From the Daughter of a Chinese American Scientist: The “China Initiative” Has Shattered My Father’s American Dream

Photos courtesy of Di Liu

Shaorong Liu is a Professor at the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry of the University of Oklahoma, like many Asian American and immigrant scientists, he was unjustly targeted by the federal government under the Department of Justice’s “China Initiative.”

By Di Liu

My father was born into abject poverty deep in rural China, where they packed dirt and straw by hand to put a roof over their heads, and did back-breaking labor from dawn to dusk to farm enough food to survive. In years of famine, he might go days without eating.

Nowadays, his hometown regards him as a hero. His story is told to inspire children: he became the only person from his village to pass the national college entrance exams, starting college at the tender age of 15. He overcame hurdle after hurdle to make a life for himself and his family in the U.S, eventually becoming a renowned scientist. As his success grew, he founded a charity to pay wages for teachers and a scholarship for students of his hometown to give them the same remarkable opportunity that he’d once had — to follow the American dream. I wish I could say the story ends happily here. Sadly, none of my father’s hard work and altruism mattered when his race marked him as a target under the U.S. government’s “China Initiative.”

This is the story of how my father’s American dream became a nightmare.

My father’s name is Shaorong Liu. He was a young researcher in Beijing when his American dream began. There, he witnessed a chilling act of oppression that would change his life forever. That unspeakable act made the academic environment too stifling to bear. It was then that my parents made the difficult decision of leaving behind everything they had ever known, to move our family to the place where the government promised to protect the people’s freedom: The United States of America.

We moved to the U.S. in 1991, the year after I was born. At the time, the registration fee for immigrants was $20, equivalent to an entire month’s salary back in China. Like many immigrant families, we squeezed every penny to make ends meet. I remember my father driving overnight to job interviews as he struggled to find a job. I remember when he was only able to come home on the weekends, leaving at 4 a.m. every Monday to make it back to his job in the city on time. I remember having moved seven times by the time I was 13, as he chased opportunity after opportunity to give our family a better life.

Through perseverance and hard work, my father’s American dream came true. We finally owned our own house in the suburbs, a cat, and a dog. My father had achieved enough financial stability to have the freedom to pursue the career he wanted, rather than what would pay the bills. He dreamed of making contributions to science and humanity. He left a well-paid position in the private sector, taking a 50% pay cut to work as a professor at a university. He and my mom researched developing a device that would allow medical lab tests to be done at a patient’s bedside, giving them potentially life-saving results in a matter of minutes, rather than having to be mailed to a lab, which could take days. He and my mom started their own small business, with the goal of developing their research into a real product that could benefit society. Little did they know, their lives would soon be turned upside down when my father became one of many Chinese American scientists targeted by the U.S. government.

On May 29, 2020 at around 7 a.m., six armed FBI agents raided my parents’ home, interrogated them, and arrested both my parents. The agents confiscated their computers, phones, passports, and froze their bank accounts, which contained their entire life savings. I did not find out about their arrest until days later when they called me. I remember thinking, surely it couldn’t be that bad. My parents had always been honest people who valued hard work above anything else. Surely the American system, built on presumption of innocence and justice for all, will protect those with honest intentions. But as the months dragged on, it became clear to all of us that this was not simply a matter of correcting a mistake. My family had become victims of the same racial bias and profiling that ruined the lives of many other Asian American and immigrant families targeted by the Department of Justice’s “China Initiative.”

My parents had been charged with stealing years of research funding, even though they did the research, resulting in over a dozen academic articles and a U.S. Patent. Federal prosecutors threatened my father with 20 years in prison and offered him leniency only if he confessed to massive fraud and other serious crimes that attempted to paint my father as a spy, none of which was true. When he didn’t confess because it was simply not true, they wanted nothing less than felony charges and my parents behind bars. The prosecutors seemed more interested in conviction counts than finding the complete truth and a just result. Federal agents who work on these matters admitted that they are under pressure from the “White House” to “get numbers.”

“We’ve now reached the point where the FBI is opening a new China-related counterintelligence case about every 10 hours”, the FBI director proclaimed proudly.

