Last Friday an engineering professor at the University of Arkansas was arrested for concealing his connections with China even as he was receiving grant money from NASA. Dr. Simon Ang was part of a Chinese effort to pay American academics to share their research in China known as the Thousand Talents program. Dr. Ang is at least the fifth professor who has been arrested in connection with the Thousand Talents program in the past year:
Simon Ang of the University of Arkansas, was arrested on Friday and charged on Monday with wire fraud. He worked for and received funding from Chinese companies and from the Thousand Talents program, which awards grants to scientists to encourage relationships with the Chinese government, and he warned an associate to keep his affiliation with the program quiet, court papers said.
He kept the financial arrangements secret, allowing him to secure other grants from American government agencies, including NASA, that the Chinese funding made him ineligible for, according to court documents.
The other professor, Dr. Xiao-Jiang Li, a former professor at Emory University in Atlanta, pleaded guilty on Friday to a felony charge of filing a false tax return that omitted about $500,000 that he received from the Thousand Talents program. He was sentenced to a year of probation and ordered to pay $35,089 in restitution.
Dr. Xiao-Jiang Li, the professor Dr. Ang allegedly told to keep quiet, was fired (along with his wife) from Emory University last May. The government claimed that they had both failed to disclose funding from China, but at the time Dr. Xiao-Jiang denied that he had done anything wrong:
Li Xiao-Jiang disputed Emory’s claim, made in a university statement yesterday, that the two researchers “had failed to fully disclose foreign sources of research funding and the extent of their work for research institutions and universities in China.”…
“I have disclosed my Chinese research activity to Emory University each year since 2012,” Li Xiao-Jiang said. “I have provided documents requested by Emory University during the investigation of my research activity in China since early November 2018.” He also stated that he has not received “any copy of investigation that was sent to NIH by Emory, though I have requested Emory to give it to me.”
Now that he has pleaded guilty to leaving $500,000 off his income taxes it’s clear he was lying through his teeth all along.
Similarly, last August University of Kansas professor Franklin Tao was accused of signing and then hiding a five-year contract to work at a Chinese university. He has also denied any wrongdoing. A superseding indictment was filed against Tao in January. Tao’s attorney is apparently telling a very different story about what happened:
A motion to dismiss the original indictment filed by Tao’s attorneys on Nov. 17 claims that a “disgruntled, unpaid visiting scholar at KU” tried to extort $300,000 from Tao, then hacked into his email and “fabricated complaints” to KU and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Tao is on administrative leave from his position as a professor of chemical engineering, KU spokesperson Andy Hyland says.
In January of this year, Dr. Charles Lieber of Harvard was arrested for failing to disclose payments from China of $50,000 per month from the Thousand Talents Program. Dr. Lieber is also on administrative leave.
And in February, associate professor Anming Hu was arrested and charged with hiding his connection to a university in Beijing even as he worked at the University of Tennessee.
That’s all the arrests of professors that I’m aware of but there have been similar cases involving Chinese nationals who were looking to use their positions for espionage. Last November, Hongjin Tan pleaded guilty to stealing information from Phillips 66:
Hongjin Tan, 36, stole information regarding the manufacture of a “research and development downstream energy market product” that is worth more than $1 billion, the department said in a statement. The department identified the company where he worked as Phillips 66 in court documents filed in Oklahoma…
An FBI affidavit said Phillips 66 called the agency in December 2018 to report the theft of trade secrets, around the same time that Tan told a former co-worker he was going back to China. Tan was arrested before he could return.
All of this makes me wonder how many more professors and researchers out there have not been caught yet. Clearly it’s a lot easier for China to simply offer to buy trade secrets and academic research than it is to try to send spies to get it for them.