Letter to the editor: Bring back Professor Xiao
September 7, 2022
We write this explanatory column to express our support for Dr. Mingqing Xiao, a longtime member of the Southern Illinois community and a distinguished Professor of Mathematics at SIU. We know Dr. Xiao (known to us as Ming) to be a doting father, a caring and accomplished professor devoted to his students, and an honest, loyal and giving member of our local community. While Dr. Xiao has been completely exonerated of all allegations of grant fraud made against him by the federal government in relation to a National Science Foundation grant that SIU received, we believe he has been wrongly convicted of minor technical tax issues, with evidence that there was no willful intent to violate the tax code.
Professor Xiao and Service to the Community
Dr. Mingqing Xiao has been a resident of the United States since 1991 and a proud US citizen since 2006. His wife, Dr. Qi Liu, is a physician with the Veterans Administration. Together they have raised three accomplished daughters: Teresa, a medical student at the University of Chicago; Doreen, an undergraduate at the University of Chicago; and Elaina, who attends the Illinois Math and Science Academy.
Since January 2000, Dr. Xiao has served on the faculty of the Department of Mathematics at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, having been granted tenure and promotion in 2002 and promotion to full professor in 2007. His research area is mainly in applied mathematics, such as differential equations and computational science. Dr. Xiao has authored or co-authored over 100 peer-reviewed journal articles, book chapters and refereed conference publications. He is a senior member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and serves on the editorial boards of many prestigious Mathematics-related journals. He has received five National Science Foundation grants on SIU’s behalf in his two-decade tenure at the university. In 2016, the SIUC College of Science named Dr. Xiao its Outstanding Scholar.
Since 2013, Dr. Xiao organized and taught weekly math enhancement classes for local K-12 students from Carbondale, Carterville, Marion, Murphysboro and Makanda every week for 8 years until his 2021 indictment ended the program. Students attending “Ming Math” won numerous awards at regional, state and national math competitions and went on to attend such institutions as Harvard, Stanford, Yale, MIT, Columbia, Vanderbilt, University of Chicago, Washington University and others. Ming also served since 2013 as volunteer math coach for Unity Point Elementary School. Under his tutelage, the team won the regional MathCounts title six times and qualified for state and national competitions. Ming’s 2019 team finished 13th in Illinois, the only team from outside Chicagoland to finish in the top 15. Clearly Ming’s time, expertise and dedication was crucial to the success of these students from an underserved rural area. In 2020, Ming received the Good Neighbor Award from WSIU Public Broadcasting for his work with “Ming Math” and as MathCounts coach.
To understand the government’s troubling persecution of Dr. Xiao, it is important to understand the background. The Justice Department’s “China Initiative” was spearheaded by the Trump Administration, beginning in November 2018. It was purported to counter Chinese national
security threats and reinforce the former President’s overall national security strategy. At the outset of the initiative, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions remarked that it served to combat economic espionage and the “grave national security threat” posed by geopolitical rival states’ efforts to try to steal American inventions and defraud America.
However, it quickly became apparent that this initiative was designed to accumulate prosecutions against, primarily, Chinese-born persons in the United States, typically academics. Not only did John Demers, former Assistant Attorney General of the National Security Division, encourage all 94 United States Attorney’s offices to “try to do 1-2 of these cases per year”— suggesting that the effort is driven by quota and not actual threat to the United States—but the Department expanded its prosecutions to include charges wholly unrelated to issues of national security.
Specifically, the Department initiated a string of prosecutions against academics and researchers of Chinese descent for allegedly making false statements or failing to disclose connections to Chinese institutions — rather than espionage— under the guise of protecting the U.S. from China’s efforts to steal knowledge and intellectual property.
The Department targeted professors like beloved SIU Professor Xiao, a 30-year US resident, Professor Anming Hu at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, and Professor Gang Chen at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, all of whom have committed their professional lives to service, teaching, and scholarship at American universities and to expanding these institutions’ capacities for growth and global impact. UT Knoxville Professor Hu’s 2021 trial resulted in a hung jury, but the federal judge in his case subsequently issued a 52-page decision dismissing his case with prejudice. The US Attorney in Eastern Massachusetts ultimately withdrew the serious federal charges (which also included similar tax charges leveled against Professor Xiao) against MIT Professor Chen in early 2022. Notably, over 200 MIT professors wrote the university President protesting Gang Chen’s prosecution, and MIT subsequently paid his legal fees.
