Federal prosecutors last week announced visa fraud charges against three visiting researchers and a graduate student from China accused of lying about their affiliations with the Chinese military on their U.S. visa applications.
Prosecutors initially accused the Chinese government of harboring one of the four researchers, Tang Juan, formerly a visiting cancer researcher at the University of California, Davis, at the Chinese consulate in San Francisco. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of California subsequently announced Friday that Tang had been arrested and taken into custody.
The charges come at a time of heightened tensions between the U.S. and China -- and at a time when disagreements over issues related to research and allegations of technology theft are front and center in the overall China-U.S. relationship.
The U.S. took the drastic step last week of ordering the closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston, prompting China in turn to order the closure of the U.S. consulate in the city of Chengdu.
U.S. officials said Friday that officials at the Houston consulate were implicated in a fraud investigation involving a Texas research institution, according to CNN.
The arrests of the four researchers accused of hiding their Chinese military ties also come in the wake of the U.S. taking steps to bar Chinese graduate students and visiting scholars with ties to Chinese military institutions.
A proclamation issued by President Trump in late May bars entry to the U.S. for any Chinese national applying for a student or exchange visitor visa to study or conduct research in the U.S. “who either receives funding from or who currently is employed by, studies at, or conducts research at or on behalf of, or has been employed by, studied at, or conducted research at or on behalf of, an entity in the PRC [People’s Republic of China] that implements or supports the PRC's ‘military-civil fusion strategy.’” The proclamation, which does not apply to undergraduates, defines the "military-civil fusion strategy" as "actions by or at the behest of the PRC to acquire and divert foreign technologies, specifically critical and emerging technologies, to incorporate into and advance the PRC's military capabilities.”
Federal prosecutors said in court documents that the Chinese government had approached the U.S. government "about the law enforcement activity surrounding Tang Juan," the former visiting scholar at UC Davis accused of lying about her affiliation with the Chinese military on her exchange visa application. Prosecutors also said they believe Tang's case "has some relation" to an advisory issued by the U.S. Embassy in China, now taken down, warning American citizens of a heightened risk of arbitrary detention. (Prosecutors did not elaborate on why they think the advisory is related to Tang's case.)
The criminal complaint alleges that Tang hid her employment by a military medical university that is part of the People's Liberation Army Air Force and that appears to be “part of a civilian cadre whose members are considered active duty military personnel.”
Tang could not be reached for comment, and no lawyer was listed for her in a database of federal court records as of Monday afternoon.
UC Davis said in a statement that it is providing information requested by authorities in relation to the case. The university said 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. Her work was solely based in the research laboratory and she left the University at the end of June."
Apart from Tang, the three other Chinese nationals recently arrested for allegedly lying about their ongoing affiliations with the Chinese military in their visa applications are:
♦ Xin Wang, who according to court documents traveled to the U.S. in March 2019 on an exchange visa to conduct research at the University of California, San Francisco. Prosecutors say that Wang admitted to U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers “that he had intentionally made fraudulent statements about his PLA military service on his U.S. visa application in order to increase the likelihood of receiving a J-1 visa.”
Prosecutors also say Wang, who received a scholarship from the China Scholarship Council, “stated that his military supervisor at the Air Force Military Medical University lab in China instructed him to examine the UCSF’s laboratory layout and provide such details to the PRC upon his return to China in order to replicate the lab in China. Wang admitted to maintaining the UCSF scientific research on his laptop and external electronic devices and stated that he intended to bring this research to China to share with his PLA colleagues. Wang also admitted to previously sending UCSF research to his PRC military contacts via email.”
Wang does not have an attorney identified in court records. An email sent to an address associated with Wang’s name in the UCSF directory was not returned.
UCSF said in a statement that Wang “worked in a laboratory of Associate Professor of Medicine Kamran Atabai for less than a year, on research projects related to metabolism and obesity.” The university said it is cooperating with authorities in their investigation.
