An Ohio State researcher tried to convince FBI agents that his three large bags, one small suitcase and a briefcase containing two laptops, three cell phones, several USB drives, several silver bars, expired Chinese passports for his family, and deeds for property in China were for a trip to visit his sick father.
But the FBI said he was fleeing the country after using millions of federal funding to develop research for China.
The researcher and professor at the university, Song Guo Zheng, was charged Thursday with using more than $4.1 million in federal grants to funnel research back to China to help the country develop expertise in rheumatology and immunology. He was also charged with making false statements about being employed in China at the same time as he was employed at U.S. universities, including Ohio State, according to a press release from the U.S. Southern District of Ohio Attorney General’s Office.
“Yet again, we are faced with a professor at a U.S. University, who is a member of a Chinese Talent Plan, allegedly and deliberately failing to disclose his relationship with a Chinese university and receipt of funds from the Chinese Government in order to obtain millions of dollars in U.S. grant money designed to benefit the health and well-being of the people of the United States — not to be hijacked to supplement the research goals of the Chinese Communist Party,” John C. Demers, assistant attorney general for National Security, said in the release.
An attorney for Zheng declined to comment on the matter.
The Chinese Talent Plan, also known as the Thousand Talent Plan, is a program the Chinese government uses to recruit scientists, academics and other experts to conduct work in China, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Zheng was arrested at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport May 22 after customs and border patrol agents noticed he handed off a few of his bags to another passenger.
When the agents stopped the other passenger, they found Zheng’s personal electronic devices inside. In an affidavit unsealed Thursday, an FBI Special Agent said he believed Zheng was doing this “in an attempt to prevent the U.S. Government from gaining access to these items.”
When Zheng was first questioned, he said he was going to China to retire but then changed his reasoning when he was questioned later, saying he was visiting his sick father. Customs agents were able to determine that Zheng did not have a return ticket to the U.S.
In the affidavit, the FBI agent said Zheng appeared to be desperate to leave the U.S. quickly and “utilized powerful or influential friends in order to obtain a seat on a private charter flight and ensure it was able to leave the US.”
Nine days before Zheng was arrested in Alaska, Ohio State confronted Zheng about his possible failure to fully disclose all potential conflict of interests after the university was notified by the National Institutes of Health of the potential conflicts.
In a statement, a university spokesperson said Zheng was placed on unpaid leave and the university is “proceeding towards termination.” The university was unable to make additional comments because of the ongoing investigation.
Zheng came to Ohio State in 2019 and was the endowed Ronald L. Whisler M.D. Chair in Rheumatology and Immunology and a researcher at the College of Medicine. While employed at the university, Zheng was also employed at a hospital at Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou, China, which he did not disclose to Ohio State or NIH.
He filed two conflict of interest disclosures at Ohio State, according to the affidavit. But he did not disclose the Chinese grant funding though university policy requires him to do so.
FBI agents also found a “Comfort Letter” from 2018 in Zheng’s luggage. The letter was addressed to Pennsylvania State University from Sun Yat-Sen University. The FBI Special Agent noted that other comfort letters have been given to members of the Chinese talent plan program, of which Zheng was a member, to “comfort” the members’ employers by stating their obligations and affiliations with the talent plan has ended, when, in fact, they haven’t.
Zheng faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted on both counts.
Other researchers have been charged with similar crimes.
In late January, Harvard researcher Charles Lieber was charged with one count of making a false statement after investigators accuse him of lying about his involvement with the talent plan and a Chinese university. Investigators also said Lieber did not disclose his foreign funding as a conflict of interest.
The U.S. government’s response to China’s talent plan has been criticized by some, describing it as “heavy-handed.”
“It’s symbolic,” Frank Wu, president of Queens College, City University of New York, told NPR in February. “This is a case that’s all about U.S.-China relations. It’s about competition.”