Prof indicted over alleged secret ties to China

A professor and researcher at the University of Kansas was indicted on Wednesday for allegedly hiding ties to a Chinese university while doing U.S. government-funded research.

Feng Tao, an associate professor at the KU Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis has been employed by the CEBC since 2014. The CEBC aims to conduct research on creating technology for energy and natural resources conservation, according to the Department of Justice.

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“Tao is alleged to have defrauded the U.S. government by unlawfully receiving federal grant money at the same time that he was employed and paid by a Chinese research university — a fact that he hid from his university and federal agencies,” Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers said.  “Any potential conflicts of commitment by a researcher must be disclosed as required by law and university policies. The Department will continue to pursue any unlawful failure to do so.”

Tao is charged with three counts of program fraud and one count of wire fraud. If convicted on all counts, he faces a maximum sentence of up to 50 years in federal prison and $1 million in fines.  

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The indictment alleges that Tao signed a five-year contract with Fuzhou University in China May 2018, making him a full-time Changjiang Scholar Distinguished Professor at the institution. At the same time, however, Tao was conducting U.S. government funded research at KU. This included two contracts with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and four contracts with the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The Kansas Board of Regents requires annual conflict of interest reports from its faculty and staff. Tao “knowingly and intentionally submitted to the University false statements concerning his lack of a conflict of interest,” according to court documents cited by the Kansas City Star, and allegedly received $37,000 in salary from the DOE and NSF.

“We take these allegations very seriously,” Douglas A. Girod, KU Chancellor, said in a statement. “We learned of this potential criminal activity this spring, and we reported it to authorities and have cooperated with the ongoing investigation.”

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Campus Reform reached out to KU for further comment but did not receive a response in time for publication.

Controversial Chinese ties to American higher education have made headlines in recent months. 

A University of California, Los Angeles professor was recently found guilty of conspiring to steal missile secrets for China, which could land him up to 219 years in prison.

Rider University in New Jersey also agreed to sell one of its satellite campuses, Westminster Choir College, to Beijing Kaiwen Education Technology Co. Ltd., a Beijing-based education company, before backtracking on the transaction.

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Western Technical College in Wisconsin is also seeking to form a partnership with China’s Harbin University, even as the Trump administration has warned of the Chinese government’s alleged efforts to use Confucius Institutes, Chinese cultural and language centers, for propaganda purposes on American college campuses.

Dozens of Confucius Institutes are still active on college campuses.

As Campus Reform recently reported, many students trust the Chinese government more than  President Donald Trump.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @ethanycai