Eerily reminiscent of the incarceration of Japanese-Americans in the 40’s and the McCarthy era witch hunts of the 50’s that destroyed so many American lives and careers, the “China Initiative” fuels anti-Asian sentiments, hostility, and xenophobia. It flies in the face of the values of justice and equality that the Department is called to enforce, and it threatens the livelihood of our institutions of higher education, the talented professionals we employ, the students we educate, and the communities we serve. It is especially important that SIU, which markets itself as a nationally recognized research institution, stand up to the government’s discriminatory and unjust targeting of our Chinese-American colleagues. We are particularly distressed that the “China Initiative” has threatened the career and liberty of Professor Xiao, and poses dangers to All academic researchers as we strive to maintain SIU’s status as a national Research institution.
Professor Xiao, Shenzhen University and SIU
While at SIUC, Dr. Xiao has consistently worked to recruit students to the university, which is especially important in light of SIU’s significant enrollment decline over the past decade. In 2015, Professor Xiao initiated a relationship with Shenzhen University, located in Xiao’s native Guangdong province in southern China. In addition to traveling there to present lectures twice during his summer vacations, he established a joint Ph.D program between Shenzhen and SIU. This collaboration, designed to recruit high level students to SIU, was recognized as an important accomplishment by SIU’s Math Department. Moreover, Dr. Xiao’s collaborative efforts
followed a pattern encouraged by SIU administrators such as John Koropchak, Rita Cheng, Sam Goldman and John Dunn, all of whom traveled to China during their tenures in attempts to attract students to attend SIU. As a result of the relationship that Dr. Xiao established, the Director of SIU’s Center for International Education traveled to Shenzhen University, and ultimately developed a Memorandum of Understanding to engage in joint research and educational activities signed by then SIU Chancellor Carlo Montemagno and the Shenzhen University President and approved by SIU’s Board of Trustees. Dr. Xiao’s efforts bore fruit in the Fall of 2018, when a group of undergraduate students from Shenzhen University paid full tuition to attend SIUC as Mathematics majors.
FBI Pre-Miranda Interview of Professor Xiao
Since SIU was not able to fund Dr. Xiao’s trips to China after the initial 2015 visit, Shenzhen University agreed to reimburse his travel expenses by requiring him to open a bank account in Shenzhen, into which they would provide travel expense reimbursement. Due to the Covid-19 epidemic and the trade war with China, however, Dr. Xiao was limited to traveling to Shenzhen just twice after his initial 2015 visit.
In December 2020, the FBI arrived unannounced at the home of Professor Xiao, falsely implied that he had traveled to Wuhan (amidst worldwide fears of a pandemic that had its origins there), and proceeded to interview him for two hours and twenty minutes, without reading him his Miranda rights or indicating that 10 armed agents were waiting outside to execute a search warrant. Welcoming the agents into his home, while all three of his daughters were engaged in online studies for high school, college and medical school, Dr. Xiao willingly explained to them his work with Shenzhen University, which included advising colleagues on their tenure and promotion dossiers, development of a joint Ph.D program in Mathematics with SIU, and an exchange of faculty and students between the two institutions. Notably, Dr. Xiao’s research is in the area of Fundamental Mathematics, the results of which have and will be available to the public. His research does not involve sensitive intellectual property.
In the course of his voluntary and surreptitiously recorded interview with the FBI, Professor Xiao explained no less than 15 times that he considered the money in a Chinese bank account—that Shenzhen required him to open in order to reimburse him for expenses to travel there during the summers, teach, and establish a collaborative relationship between SIU and Shenzhen University, since SIU could not provide the funds to do that—was not his money. He made these statements despite the FBI agents tempting and prodding him to say that he could have used the money in that account to buy himself, for example, a bunch of Rolex watches or to pay his children’s college tuition, which he categorically and consistently denied. Xiao clearly explained that this was not the purpose for which that money was to be used. Throughout this interview, the FBI restricted Dr. Xiao’s three children to the kitchen table, not allowing them to call their mother or use the bathroom without an escort.
