The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) unsealed a criminal complaint on Monday against Zhengdong Cheng, a professor at Texas A&M University (TAMU) and a researcher for NASA who allegedly attempted to hide his connection to a Chinese university and a Chinese-owned business.
According to the affidavit filed with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District Court of Texas, Cheng was part of a research team that received a $750,000 grant from NASA.
Under the terms of the grant, participants were prohibited from “participating, collaborating, or coordinating bilaterally with China, any Chinese-owned company, or any Chinese university.”
The affidavit alleges that during and after the application process, Cheng hid his ties to China, including participation in various “Chinese Talent Plans” and an application to the Thousand Talents Plan (TTP).
China’s TTP aims to “provide financial support for outstanding scientists and leading experts who will work in China and play a leading role in the development of high-tech industries,” according to the University of Science and Technology of China, where Cheng allegedly applied for the program.
U.S. officials have expressed concerns that China is using the program as a way to facilitate intellectual property theft in developing technologies.
“Launched in 2008, the Thousand Talents Plan incentivizes individuals engaged in research and development in the United States to transmit the knowledge and research they gain here to China in exchange for salaries, research funding, lab space, and other incentives,” said a U.S. Senate staff report from the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.
The affidavit against Cheng argues that he sought to enrich himself with $87,000 of the NASA grant money, as well as take advantage of “access to the unique resources of the International Space Station” and other NASA resources in order to strengthen his application to the TTP.
“China is building an economy and academic institutions with bricks stolen from others all around the world,” said U.S. Attorney Ryan K. Patrick for the Southern District of Texas in a press release from the DOJ.
“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,” said Patrick.
“NASA’s funding restrictions are in place to protect taxpayer-financed research dollars and intellectual property,” said Mark Zielinski, the special agent in charge for the NASA Office of Inspector General (OIG) Eastern Field Office. “We will continue [to] pursue anyone who attempts to circumvent these guidelines and conceal affiliations with Chinese institutions and companies in order to obtain NASA grant money.”
Perrye Turner, the FBI Houston special agent in charge, thanked the TAMU system for “providing significant assistance through their partnership [. . .] throughout this case.”
The arrest of Cheng comes amidst continually high tensions with China.
In late July, the U.S. closed the Chinese consulate in Houston amidst concerns about intellectual property theft, and on Wednesday, the U.S. Department of State announced a new policy to impose visa restrictions on individuals involved in the Chinese militarization of the South China Sea.
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Daniel Friend is a reporter for The Texan. He participated in a Great Books program at Azusa Pacific University and graduated in 2019 with a degree in Political Science. He has studied C.S. Lewis’s science fiction trilogy and in his spare time you might find him writing his own novel partly inspired by the series.