Chinese researcher — and former 'fugitive' — returns home after DOJ moves to drop a spate of cases
A year ago, the Trump administration’s crackdown on academic and espionage reached a fever pitch as the US abruptly ordered China to shut down its Houston consulate and, on the same day, announced it had charged four visiting Chinese researchers for concealing their ties to the Chinese military in visa applications.
Over the past few days, though, the Department of Justice has moved to drop those cases.
“Recent developments in a handful of cases involving defendants with alleged, undisclosed ties to the People’s Liberation Army of the People’s Republic of China have prompted the department to re-evaluate these prosecutions,” Wyn Hornbuckle, a spokesman, told the New York Times without elaborating on the specifics. “We have determined that it is now in the interest of justice to dismiss them.”
But he emphasized that the motions simply reflected the merits of these individual cases, not the department’s stance on stopping IP theft by China — a clear priority for the former president.
Rather, it “continues to place a very high priority on countering the threat posed to American research security and academic integrity by the PRC government’s agenda and policies.”
Juan Tang was the first defendant to have her case dismissed. A former cancer researcher at the radiation oncology department at the University of California, San Diego, she first entered the US in December 2019. Her case drew special attention after the FBI called her a “fugitive of justice being harbored” at the Chinese consulate in San Francisco.
She had been scheduled to go to trial on Monday.
According to the Sacramento Bee, Tang had been in custody at a Bay Area lawyer’s home with a GPS ankle bracelet following a period in the Sacramento County Main Jail. She got on a flight Friday morning to return to her mother, husband and 9-year-old daughter in China.
Judges had determined in recent weeks that FBI agents had not informed her about her rights to not incriminate herself and already dismissed parts of her case, along with another researcher, the Wall Street Journal reported. In court filings, prosecutors noted they would no longer pursue visa fraud and other charges.
On top of that, the department has concluded that while awaiting trial, the defendants had already been imprisoned or otherwise constrained for a year — the maximum sentence they would face, according to the Times.
It’s filed motions to dismiss cases against four other scientists, three of whom were charged on the same day as Tang: Xin Wang (who was at UCSF), Chen Song (neurologist at was at Stanford) and Kaikai Zhao (graduate student in machine learning and artificial intelligence).
The last, Lei Guan, was arrested later after being seen destroying a hard drive. At the time, Guan — who had spent two years at UCLA — was being investigated for possibly transferring sensitive US software or technical data to China’s National University of Defense Technology.
The decision to scrutinize researchers from China for their military ties had marked an unusual turn in a nationwide campaign to stem foreign influence in US biomedical research — one that had involved the NIH and swept up some prestigious institutions like MD Anderson, Emory and Moffitt.