♦ Zhao Kaikai, who according to court records came to the U.S. to enroll in a Ph.D. program focused on machine learning and artificial intelligence at Indiana University, Bloomington. Zhao allegedly answered “no” to a question about whether he had ever served in the military on his visa application, but prosecutors allege he maintained his affiliation with the PLA while a student at Indiana.
“Zhao’s publication of articles concerning military radar technology, his participation in applying for a patent on Chinese military (radar) technology, his photo in a PLA military uniform, and his admitted attendance at AUAF [the Aviation University of Air Force] all establishes, contrary to his statements in his visa application, that Zhao did serve in the Chinese military,” an affidavit from a special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation states.
A lawyer for Kaikai declined to comment beyond matters in the public record, though he noted that the law “presumes Mr. Kaikai innocent of the charges.”
A spokesman for Indiana University declined to comment.
♦ Chen Song, described in court documents as a visiting medical researcher at Stanford University starting in 2019. According to an affidavit, Song falsely said on her visa application that her service with the Chinese military ended in 2011 while in fact it was ongoing.
The affidavit describes a deleted letter obtained from one of Song’s devices, addressed to the Chinese consulate in New York, in which she allegedly wrote that her stated employer, a hospital in Beijing, was a false front and said she had obtained approval for extending her stay in the U.S. from the PLA Air Force and a military medical university.
A lawyer for Song did not respond to a request for comment.
A Stanford spokeswoman said the university does not have information on the case beyond that released by the Department of Justice.
The Chinese Embassy in Washington did not respond to multiple requests for comment. However, in a press conference last week, China Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin addressed the allegation by the U.S. State Department that "the Chinese Communist Party is seeking to build its military by exploiting American research institutions, academia, and private firms for their key technologies."
Wang described it as "customary international practice to promote integrated military and civilian development" -- he noted that the U.S. military funds research at U.S. universities -- and accused the U.S. of applying double standards "to justify a high-tech blockage against China."
"The root of this is the Cold War mentality the U.S. still clings to as it attempts to contain China's development," he said. "It goes against the spirit of international cooperation and the trend of the times and will eventually damage the interests of China, the U.S. and the whole world."
The U.S. Department of State declined to comment. The Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation has undertaken a nationwide effort to identify scholars with allegedly undisclosed ties to the Chinese military. The Department of Justice press release announcing the four recent arrests says the FBI conducted interviews in more than 25 American cities.
“The United States welcomes students, academics, and researchers from across the globe,” John Brown, executive assistant director of the FBI's national security branch, said in the press release. “Today’s announcement shows the extreme lengths to which the Chinese government has gone to infiltrate and exploit America’s 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.”
Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers described the alleged offenses as "another part of the Chinese Communist Party’s plan to take advantage of our open society and exploit academic institutions. We will continue to conduct this investigation together with the FBI."
For nearly two years, the Department of Justice has pursued what it has called its China Initiative, focused on alleged efforts by China to steal ideas and innovations from American universities and companies. Although these latest arrests focused on allegedly undisclosed military ties, Chinese scholars in the U.S. have previously been arrested for allegedly failing to report income or affiliations with Chinese entities on documents related to federal scientific grant applications, or on federal tax returns.
Margaret Lewis, a professor of law at Seton Hall University, argues in a draft academic article that the framing of the Justice Department's China Initiative is problematic. She argues that while there is a legitimate threat related to theft of trade secrets, “using ‘China’ as the glue connecting cases under the Initiative’s umbrella creates an over-inclusive conception of the threat and attaches a criminal taint to entities that have an even tangential nexus to ‘China.’”
Frank Wu, the president of Queens College, in New York, has raised concerns about Chinese scholars in the US. feeling targeted.
"There are both real cases that the United States can and should be and is pursuing, and there is a perception among Chinese Americans, Chinese immigrants and Chinese foreign nationals that they are being targeted," Wu said. "Both those things can be happening at the same time."