Professor Xiao, who used TurboTax to prepare his own taxes, never realized that he was required to check a box, somewhat buried within the TurboTax instructions, indicating that he had a foreign bank account or that he needed to file an FBAR (Foreign Bank Account Report). Notably, in an article published before he became IRS Commissioner, Charles Rettig noted that: “…almost 7.2 million Americans residing outside the United States did not even file a return, although arguably some six-plus million of them may have had some type of a U.S. filing and/or FBAR reporting obligation under current U.S. law.”
Professor Xiao’s recorded interview with the FBI clearly indicates that he had no Willful Intent to violate the tax code. In January of 2021, on his own volition at great personal expense and before he was ever charged of any wrongdoing by the government, Professor Xiao amended several years of his tax returns, checking the box that he had a foreign bank account for the years in question and, in fact, overpaying his taxes.
April 2021 Indictment
In April 2021, the government indicted Professor Xiao on three counts alleging grant fraud in an NSF application he made on behalf of SIU. These were serious charges, reported widely in the local press. Notably, Professor Xiao has since been Completely Exonerated of all the charges made in this initial indictment, a fact that has Not been widely reported in the local media.
The initial indictment made many false allegations—that Professor Xiao failed to disclose his relationship with Shenzhen University, and that he failed to disclose receiving a Chinese grant. In fact, Dr. Xiao properly disclosed his work in China to SIU and to the United States government—work which he engaged in to benefit SIU, that was followed up by a visit to Shenzhen University by SIU’s Director of the Center for International Education. Regarding the second allegation, Professor Xiao Never received a Chinese grant. It simply did not exist, and it was both irresponsible and unethical for the government to level a federal wire fraud charge against him without any supporting evidence.
As a result of this federal indictment, SIU placed Professor Xiao on paid administrative leave. Professor Xiao ultimately spent his life savings to hire a competent and experienced legal team to represent him in order to fight this unjust prosecution.
Stanford Letter, Faculty Support and Superceding Indictment
In September 2021, over 175 Stanford University professors wrote an open letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland noting fundamental flaws in the government’s “China Initiative.” Subsequently, over 2000 other faculty, scholars and administrators from universities in all 50 states, DC and Puerto Rico, endorsed Stanford’s call to end the China Initiative. Faculty at Harvard, Princeton, Cal Berkeley, Michigan and others wrote similar letters to the Attorney General.
In October 2021, the SIU Faculty Association released a statement in support of Professor Xiao. Referring to the federal indictment, then Faculty Association President, Anne Fletcher, noted, “We find this behavior reprehensible and frightening in a country where the rule of law is supposed to mean something. We believe the federal charges against Professor Xiao should also be dismissed and further the university should discontinue the disciplinary investigation against Professor Xiao and restore him to his teaching and research duties.”
Also in October 2021, on the eve of a trial that Professor Xiao was eager to begin in order to clear his name, the government filed a Superceding Indictment, adding four tax charges, all stemming from a failure to check the box indicating he had a foreign bank account and that he failed to file an FBAR. These counts do not allege, nor did the government ever suggest, that
Professor Xiao evaded paying any taxes to the government. Professor Xiao’s attorneys in a court filing referred to an IRS memo which suggested that these charges would have never been brought but for the original allegations of which Judge and Jury later exonerated him. Clearly, the Department of Justice blurred the line between felony charges and inadvertent errors that the government usually would not criminalize.
On November 9, 2021, the SIU Faculty Senate sent its own letter to Attorney General Garland, adopting the Stanford letter’s rationale regarding the fundamental flaws of the “China Initiative.” and asking the Attorney General to end it.
On December 14, 2021, the SIU Faculty Senate adopted a Resolution in support of Professor Xiao, calling on the university to end its investigation and restore him to full-time teaching duties.
