The US Justice Department announced the arrest Monday of a researcher in Texas for allegedly hiding his paid participation in a Chinese government talent recruitment programme while conducting scientific research for Nasa, the US space agency.
The arrest of Texas A&M University professor Zhengdong Cheng is the latest case in the department’s “China Initiative”, a sweeping campaign against US-based academics who have allegedly received payments, housing and other benefits from Chinese authorities without notifying their home universities or the US government about the extra income.
Cheng is facing criminal charges of conspiracy, making false statements and wire fraud. The false statement and conspiracy charges each carry a potential sentence of five years in prison; the wire fraud count carries a potential sentence of up to 20 years.
“Once again, we have witnessed the criminal consequences that can arise from undisclosed participation in the Chinese government’s talent programme,” John Demers, the assistant attorney general for national security, said.
The arrest on Sunday came a month after the Trump administration shut down the Chinese consulate in Houston, Texas – about 95 miles southeast of Texas A&M, located in College Station – accusing it of being a base for Chinese spying operations in the US.
The Justice Department did not say whether Cheng, 53, was a Chinese national or provide other background. But according to his webpage at Texas A&M, where he is a chemical engineering professor, Cheng received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Chinese universities before earning a PhD at Princeton in 1999.
According to the complaint, Cheng was hired by Texas A&M in 2004 and took part in numerous research projects over the years, including at Nasa, that received federal funding.
Cheng was part of a research team that received a federal grant of almost US$750,000 to conduct research at the space agency.
When Cheng and his team applied for the funds, the complaint contends, he did not disclose that he had also accepted paid teaching positions from a number of academic institutions in China.
It also alleged that Cheng took part in China’s “Hundred Talents Plan and the River Talent Plan (PRTP), and applied to participate in the [Thousand Talents Plan] (collectively, the Chinese Talent Plans)”.
According to the Justice Department, “China’s Talents Plans are allegedly designed to attract, recruit and cultivate high-level scientific talent in furtherance of China’s scientific development, economic prosperity and national security”.
Moreover, the affidavit filed by Special Agent Benjamin Harper of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, states that Cheng was on the staff of several Chinese universities, particularly Guangdong University of Technology, and had also co-founded a company in China – all of which he failed to disclose during the course of his work on the grant.
The affidavit said that if Nasa had known of Cheng’s alleged affiliation with the Chinese talent recruitment programme, he would have been barred from receiving the grant money.
“It was an object and result of Cheng’s scheme to personally enrich Cheng by approximately US$86,876 (as of October 2019) in Nasa grant funds, gain access to the unique resources of the International Space Station (ISS), leverage Nasa grant resources to further the research of Chinese institutions, and enhance his ability to become a TTP award recipient from the Government of China,” the affidavit said.
Federal prosecutors accused Cheng of “knowingly providing false information” to Texas A&M “and consequently to Nasa”.
According to the Justice Department, about 80 per cent of all economic espionage prosecutions brought by the department since 2018 “allege conduct that would benefit the Chinese state”.