It’s been over 18 months since the arrest, and all the while, my parents have been trapped in an ongoing psychological nightmare. Even though the prosecutors have not found any evidence of my parents being “spies,” my parents have been shackled with ankle monitors 24-hours a day, as if they’re already criminals. This unjust prosecution has destroyed my father’s career and reputation. My father’s university immediately put him on leave, banning his students from contacting him, returning all his grants, and revoking his access to buildings on campus, without even allowing him to collect his things first. My father was also forced to resign from volunteer work as an editor for scientific journals. Meanwhile, my parents have exhausted nearly all their resources and life savings to keep up with the legal fees. To cover the expenses of their defense, my parents have had to put their home up for sale, along with many memory-laden items — my childhood furniture, our piano. I set up a fundraiser to help relieve some of the financial stress, but even with the generous support from our friends and the community, they are still struggling to keep up with the mounting expenses.

My parents aren’t allowed to talk about their case with anyone, including me.

“I don’t care what happens to me, but if anything happened to you, I would hate myself,” my mom pushed me away as she said these words.

She feared that the powerful government would crush anyone who tried to speak in their defense. I know they are simply trying to protect me, but my heart breaks thinking of how incredibly isolating this experience has been for them, cut off from any support network or outside help. My father had always defined himself by his dedication to his work, almost never taking a day off, driven by the feeling that life was too short to accomplish all that he wanted to do for society. Now, with his reputation tarnished, even his application to volunteer to tutor high school students was turned down.

“It’s such a waste,” he says, stuck watching life pass him by as he waits endlessly for his trial. “There’s so much more I wish to do for the world.”

I had plans to get married that were canceled due to the pandemic. Not knowing whether my family would even be able to attend if we put it off any longer, we scrambled to arrange a tiny wedding with only close relatives. I couldn’t bear the thought of having a wedding without them. We spent weeks anxiously awaiting the judge’s decision on whether my parents could attend their own daughter’s wedding.

On my wedding day, as my father began his speech, he was overcome with emotion and burst into tears. He spoke as if it would be the last time he would ever see me again. This was the first time I saw him break down. My father had always worked so hard to keep up a front of strength and optimism for the sake of our family throughout this entire ordeal, but I know that he’s torn apart inside. He is afraid that he might not get to watch his future grandchildren grow up, or that they’ll only know him from behind bars.

My parents have lived here in the U.S. for most of their lives. They are proud American citizens. They are not spies. They are academics who have committed their lives to improving life for everyone. Why has this man-made tragedy been forced upon them? What have they done to deserve the scorn, rather than protection of their own government?

The “China Initiative” has torn apart so many lives. It has strayed far from its original goal of investigating espionage. Since 2020, many cases have instead revolved around minutiae of form compliance, targeting researchers whose work has nothing to do with national security, like making heat insulating windows, treating glaucoma, and curing cancer. These incredibly talented individuals form the backbone of America’s intellectual strength, the strength which the “China Initiative” ironically claims it is protecting. The research of academics like my parents is publicly available, as the goal of academia is to expand knowledge to benefit all mankind. The government is wasting its time and tax dollars searching for espionage where there are no secrets to hide and deterring prospective talented academics in the meantime. The “China Initiative” is a policy born out of xenophobia masquerading as security, and it harms rather than furthers America’s interests.

It is terrifying to stand up against the FBI and DOJ, and so many people have already been forced to bow in fear of its authoritative power, turning against friends and colleagues under pressure, pleading to crimes that they don’t understand in hopes of lenience. However, if no one stands up, this nightmare will never end. The Initiative is still ongoing, meaninglessly destroying lives across the country. Despite all that has happened to my family, I still believe in the good faith of those who enforce our laws. To them, I ask you to consider whether the “China Initiative” truly aligns with the core values of our country: Liberty, and justice for all. This is not justice. This is the very oppression you’re fighting against. If the U.S. truly desires to protect its people and its interests, we must stop the “China Initiative.”

Di Liu is the daughter of Professor Shaorong Liu.

Advancing Justice | AAJC launched the Anti-Racial Profiling Project in October 2020 to offer resources and legal referrals for those impacted by the U.S. government’s increased efforts to target and profile Asian American and Asian immigrant scientists and researchers, particularly of Chinese descent.

If you believe you are being targeted by the government and you are looking for attorney referrals, please contact 202–935–6014 using the Signal app and a staff member from Advancing Justice | AAJC will reach out to you directly (Available in English & Mandarin/普通话).

Fighting for civil rights for all and working to empower #AAPIs to participate in our democracy. Follow: @johncyangdc @tao_minnis @meganessaheb