FBI crackdown on China’s R&D espionage intensifies with new arrests and one fugitive in San Francisco
Intensifying the crackdown on undisclosed Chinese ties within US research institutions, the Justice Department has charged four scientists — three of them studying biology or medicine — with visa fraud for allegedly lying about their work for China’s military.
The FBI has arrested three and is pointing fingers at the Chinese consulate in San Francisco for harboring the fourth, putting attention and pressure on China’s diplomatic missions just one day after the US ordered the closure of its Houston outpost.
In a statement, the fugitive researcher is identified as Juan Tang. She entered the US in December 2019 after applying for a visa to the University of California, San Diego.
“Juan Tang was a visiting researcher in the Department of Radiation Oncology, funded by the Chinese Scholarship Council, a study-based exchange program affiliated with the China’s Ministry of Education and Xijing Hospital in China,” the university told local media. “Her work was solely based in the research laboratory and she left the University at the end of June.”
Per court documents, Tang claimed on her visa application that she’s never served in the military. But an FBI investigation turned up evidence of her being a uniformed officer of the People’s Liberation, including a photo of her in the uniform and references to her employment at the Air Force Military Medical University. When confronted by agents, she once again denied having been a member of the military — and sought refuge at the Chinese consulate before the feds could arrest her on June 26.
While the focus on military association is unusual, the FBI’s campaign to stem foreign influence in US biomedical research goes back years. Upon their warning, the NIH has alerted grantee institutions to possible undisclosed funding from and work for foreign institutions, — particularly Chinese ones. The probes have focused mainly on the Thousand Talents program, an iniative originally set up to woo Chinese natives back to China but had also been extended to American scientists such as Alan List and Charles Lieber.
As with these new accusations, the issue often lies with failure to disclose and violations of rules rather than actual, proven theft of intellectual property.
The same threads in Tang’s case echoes with those against the three other scientists, who were also named.
Xin Wang, who did research at UCSF, wrote about his former employment as a professor of medicine in the army but allegedly hid his current position as a technician in a lab. He later revealed that his supervisor back in China had asked him for information on the layout of his UCSF lab and the work he did there, some of which were funded by NIH grants.
Chen Song, 38, was accused of using a Beijing hospital as a “false front” to cover up her real employer, the PLA. The neurologist conducted research on brain disease at Stanford University.
Kaikai Zhao was a graduate student studying machine learning and artificial intelligence at Indiana University who omitted his service and attendance at a couple of military-affiliated schools.
“These members of China’s People Liberation Army applied for research visas while hiding their true affiliation with the PLA,” John Demers, Assistant Attorney General for National Security, said in a statement. “This is another part of the Chinese Communist Party’s plan to take advantage of our open society and exploit academic institutions.”
John Brown, the executive assistant director of the FBI’s National Security Branch, reiterated the almost cliché line that the US welcomes students, academics and researchers — but they won’t allow the Chinese government to infiltrate and exploit this benevolence.
“In interviews with members of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army in over 25 cities across the U.S., the FBI uncovered a concerted effort to hide their true affiliation to take advantage of the United States and the American people,” he said.
But amid reports that the Trump administration is considering canceling the visas of thousands of Chinese graduate students and researchers who have direct ties to universities affiliated with the People’s Liberation Army — and following a failed attempt to kick out students whose schools are going virtual — how welcomed individual scientists feel is a whole other question.