It’s been almost a decade since the Chinese-American hydrologist Sherry Chen’s life was turned upside down by an unfounded accusation of spying, and this week, she finally received something like justice.
Today, Chen’s lawyers announced that the scientist won a historic $1.8 million settlement from the US Commerce Department for her wrongful prosecution and subsequent termination from the National Weather Service. “The government’s investigation and prosecution of me was discriminatory and unjustified,” Chen said in a statement. “The Commerce Department is finally being held responsible for its wrongdoing … No one else should have to endure this injustice.”
Chen’s case was an early instance of what would become a much bigger pattern of the US government’s increasing suspicion of Chinese and Chinese-American scientists amid growing competition between the US and China. The settlement is a personal and symbolic victory after years of persecution.
Chen’s investigation and firing predated the Justice Department’s China Initiative, a Trump-era program to counter Chinese economic espionage that, despite its stated goals, disproportionately targeted Chinese-American academic researchers for alleged grant fraud or disclosure issues—and saw a higher number of cases fall apart before trial than the federal average.
Chen’s case mobilized a grassroots advocacy network of concerned Chinese-American citizens, who raised awareness about her experience, lobbied members of Congress on her behalf, and raised money for her legal defense. One of these groups would later become APA Justice, one of the most vocal and consistent voices against the China Initiative and racial profiling.
When news broke that Chinese-American academics were again being investigated and terminated under suspicion of espionage in 2019, the networks originally created to support Chen reactivated.
For many observers, the parallels were clear. “With the China Initiative, we have seen several failed and weak prosecutions. Ms. Chen is certainly not alone in that regard,” Ashley Gorski, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU National Security Project, which helped represent Chen, told MIT Technology Review.
Chen was arrested in 2014 and charged with espionage by the FBI, which alleged that she illegally accessed a government database to share sensitive information about American dams with Chinese scientists. Further investigation revealed that what Chen had actually done was use a shared password, widely known within her office, to access a database for her work. The lack of evidence led the Justice Department to drop its charges five months after filing them. Still, Chen was fired from her job—for the same now-discredited reasons that led to the FBI charges.
The faulty information came from the Commerce Department’s Investigations and Threat Management Service (ITMS), an internal security unit that a July 2021 Senate investigation found had engaged in broad patterns of unfounded, discriminatory investigations aimed at Chinese-American and other employees—and which named Chen’s case as an example of misconduct. ITMS was disbanded shortly after the report was published.
In the meantime, Chen filed a wrongful termination grievance to the Merit Systems Protection Board, a quasi-judicial body that oversees employment cases involving federal employees, and won. But the Commerce Department, which oversees the National Weather Service, appealed. Personnel shortages at the MSPB left the appeal in limbo for years, so in 2019, Chen filed a civil suit against the United States government for malicious prosecution and false arrest. Her legal team sought $5 million in damages.
Chen’s settlement—$550,000 up front, followed by $1.25 million to be paid out over the next 10 years—is the culmination of those efforts. In addition to the monetary damages, Chen’s lawyers say that the Commerce Department will also host a private meeting with the scientist and provide a letter acknowledging her record and accomplishments as a government hydrologist.
It’s not quite the apology that Chen’s supporters, organized by the advocacy organization APA Justice and signed by over 1,000 individuals and organizations, demanded in an open letter sent earlier this year to Gina Raimondo, the secretary of commerce. However, the chance to sit down with Commerce Department officials and the promise of a written acknowledgement “were very important to Ms. Chen and were negotiated as part of the settlement,” Gorski told us.
The symbolism of her settlement may be especially welcome in the aftermath of the ill-fated China Initiative, which MIT Technology Review investigated last year and found to be ineffective with respect to its stated goals and to have overwhelmingly targeted individuals of Chinese heritage, who made up 90% of defendants.
The Biden administration officially ended the China Initiative in February, but numerous studies have pointed to its broader chilling effects on scientific collaboration between the US and China, as well as declining interest in the United States as a destination for higher education and research. Not to mention the lingering personal effects for individuals caught up in the web, even if they were ultimately cleared.
That gives added significance to the outcome of Chen’s lawsuits. “It’s an enormous victory for Ms. Chen personally,” said Gorski, “and for the Chinese-American community as well. The settlement makes clear that when the government discriminates, it’s going to be held accountable.”