Foreign Researchers Accused of Hiding Links to Chinese Military
Foreign Researchers Accused of Hiding Links to Chinese Military

Foreign Researchers Accused of Hiding Links to Chinese Military

Four Chinese nationals have been charged with visa fraud after revelations that they sent information on the layout of US labs and research carried out by colleagues back to China.

Amanda Heidt
Amanda Heidt
Jul 24, 2020

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Update (July 27): Juan Tang has since been taken into custody by the US Marshals Service and will be appearing in court today to face charges of alleged visa fraud, the Associated Press reports.

Three Chinese nationals working in research laboratories in California and Indiana have been arrested and charged with lying about their affiliations to the Chinese military, while a fourth person has sought refuge inside the Chinese consulate in San Francisco in an attempt to avoid arrest.

Kaikai Zhao, a graduate student at Indiana University studying artificial intelligence; Juan Tang, a visiting cancer researcher at the University of California (UC), Davis; Xin Wang, a visiting researcher at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF); and Chen Song, a visiting neurologist at Stanford University, are all alleged to have supplied false information when applying for visas to travel to the US for work. Zhao and Tang deny ever having been affiliated with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), while Wang and Song provided false dates as to when their involvement had ended, according to a memo from the Department of Justice (DOJ). 

Zhao, Wang, and Song have all been arrested and charged with visa fraud. In court documents filed July 20 in Song’s trial, US attorneys stressed that the case “is not an isolated one, but instead appears to be part of a program conducted by the PLA . . . to send military scientists to the United States on false pretenses with false covers or false statements about their true employment,” the lawyers wrote. “There exists evidence in at least one of these cases of a military scientist copying or stealing information from American institutions at the direction of military superiors in China.” In addition, the documents alleged that the Chinese government may have actively instructed researchers to destroy evidence ahead of helping them leave the country.

The charges come at a time of escalating tensions between the United States and China. On Tuesday (July 21), two Chinese citizens were charged with hacking into private companies to steal information on COVID-19 vaccines, while the US State Department ordered China to close its Houston consulate just a day later, The New York Times reports, after accusing diplomats of aiding the theft of trade secrets. The DOJ memo detailing the arrests also revealed that the FBI had conducted additional interviews in 25 cities with visa holders suspected of having hidden affiliations with the Chinese military.

In this latest round of arrests, Wang failed to disclose that he was an active technician at a military university lab even after he traveled to California in March 2019. In a June 7 interview with the FBI, he admitted to receiving orders from superiors in China to observe the layout of the UCSF lab and to retrieve copies of National Institutes of Health––funded work carried out by his colleagues with the intention of duplicating them in China.  

Song is also alleged to have lied about her employment by the PLA. When FBI agents seized her computers, they were able to retrieve several documents that had been deleted. In a deleted letter to the Chinese consulate in New York, Inside Higher Ed reports, she admitted that the Beijing hospital she listed as an employer on her visa application was “a false front,” and she subsequently tried to mail classified documents to China asking to extend her time in the US.

In Tang’s case, she is alleged to have answered “no” to the question of whether she had ever served in the military when applying for a non-immigrant visa last fall, the Davis Enterprise reports. After beginning her work as a visiting scholar at UC Davis, the FBI found photos online of Tang in a military uniform. During an FBI interview with Tang in her home on June 20, Tang said that she had never served in the military and was not a member of the Communist party. 

But after the FBI seized her passport and computers, they found an additional photo of Tang in a similar uniform, and articles online listed her employer as the PLA’s Air Force Military Medical University. Before she could be arrested, Tang fled to the consulate in San Francisco, where she has remained.

The Chinese government has approached US officials about Tang’s case. Speaking to Axios, an anonymous DOJ official says, “we made the Chinese government aware that she is a charged individual, so it [is] unquestionable that they know the defendant is a fugitive.”

Minyao Wang, a lawyer who has previously worked on intellectual property theft cases related to China, stressed how unusual a case it is. Chinese diplomats rarely rely on their immunity to shield someone accused of federal crimes and typically avoid associations with suspects. “Sheltering a defendant in a criminal case by using the diplomatic immunity of a consular building, if true, is really extraordinary,” Wang says to Axios.