April 2022 Trial, Exoneration and Verdict
Professor Xiao’s federal criminal case went to a jury trial in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Illinois in late April, with Judge Staci Yandle presiding. The jury selected was all white and all female. Notably, not a single member of the media attended a single minute of the Xiao trial. However, 15 to 30 colleagues and community members made the 45-minute drive to the Benton Federal Courthouse each day of the trial to show their support for Professor Xiao, all sporting bright blue buttons emblazened, “I Stand With Ming.” Meanwhile, the government expended massive resources to present their flawed case: Five federal attorneys manned their counsel table in the courtroom daily; and numerous FBI agents and other government employees were present to watch or to testify, including several flown in from the East coast.
At the conclusion of the government’s case and pursuant to a motion by Professor Xiao’s attorneys, Judge Yandle dismissed Counts 1 and 2, the most serious charges against Professor Xiao, with prejudice, indicating that the government failed to meet its burden of proof on these wire fraud counts that alleged Professor Xiao 1. Failed to disclose ties to a Chinese university on a federal grant application, and 2. Failed to disclose receipt of a Chinese grant on that application. Following the defense’s case, the jury acquitted Professor Xiao of Count 3, which alleged making a false statement on a federal grant application.
Thus Professor Xiao, after a year-long ordeal in which he was placed on administrative leave by SIU and forced to spend his life savings on attorneys to defend his livelihood and his liberty, was completely exonerated of all charges made in the government’s original indictment, all charges alleging grant fraud, and all charges that related to his work at SIU.
During the government’s case, IRS agent, Michael Welch, testified that there was no tax evasion charge in this case. Unfortunately the jury, which deliberated for less than 3 hours, found Professor Xiao guilty of failing to check a box on 3 years of tax returns and failing to file a timely FBAR. We think that these guilty verdicts were in error, and that the government failed to prove that Professor Xiao willfully intended to provide incorrect information on his tax returns. The jury never knew that Professor Xiao amended his returns before being indicted (due to a government motion to limit that information), and clearly failed to recognize a wealth of evidence indicating that Professor Xiao did not willfully intend to defraud the government, a required element, by not checking a box that he was not even aware existed.
To summarize the key points:
Professor Xiao has been completely exonerated of any and all grant fraud charges. Notable, he clearly disclosed his affiliation with Shenzhen on his NSF application and he Never received a Chinese grant. The government should be ashamed for dragging him through this process, as a result of which he spent his life savings on attorneys and been prohibited from doing the job he loves to do.
Shenzhen University required Professor Xiao to open a bank account to reimburse him for expenses so that he could go there and do work that benefitted SIU and for which SIU did not provide the funding to accomplish.
Professor Xiao told the FBI 15 times that he considered the money in that account not to be his money.
After the FBI told him they disagreed, Professor Xiao spent thousands of dollars to hire a tax attorney, and he properly amended his returns to check the box that he had a foreign bank account, all before being indicted in April 2021. In fact, Professor Xiao Overpaid his taxes by doing that, and the government has Never alleged any tax evasion.
It is clear that the IRS has long been aware that many taxpayers do not strictly adhere to the FBAR requirements. The government nonetheless does not bring hundreds of thousands of felony tax charges per year on this basis, and surely many of those taxpayers are innocent actors who are simply not aware of the requirement, like Professor Xiao.
Months After Professor Xiao amended his tax returns, the government indicted him on 3 counts, without any tax allegations, and he has been completely exonerated of all 3 counts of criminal wrongdoing.
On the eve of a scheduled October 2021 trial, in which Professor Xiao was anxious to clear his name, the government filed a superseding indictment, adding the bogus tax charges, because they were not ready to go to trial, and because Professor Xiao refused to accept a guilty plea on the charges for which he was ultimately exonerated.
At trial in April 2022, the judge rightly dismissed 2 of the 3 original grant fraud charges, and the jury acquitted Professor Xiao of the 3rd charge. The jury ignored a wealth of evidence indicating that Professor Xiao did not willfully intend to defraud the government by not checking a box that he was not even aware existed.
The federal government’s prosecution of SIU Professor Mingqing Xiao under the flawed “China Initiative” is unjust and reprehensible. As a result, an honest, caring, upstanding and devoted member of our community has had his life turned upside down and lost his life savings. We encourage members of the community to protest this injustice, and we encourage SIU to return Professor Xiao to his full-time teaching and research status.
