational science. 

(Photo by Raul Luna via Flickr)

Notably, the results of his research have and will be available to the public and do not involve sensitive intellectual property. Xiao has authored or co-authored over 100 peer-reviewed journal articles, book chapters and refereed conference publications. He has received five National Science Foundation grants on SIU’s behalf and in 2016, the SIUC College of Science named Xiao its Outstanding Scholar. Xiao also organized and taught weekly math enhancement classes since for local K-12 students every week for eight years until his 2021 indictment ended the program. In 2020, Ming received the Good Neighbor Award from WSIU Public Broadcasting for this volunteer work.

The Justice Department’s began its “China Initiative” in November 2018. While purported to counter Chinese national security threats and reinforce the former president’s overall national security strategy, it quickly became apparent that this initiative was primarily accumulating prosecutions against Chinese-American academics.

Specifically, the department’s string of prosecutions accused these academics and researchers of Chinese descent of allegedly making false statements or failing to disclose connections to Chinese institutions — rather than espionage— under the guise of protecting the U.S. from China’s efforts to steal knowledge and intellectual property. 

Eerily reminiscent of the incarceration of Japanese-Americans in the 40’s and the McCarthy era witch hunts of the 50’s that destroyed so many American lives and careers, the “China Initiative” fueled anti-Asian sentiments, hostility and xenophobia.

In 2015, Xiao initiated a relationship with Shenzhen University, located in Xiao’s native Guangdong province. In addition to traveling there to present lectures twice during his summer vacations, he established a joint Ph.D program between Shenzhen and SIU. Xiao’s collaborative efforts followed a pattern encouraged for decades to recruit Chinese students to SIU, which has suffered a significant enrollment decline over the past decade, including a specific Memorandum of Understanding between SIU and Shenzhen to engage in joint research and educational activities. Xiao’s efforts bore fruit in the Fall of 2018, when a group of undergraduate students from Shenzhen paid full tuition to attend SIU. 

Since SIU was not able to fund Xiao’s trips to China after the initial 2015 visit, Shenzhen University agreed to reimburse his travel expenses by requiring him to open a bank account in Shenzhen, into which they would provide travel expense reimbursement. Due to the Covid-19 epidemic and the trade war with China, however, Xiao was limited to traveling to Shenzhen just twice after his initial 2015 visit.

In December 2020, the FBI arrived unannounced at Xiao’s home and interviewed him for two hours and 20 minutes, without reading him his Miranda rights or indicating that 10 armed agents were waiting outside to execute a search warrant. Welcoming the agents into his home, while all three of his daughters were engaged in online studies for high school, college and medical school, Xiao willingly explained to them his work with Shenzhen on behalf of SIU.

In the course of his voluntary and surreptitiously recorded interview with the FBI,  Xiao explained 15 times that he considered the money in a Chinese bank account—that Shenzhen required him to open in order to reimburse him for expenses to travel there during the summers, teach, and establish a collaborative relationship, since SIU could not provide the funds to do that—was not his money. He made these statements despite the FBI agents prodding him to say that he could have used the money, for example, to pay his children’s college tuition, which he categorically and consistently denied.

Xiao, who used TurboTax to prepare his own taxes, never realized that he was required to check a box, somewhat buried within the TurboTax instructions, indicating that he had a foreign bank account or that he needed to file an FBAR (Foreign Bank Account Report), and this recorded interview clearly indicates that he had no Willful Intent to violate the tax code.

In April 2021, the local media widely reported the government’s three-count indictment on grant fraud charges, essentially mimicking the Justice Department’s one-sided and inaccurate characterization of Xiao as a Chinese spy. 

The initial indictment made many false allegations, but as a result of these charges, SIU placed Xiao on paid administrative leave and he ultimately spent his life savings to hire a competent and experienced legal team to represent him in order to fight this unjust prosecution.

In Fall 2021, there was an uproar within the academic community about the “China Initiative.” Over 175 Stanford University professors wrote an open letter to Attorney General Garland noting its fundamental flaws, over 2000 other faculty, scholars and administrators from universities in all 50 states endorsed that letter, the SIU Faculty Association issued a statement supporting Xiao, and the SIU Faculty Senate ultimately called on SIU to end its investigation and restore him to full-time teaching duties.

In October 2021, on the eve of a trial that Xiao was eager to begin in order to clear his name, the government filed a superceding Indictment, adding four tax charges, all stemming from a failure to check the box indicating he had a foreign bank account and that he failed to file an FBAR. These counts did not allege, nor did the government ever suggest, that Xiao evaded paying any taxes to the government.

Xiao’s federal criminal case went to a jury trial presided over by District Court Judge Staci Yandle in late April. One to two dozen of Xiao’s colleagues and community members made the 45-minute drive to Benton each day of the trial to show their support, all sporting bright blue buttons emblazoned, “I Stand With Ming.” 

In the end, Xiao was completely exonerated of all charges made in the government’s original indictment, all charges alleging grant fraud and all charges that related to his work at SIU.The  jury, which deliberated for less than three hours, found Xiao guilty of four felony tax charges. 

The local ABC affiliate, reporting the conviction, focused on the minor tax charges and buried Xiao’s total exoneration on grant fraud charges, which constituted the entirety of the initial indictment. After my urging the SIU student newspaper, the Daily Egyptian, offered context to Xiao’s indictment, trial, conviction, sentence and effort to return to his teaching and research duties.

As a result of the federal government’s prosecution of Xiao under the flawed “China Initiative,” an honest, caring, upstanding and devoted member of our community has had his life turned upside down and lost his life savings. Xiao continues to fight to return to his teaching and research duties at SIU, with support from the SIU Faculty Association, his math department colleagues and dozens of community members.

But you won’t read or hear any of that in the local media.

Edward Benyas is a professor in the School of Music at Southern Illinois University and organized support for Xiao.