A criminal complaint was unsealed Monday that accuses a 53 year old Chinese man of hiding affiliations with a Chinese government program designed to advance that country’s high-tech development. Zhengdong Cheng of College Station, Texas is a professor at Texas A&M University and a NASA researcher. The Justice Department accuses him “of lying about his affiliations with Chinese universities, institutions and a government program that recruits foreign nationals with knowledge of U.S. technology and intellectual property.”
He was charged with conspiracy, making false statements and wire fraud. This case is a part of the Justice Department’s China Initiative – a crackdown on people engaged in trade secret theft,and hacking and economic espionage for Beijing. It also targets those who pose threats to U.S. infrastructure through foreign investment and supply-chain compromises. This is a disturbing pattern that is being uncovered by DOJ. Several Chinese nationals have been arrested on similiar charges just this year. Dozens, many professors, have been charged since April 2018.
The U.S. Attorney Ryan K. Patrick (son of Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick) released a statement. Authorities took Cheng into custody Sunday, Aug. 23.
“China is building an economy and academic institutions with bricks stolen from others all around the world,” U.S. Attorney Ryan K. Patrick for the Southern District of Texas said in a statement. “While 1.4 million foreign researchers and academics are here in the U.S. for the right reasons, the Chinese Talents Program exploits our open and free universities. These conflicts must be disclosed, and we will hold those accountable when such conflict violates the law.”
According to the Justice Department’s complaint, Cheng allegedly led a team conducting research for NASA. For several years he willfully took steps to hide his affiliations and collaboration with a Chinese University and at least one Chinese-owned company. This violates the terms of Cheng’s grant, as he is prohibited of participation, collaboration or coordination with China, any Chinese-owned company or any Chinese University, according to the charges. Texas A&M fully cooperated with the investigation of the professor. NASA and the FBI weighed in on the arrest, too.
“Once again, we have witnessed the criminal consequences that can arise from undisclosed participation in the Chinese government’s talent program,” said Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers. “Professor Cheng allegedly made false statements to his university and to NASA regarding his affiliations with the Chinese government. The Department of Justice will continue seeking to bring participation in these talent programs to light and to expose the exploitation of our nation and our prized research institutions.”
“As alleged, Zhengdong Cheng knowingly deceived NASA officials about his association with Chinese owned companies and universities, willingly accepted U.S. government funding, and defrauded his university,” said Assistant Director Alan Kohler, Jr. of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division. “The FBI is committed to aggressively pursuing those individuals who try and undercut our U.S. research institutions and government agencies by concealing their participation in Chinese talent recruitment programs and to hold them accountable for their actions.”
“NASA’s funding restrictions are in place to protect taxpayer-financed research dollars and intellectual property,” said Special Agent in Charge Mark Zielinski, NASA Office of Inspector General (OIG) – Eastern Field Office. “We will continue pursue anyone who attempts to circumvent these guidelines and conceal affiliations with Chinese institutions and companies in order to obtain NASA grant money.”
“Dr. Cheng is accused of hiding his affiliation with the Guangdong University of Technology, along with other foreign universities, while disregarding the rules established under his NASA contract during his employment at TAMU,” said FBI Houston Special Agent in Charge Perrye K. Turner. “These alleged actions came to light through the tireless work of the FBI-Bryan Resident Agency and NASA-OIG investigative teams. We are grateful to TAMU, TAMU System and TAMU Engineering Experiment Station for providing significant assistance through their partnership with us throughout this case.”
Cheng and TAMU received funds based on Cheng knowingly providing false information to TAMU and consequently to NASA. Cheng personally benefited from his affiliation with TAMU and NASA with increased access to NASA resources, such as the International Space Station, which allowed Cheng to further his standing in China at Guangdong University of Technology. Both TAMU and NASA were unaware of senior research positions Cheng held to serve in the People’s Republic of China Talents program. 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.”
On his application, Cheng hid the fact that he receives financial payments for his affiliations with Chinese universities and institutions from the Communist Chinese government from both TAMU and NASA. According to the complaint, Cheng was hired by Texas A&M in 2004. He was part of a research team that received government grants, including a nearly $750,000 grant to conduct research for NASA. That’s a generous grant that could have gone to an American scientist. That’s the glaring problem with China’s River Talent Plan and the Thousand Talents Plan. There is a lucrative financial incentive for foreign individuals to spy, to transfer international technology and intellectual property to China. China takes the intellectual property out of the United States and benefits with scientific development, economic prosperity, and national security. It’s a huge loss for the American taxpayer, which funds NASA grants.
It looks like the feds have more work to do. This arrest came less than a week after the DOJ announced that former CIA officer Alexander Yuk Ching Ma, 67, had been charged under the China Initiative for communicating classified information to intelligence officials in Beijing. China targets men in their 50s and 60s for intellectual spying.