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China Origin US Scientist Wins Lawsuits, Raises Hopes of Others Facing Similar Charges

Sherry Chen, a hydrologist, was arrested in 2014 on charges of espionage to China. This allegation, along with her dismissal from National Weather Service, have been found wrongful.
China Origin US Scientist Wins Lawsuits, Raises Hopes of Others Facing Similar Charges

Sherry Chen. Image Courtesy: Twitter

A Chinese American hydrologist, Sherry Chen, has won two lawsuits against the US government and won about $2 million in settlement recently. Sherry Chen is a hydrologist and was arrested in 2014 on charges of espionage to China. This allegation, along with her dismissal from her job at National Weather Service have been found wrongful prosecutions.

Observers consider this as a landmark verdict saying this had rekindled hopes of other researchers of Chinese origin who are facing similar charges, especially during the US’ campaign for “protection” of its laboratories from spying by China.

Civil rights groups have been raising the issue that the US Department of Justice (DoJ) has been pursuing such cases, despite lack of evidence, targeting scientists of Chinese origin “unfairly” with many of living in fear of being perpetually under surveillance.

Ashley Gorski, a senior attorney of the American Civil Liberties Union and also a part of the legal team that fought for Sherry Chen, in a statement to Nature magazine said—“The settlement sends a clear message: discrimination and profiling are unacceptable, and the government will be held to account.”

Notably, the previous Donald Trump administration had launched the ‘China Initiative’ back in November 2018, saying its aim was to “prosecute” Chinese spies in American research and industry. With this, the Trump administration had intensified a crackdown on researchers who, according to it, were involved in alleged secret ties with China.

However, Sherry Chen’s case was older than Trump’s initiative. It took place in 2014. According to an analysis by the MIT Technology Review23 people have been tried so far for alleged violation of research integrity under the China Initiative. Out of these, three were acquitted of all or some of the charges, while eight witnessed dropping of the charges against them due to lack of evidence. One case was settled with the government. However, the Joe Biden administration has ended the China Initiative.

In another such case, nanotechnology researcher Anming Hu of University of Knoxville had to lose two years of his life on trumped up charges. Hu was accused of “hiding” his ties with China in 2020 and remained under house arrest for around two years before he was acquitted of all the charges against him. In a comment, Hu said: “It conveys a message that we should not keep silent, that we have the power to hold our government accountable for abusing power.”

Xiaoxing Xi was a physicist at the Temple University and was arrested in 2015 by the DoJ. He was also accused of passing restricted information to Chinese scientists. Xi’s case is still pending in a US court for which a verdict is not expected till the end of this year or early next year. Gang Chen, in a similar case, was arrested in 2021 under China Initiative, but the DoJ dropped the charges against him early this year. Gang is a mechanical engineer at the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology).

Sherry Chen began her work at the National Weather Service in March 2007 and developed models to forecast the flow of water in the river of Ohio along with its tributaries. In 2014, she was arrested with charges of making false statements to the federal investigators. She was also accused of downloading data from a government database with restricted use while she was on a family trip to China. She was suspended from her job without pay a few months after her arrest. In response to the accusations, she said she had only accessed publicly available data to help a former classmate. The DoJ dropped cases against her due to lack of evidence but that could not help her from getting fired from her job in 2016. Hereafter, Sherry Chen had to cross many hurdles in the pursuit of justice which finally ended recently with a settlement.

Sherry Chen’s victory is being seen as a “landmark” by other such victims, civil rights’ activists and academicians. Commenting on it Gang Chen stated that the “Sherry Chen’s settlement is a huge, historic achievement, but urges the government to go further and admit its mistakes publicly. This is only the first step towards what genuine accountability looks like. These apologies mean a lot to those of us who have been impacted,”

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