Legal win for US scientist bolsters others caught in China crackdown

Before her arrest, Sherry Chen had been developing models to predict the flow of the Ohio River and its tributaries for the US National Weather Service.Credit: Maddie McGarvey/The New York Times/eyevine

After a years-long battle, Sherry Chen, a Chinese American hydrologist, has won US$1.8 million in a settlement of two lawsuits against the US government for wrongful prosecution and dismissal from her job at the National Weather Service. Observers see it as a landmark victory for researchers of Chinese heritage who have been caught up in a US campaign to protect the country’s laboratories and businesses from potential espionage by China. Civil-rights groups and others have argued that the US Department of Justice (DoJ) has pursued cases despite a lack of evidence, targeted scientists of Chinese heritage unfairly and caused many to fear that they are under surveillance.

“The settlement sends a clear message: discrimination and profiling are unacceptable, and the government will be held to account,” says Ashley Gorski, a senior attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union and part of Chen’s legal team.

The DoJ did not respond to Nature’s request for comment.

Chen’s arrest in 2014 came four years before former US president Donald Trump’s administration launched the China Initiative, which intensified the government’s hunt for researchers who were allegedly hiding their ties to China. But her case is still representative of the initiative’s sentiment — and flaws — observers say. Of the 23 people tried for research-integrity violations under the China Initiative, according to an analysis by MIT Technology Review, three were acquitted of some or all charges, eight had charges later dropped because of lack of evidence and one case was settled with the government. The initiative has since been shut down by President Joe Biden’s administration.

Chen’s win should encourage other scientists who have been targeted to fight for justice and compensation, says Anming Hu, a nanotechnology researcher at the University of Tennessee Knoxville. Hu was indicted for hiding ties with China in 2020, and was put under house arrest for around two years before being acquitted of all charges.

“It conveys a message that we should not keep silent, that we have the power to hold our government accountable for abusing power,” Hu says.

‘Gross injustice’

Chen was born in China but moved to the United States and eventually became a citizen. She began working for the National Weather Service in March 2007, developing models for forecasting water flow in the Ohio River and its tributaries. In October 2014, she was arrested in front of her co-workers and charged with making false statements to federal investigators and downloading data from a restricted government database in relation to a trip to visit family in China two years earlier. The month after her arrest, she was suspended from her job without pay. Chen argued that she had accessed only publicly available information, to help a former classmate.

Eventually, the DoJ dropped the criminal charges because of weaknesses in its case. Still, Chen was fired from her job in 2016. She filed a complaint of discrimination with the Department of Commerce (DoC), under which the National Weather Service is housed, but it was rejected. On appeal, however, a judge found she was a “victim of gross injustice” resulting from her prosecution and dismissal. In 2019, Chen filed a civil lawsuit against the DoJ for wrongful prosecution and to seek compensation. And in November 2021, Chen filed a complaint against the DoC for unlawfully investigating and arresting her.

Last week’s settlement resolves both lawsuits. Chen will now retire, her lawyers told Nature.

As part of the settlement, the DoC will meet with Chen to hear her views on wrongdoing at the agency and antidiscrimination reforms. The DoC will also provide Chen with a letter acknowledging her accomplishments as a government hydrologist.

“The Commerce Department is finally being held responsible for its wrongdoing,” said Chen in a statement. The DoC did not respond to Nature’s request for comment.

‘Her vindication is our vindication’

Other scientists who have been falsely arrested by the US government are also fighting for accountability. Xiaoxing Xi, a physicist at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was arrested at gunpoint in front of his family by the DoJ in 2015. He was accused of passing information to scientists in China about restricted technologies. But Xi argued that his correspondence with the scientists was legitimate academic collaboration and that the information wasn’t restricted. The DoJ eventually dropped the charges. Xi filed a lawsuit against the US government and the federal investigator in his case, seeking damages for harm he suffered as a result of his arrest. But a judge dismissed most of his claims in March last year. He is appealing that decision — a ruling isn’t expected until the end of this year or early next year, his lawyers say.

Hu is fighting the US government in a different way. President Joe Biden nominated Casey Arrowood, the lead prosecutor in Hu’s case, to the post of US attorney for the Eastern District of Tennessee. Hu has been trying to block the nomination, arguing that Arrowood cannot be trusted to apply the law in a fair and just manner, given his prosecution of Hu despite weak evidence.

“Accountability can be achieved in various ways,” Hu says.

The question now is whether any others will come forward to seek an apology or compensation from the government.

Frank Wu, a legal specialist on the China Initiative and president of Queens College at the City University of New York, says Chen’s win gives researchers of Chinese heritage hope that speaking up in a diverse democracy is effective. “Sherry Chen has always been innocent. Now she has been vindicated. Ultimately, her vindication is our vindication,” he says. (Wu gave Chen some free legal advice regarding her case.)

Gang Chen, a mechanical engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, was arrested in front of his family under the China Initiative in January 2021, but the DoJ dropped the charges early this year. He says 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,” he says. “These apologies mean a lot to those of us who have been impacted,” he says.

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Natasha Gilbert