The US Department of Justice filed motions late last week to dismiss cases against five Chinese scientists accused of visa fraud.

The scientists were arrested last summer. The DOJ said at the time that they had each hidden or falsified information regarding their affiliation with the Chinese military—the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)—on their visa applications.

According to The Wall Street Journal, the arrested researchers included Juan Tang, a visiting cancer researcher at the University of California, Davis; Lei Guan, a visiting artificial intelligence researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles; Xin Wang, a biomedical researcher at the University of California, San Francisco; Song Chen, a visiting neurologist at Stanford University; and Kaikai Zhao, a graduate student in artificial intelligence at Indiana University.

The researchers were among a larger group of Chinese researchers prosecuted under the auspices of the “China Initiative,” a Trump-era effort designed to crack down on economic espionage and intellectual property theft, according to Inside Higher Ed.

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The arrests happened during a particularly low point in Chinese-American relations, during which the US government forced the Chinese consulate in Houston to shut down for what it said were “massive illegal spying and influence operations,” according to The New York Times. In response, an American consulate in China was also ordered to close. According to the Journal, officials said that more than 1,000 researchers with Chinese military affiliations left the US shortly after.

Since then, “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,” DOJ spokesperson Wyn Hornbuckle tells the Times. “We have determined that it is now in the interest of justice to dismiss them.” Hornbuckle did not discuss the nature of the recent developments.

According to the Journal, an April 2021 memo from the FBI stated that the US visa application “potentially lacks clarity” regarding how it determines Chinese military affiliation, especially since civilian PLA employees may not consider themselves to be soldiers.

FBI analysts found little evidence linking dishonesty on visa applications to illegal technology transfer to China, suggesting that visa fraud may not be the best way to identify researchers colluding with China, the Journal reports.  

Tang, who was arrested for allegedly lying about her previous position as a uniformed PLA officer, was supposed to go to trial today, the Journal reports. The dismissal of her case came several weeks after a judge ruled that the FBI hadn’t informed Tang of her right not to self-incriminate, according to the Times.

Since the maximum punishment for visa fraud usually doesn’t exceed a year, and since the researchers have all been detained for an extended period, the Times reports that the DOJ decided the researchers had served their time.

“At some point you ask what’s the right thing to do?” an anonymous Justice Department official tells The Washington Post. “And after a year given that we’ve achieved our objectives, rather than seek an adjournment of the trial, this was the right thing to do. And once you reach that judgment, in one case, it was logical to extend it to the other cases.”

While the charges against Tang have been formerly dropped, the department's motions to dismiss charges against the other four researchers are still pending in federal courts in Indiana and California, according to the Times.