Communist influence? 14 profs busted for China connections in 2020

Multiple university academics were arrested, indicted, or sentenced in 2020 over their alleged China ties.

These cases come amid questions over the influence that the Chinese Communist Party wields over academia.

Multiple professors and researchers have been exposed for their alleged ties to China in 2020. Ranging from allegedly lying to federal authorities, to attempting to steal proprietary research and information, the past months have shown several alleged secret Chinese agents working in American higher education.

1. Chinese national arrested for smuggling Harvard cancer research in a sock

In January, Chinese national and Harvard University medical student Zhaosong Zheng was arrested for allegedly attempting to smuggle cancer research, which the university had been working on for years.

He was reported to have received multiple payments from the Chinese Scholarship Council. FBI agent Kara Spice stated, “I believe, based on my training and experience, that Zheng’s appointment at (Beth Israel) was not an accident, and that he was knowingly gathering and collecting intellectual property from BIDMC, possibly on behalf of the Chinese government.” 

2. Former Harvard chemistry chair faces more charges stemming from alleged China ties

Former Harvard University Chemistry Department chair Charles Lieber allegedly lied about his ties to the Wuhan Institute of Technology.

In July, prosecutors filed additional charges against Lieber, alleging that he lied on his tax returns and failed to report foreign bank accounts.

3. Researcher lies about grant applications, uses funds to develop medicine for China

A former Ohio State and Penn State University researcher was arrested in May while attempting to fly from Alaska to China.   The researcher admitted to lying to federal authorities, admitting to having used federal grant funds as well as misusing his research.

4. UVA researcher arrested after allegedly stealing ‘trade secrets’ for China

A researcher at the University of Virginia was arrested in September for having stolen confidential and secure trade secrets from the university. Haizhou Hu was apprehended as he was about to board a plane bound for China.

According to the FBI, the researcher was caught having been in “possession of bio-inspired research simulation software code that he was not authorized to possess.”

5. Arkansas professor indicted for alleged secret China ties

A professor with alleged ties to China was indicted on two counts of passport fraud, and 42 counts of wire fraud. U.S. authorities he “received money and benefits from China” 

FBI Special Agent Diane Upchurch stated, “the significant federal charges leveled against Simon Ang demonstrate how real the PRC’s pervasive threat is to Arkansan innovation and businesses.”

6. UCLA researcher arrested amid investigation into alleged China ties

A UCLA researcher was arrested in August for having allegedly having transferred sensitive information to China, even attempting to dispose of a hard drive during the course of the investigation. 

The Department of Justice said 29-year-old Guan Lei ``falsely “den[ied] his association with the Chinese military” during interviews with federal law enforcement officials. 

Lei has since admitted that he participated in Chinese military training. 

7. U Kansas professor indicted for working for Communist Party of China

University of Kansas Associate Professor Feng Tao was indicted on two counts of wire fraud and one count of program fraud. The indictment stated that he “did not disclose any financial award accompanying his selection for the Changjiang Scholarship or salary for his appointment to FZU [Fuzhou University].” 

The indictment allegedly exposed Feng for his ties to the Changjang Professorship, which he joined in 2018, and is described as a “talent program sponsored by the PRC Government.”

8. Emory University medical research prof with secret ties to China

Court records unearthed in February alleged that Emory University neuroscientist Xiojiang Li did not disclose his ties to China, and was fired in 2019 for not having done so. 

Li allegedly had ties to the Thousand Talents Program, which U.S. officials have characterized as a violation of “U.S. standards of research integrity.” 

9. Univesity of Tennessee-Knoxville professor indicted over alleged secret ties to China

University of Tennessee-Knoxville associate professor and researcher Amning Hu was arrested in March for his alleged ties to China. He was charged with three accounts of wire fraud and three counts of making false statements. 

Hu allegedly made false statements in an attempt to obtain more federal funding from NASA, while “concealing his affiliation with Beijing University of Technology in China.”

10. West Virginia University professor caught shilling for China

WVU Professor James Lewis admitted to taking paid paternity leave so that he could work for the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Lewis was allegedly a part of China’s Thousand Talents Program, which the Department of Justice has said exists to “lure overseas talent and foreign experts to bring their knowledge and experience to China and reward individuals for stealing proprietary information.”

11. Former WVU prof admits to wire and tax fraud following official travel to China

In July, another West Virginia University professor, Qingyun Sun, pleaded guilty to wire and tax fraud after traveling to China. Qingyun also served as the Assistant Director of the US-China Energy Center at WVU.

He additionally served as the governor’s assistant for China affairs and worked for an energy conversion technology provider that operates in Virginia, but is based in Beijing.

12. Texas A&M prof, NASA researcher arrested for alleged China ties

Texas A&M professor and NASA researcher Zhengdong Cheng was arrested for alleged conspiracy, false statements, and wire fraud. 

According to the United States Department of Justice, Cheng allegedly “willfully took steps to obscure his affiliations and collaboration with a Chinese University and at least one Chinese-owned company.” 

13. Former employee of Texas A&M-connected lab sentenced over ties to China

In September, Turab Lookman was sentenced to probation for failing to disclose his ties to Beijing. Lookman served at a laboratory co-owned by Texas A&M University and the University of California. Lookman was found guilty after the FBI launched an investigation, which found him to be associated with the Chinese Thousand Talents Plan.

14. Western Reserve University professor the latest to be arrested over China ties

In May, Western Reserve University Professor Qing Wang was arrested for his alleged ties to China. Qing allegedly failed to disclose that he received large amounts of grant money from the National Science Foundation of China while receiving nearly identical U.S. grants.

National Association of Scholars Communications Coordinator Chance Layton said that  ”America’s colleges and universities are far too dependent on foreign nations.” Layton added that many university administrators rely on the sponsorship of programs from nations such as “Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Russia, China, and others.”

These international sponsors, he said, often “establish satellite campuses in these nations where students and professors are expected to abide by the host country’s limitations on free speech, academic freedom, and even human rights.” 

Layton said that universities “fear the public knowing how much influence our foreign adversaries have bought at their institutions” and that adversaries such as China, “have found a soft target in America’s colleges.”

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