Earlier this week, the U.S. Department of Justice filed charges against a visiting Chinese researcher at Stanford who allegedly lied on her visa application to conceal her active status in the Chinese military. And as part of the court filing supporting the need to detain her, the FBI detailed a separate case in which another supposed researcher with ties to the People's Liberation Army who had been at UC Davis has disappeared, likely into the Chinese consulate in San Francisco, where they say she is being harbored.
The case of Chen Song was reported earlier this week by the SF Chronicle and others, after visa fraud charges were filed against her. Chen, 38, is a neurologist who entered the U.S. on a work-study visa in December 2018, and had been working at Stanford on research into a brain disease known as myasthenia gravis. Investigators have no identified her through photographs and other evidence as an active member of the Chinese military who had been studying the disease at a Chinese Air Force hospital prior to coming to the U.S. — and she allegedly lied to U.S. Customs and Border Control on her visa application, stating she had only been active in the military until 2011 and her current employer was a civilian hospital.
Chen is one of multiple agents of the Chinese government whom U.S. intelligence has identified as conducting clandestine scientific espionage at university hospitals on behalf of the People's Republic of China. In several documented cases, these researchers have been attempting to flee the country back to China in recent weeks. And in the court memorandum concerning Chen's case, the feds have pointed to several of these cases, including one concerning Tang Juan.
Axios first reported on the court filing, noting how unusual and diplomatically dicey it would be for the Chinese government to harbor a suspect like Tang in a consulate — and diplomatic tensions are currently on the rise with China after the Trump administration ordered the closure of their consulate in Houston.
"The FBI assesses that, at some point following the search and interview of Tang on June 20, 2020, Tang went to the Chinese consulate in San Francisco, where the FBI assesses she has remained," the prosecutors write.
Tang also allegedly lied on her visa application in order to obtain a student visa, and as the Associated Press reports, prosecutors found evidence of her active military affiliation during a search of her home.
Another man identified as a Chinese military major, Xin Wang, was taken into custody in early June at Los Angeles International Airport, where he was trying to board a flight to Tianjin, China. As KPIX reported, Wang had been working in a lab at UCSF and was trying to bring back design plans for the lab to the Chinese military. Under questioning by U.S. agents, Wang admitted to lying on his visa application, and admitted to being an active PLA member.
Wang's case, along with Tang's and another woman identified as L.T. who had been working in a lab at Duke University and who was attempting to flee through LAX on July 12, was cited as evidence that Chen Song was a flight risk.
The court filing says that all of these cases appear to be "part of a program conducted by the PLA — and specifically, FMMU [Fourth Military Medical University] or associated institutions—to send military scientists to the United States on false pretenses with false covers or false statements about their true employment." These agents of the military were also apparently instructed to delete any incriminating data from their personal devices before attempting to leave the U.S.
Allegations about research theft by the Chinese government go back a long time, and are not just confined to coronavirus research. According to a report that was covered by the Associated Press back in November, the Chinese government has been systematically stealing intellectual property from American academic institutions for at least 20 years — and pandemic travel restrictions and rising diplomatic tensions may have just led to a number of these covert agents getting recalled all at once, as soon as flights to China resumed last month.
"The U.S. academic community is in the crosshairs of not only foreign competitors contending for the best and brightest, but also of foreign nation states that seek to transfer valuable intellectual capital and steal intellectual property,” the report stated. “As the academic community looks to the federal government for guidance and direction on mitigating threats, the U.S. government must provide effective, useful, timely and specific threat information and tools to counter the threats."