Edward Benyas, Professor, School of Music, SIU
Michael Barta, Professor, School of Music, SIU
Kara Benyas, Professional Pianist, Teacher and SIU Alum
Dorothy Beyler, Community member
Lingguo Bu, Professor, School of Education, SIU
William Cernota, Lyric Opera of Chicago Orchestra and SIU Adjunct Music Faculty
Chifeng Dai, Associate Professor in Economics, SIU
Liping Deng, Ph.D Candidate, School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences, SIU
Andrew Earnest, Emeritus Professor and Former Chair, Department of Mathematics, SIU
Janet Earnest, Community member
Rong Fan, Senior Manager, Bristol Mayers Squibb
Tim Fink, Emeritus Professor, School of Music, SIU
Anne Fletcher, Emeritus Professor of Theatre, SIU
Neal Foland, Emeritus Professor of Mathematics, SIU
Keqin Gu, Chair, Department of Mechanical and Mechatronics Engineering, SIUE
Patricia Guyon, Widow of Former SIU Chancellor
Dong Han, Associate Professor, School of Journalism and Advertising, SIU
David Holtzmann, Endodontist, Denver, Colorado
Krista Holtzmann, Attorney, Douglas County, Colorado
Carolyn Hooker, Community member
John Hooker, Emeritus Professor of Mathematics, SIU
Anming Hu, Associate Professor, University of Tennessee Knoxville
Randy Hughes, Associate Professor, School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences, SIU
Rong Jiang, CEO, Energao, Inc.
Jyotsna Kapur, Director, University Honors Program, SIU
Yurino Kawashima, Registered Nurse, BJC Christian Hospital
Gary Kinsel, Professor and former Interim Vice Chancellor for Research, SIU
Chuck Korando, Contractor, Carbondale
Leslie Korando, Safety/Environmental Compliance Associate, SIU
Yueh-Ting Lee, SIU Faculty Senate President
Dennis Leitner, Emeritus Associate Professor, College of Education
Julieta Leitner, Emeritus Professor, Department of Counseling in Education, SEMO
Ruopo Li, Associate Professor, Geography, SIU
Jun Liu, Assistant Professor, Department of Mathematics and Statistics, SIUE
Linda Lucas, Optometrist, Marion VA Medical Center
Rob Lucas, Education Technology Specialist, Shawnee Community College
Qilun Luo, Ph.D in Mathematics from SIU
Anneke Metz, Associate Professor, SIU School of Medicine
Walter Metz, Professor, School of Media Arts, SIU
Geoffrey Nathan, Emeritus Professor of Linguistics, Wayne State University
Susan Pearlman, Emeritus Professor, Curriculum and Instruction, SIU
Steven Pei, Founding Chair, United Chinese Americans
Kathleen Pericak-Spector, Emeritus Professor and former Vice Chair,
Department of Mathematics, SIU
Jeffrey Punske, SIUC Faculty Association President
Jan Radtke, Retired Family Nurse Practitioner, Carbondale
Shahram Rahimi, Department Head and Professor, Computer Science and Engineering,
Mississippi State University
Howard Saver, Retired Assisted Living Administrator
Bill Shanks, Retired Engineer, Marion
Gail Shanks, Retired Teacher, Marion
Michael Shimshak, Superintendent, Iowa-Grant School District, Wisconsin
Michael Sullivan, Director of Graduate Studies, School of Mathematical
and Statistical Sciences, SIU
Kitty Trescott, US-China Peoples Friendship Association, Carbondale Chapter President
Xiuquan Wang, Associate Professor of Mathematics, Tougaloo College
Margaret Winters, Former Provost, Wayne State University; Former Interim Provost, SIU
S.B. Woo, Founding President, 80-20 Initiative; Former Lieutenant Governor of Delaware
Mary Wright, Retired Professor, Department of Mathematics, SIU
Jeremy Wu, Co-Founder, APA Justice
Dashun Xu, Professor, School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences, SIU
Ming Yang, Assistant Professor, Mathematics Department, University of Evansville