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U.S. math professor gets probation, not prison, in China Initiative case


An applied math professor at Southern Illinois University (SIU), Carbondale, was sentenced today to 1 year of probation—and no prison time—after being found guilty earlier this year of filing incorrect tax returns and failing to report a foreign bank account.

Mathematician Mingqing Xiao was prosecuted under a controversial U.S. law enforcement effort launched in 2018, called the China Initiative, that has ensnared some two dozen U.S. academics, most of them of Chinese ancestry.

The U.S. government had asked District Judge Staci Yandle to impose a 1-year prison sentence. But Yandle said no purpose would be served by incarcerating Xiao and that he posed no threat of reoffending. She also fined him $600, well below the tens of thousands of dollars suggested in the federal sentencing guidelines.

“We thank Judge Yandle for imposing a fair sentence, and one that clearly recognized the unfair circumstances surrounding this entire prosecution,” said Xiao’s lead attorney, Ryan Poscablo of Steptoe & Johnson, in a statement after the sentencing. “These tax charges were more worthy of civil remedies (if they were worthy of any enforcement action) and would never have been brought but for the charging of grant fraud for which Dr. Xiao was ultimately acquitted.” 

In a brief statement before being sentenced, Xiao thanked the judge, cited his love for his adopted country—he was born in China and became a U.S. citizen in 2006—and said that he hopes to return to teaching and research at SIU. Xiao has been on paid administrative leave since his indictment in April 2021.

Three China Initiative cases have previously gone to trial, with mixed results: University of Tennessee, Knoxville, mechanical engineer Anming Hu was acquitted last year of all charges, whereas Harvard University chemist Charles Lieber and University of Kansas, Lawrence, chemist Franklin Tao were found guilty of failing to disclose research ties to China.

Both Lieber and Tao are awaiting sentencing; Lieber’s request to be acquitted or given a new trial was rejected earlier this month, and a similar request by Tao is pending. Several academics were sentenced after pleading guilty, most to lesser charges, and the government dropped charges against several other researchers.

In Xiao’s case, in May a federal jury in Benton, Illinois, found him not guilty of making a false statement to the government regarding his ties to Chinese institutions on a grant application. Yandle had already dismissed two other charges relating to that research. But Xiao was found guilty of the tax charges, which were added 5 months after his original indictment.

In February, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) dropped the name China Initiative after concluding that the phrase has had a “chilling effect on U.S.-based scientists of Chinese origin” and “fueled a narrative of intolerance and bias.” The government says it remains committed to stopping economic espionage by the Chinese government and other “malign” foreign entities. But DOJ has announced no new indictments of academic researchers since announcing the name change.

One scientist, meanwhile, has been waiting more than 2 years for his day in court. Zhengdong Cheng, an applied physicist at Texas A&M University, College Station, was arrested in August 2020 and imprisoned for a year before his release on bond. This week he returns to federal court in Houston for a rearraignment on what are expected to be new charges.



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