A theoretical physicist by training, Xiao Qiang studied at the University of Science and Technology of China and entered the PhD program (1986-1989) in Astrophysics at the University of Notre Dame. He became a full time human rights activist after the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989. Xiao was the Executive Director of the New York-based NGO Human Rights in China from 1991 to 2002 and vice-chairman of the steering committee of the World Movement for Democracy. Xiao is a recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship in 2001, and is profiled in the book Soul Purpose: 40 People Who Are Changing the World for the Better, (Melcher Media, 2003). He was also a visiting fellow of the Santa Fe Institute in Spring, 2002.
In Fall 2003, Xiao launched China Digital Times to explore how to apply cutting edge technologies to aggregate, contextualize and translate online information from and about China. He taught classes on China reporting and human rights in the Graduate School of Journalism, UC Berkeley from 2003 to 2009. Xiao's current research focuses on state censorship, propaganda and disinformation, as well as emerging AI-driven mass surveillance and social control in China. He teaches class on Digital Activism, and runs the Counter-Power Lab, an interdisciplinary faculty-student group researching innovative technologies to expand the free flow of information in cyberspace.
In January 2015, Xiao has been named to Foreign Policy magazine's Pacific Power Index, a list of "50 people shaping the future of the U.S.-China relationship." He was named on the list “for taking on China's Great Firewall of censorship."