Do Visiting Researchers Travel to the U.S. with Alternative Motives?

Clinical Trials

The U.S. Department of Justice is charging researchers, including one associated with the University of California, Davis, and one with University of California, San Francisco, with visa fraud as they are purported to have lied about ties to the People’s Republic of China’s military. These are serious charges, in violation of 18 U.S.C § 1546(a), and they carry penalties of up to 10 years in prison and a fine of $250,000.

Targets have included California universities; for example, the U.S. Marshal Service arrested 37-year-old Juan Tang, who worked at UC Davis. Tang was supposedly seeking refuge at the Chinese consulate in San Francisco and now is in Sacramento County Jail. Also, a complaint against Xin Wang was unsealed June 8, 2020. This individual entered the U.S. on March 26, 2019 based on a J1 non-immigrant visa, with the stated purpose of conducting scientific research at University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). Apparently, he described one reality as he entered the country, but upon an interview with the U.S. Customers and Border Protection (CBP) at LAX, he acknowledged he was still employed in a military lab. The purported goal: study the layout of a specific UCSF lab so that it can be recreated back in China. Wang has been in custody since June 8. Other individuals include Chen Song and Kaikai Zaho, both purported to be members of China’s military.

The Charges

According to the Department of Justice (DOJ) press release, these four individuals have been charged with visa fraud, with a scheme to lie about their status as members of the People’s Republic of China military forces, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), while in the United States conducting research. Apparently, three of the individuals are in custody, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is seeking the fourth who is categorized as a fugitive from justice and is holed up at the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco. 

Are these Researchers Spies, One-Off ‘Hacks,’ or ‘Pawns’ in a Bigger Game?

There is no doubt that tensions between the United States and China are growing. TrialSite early on identified that there is generally a growing jingoistic spirit around the world in regards to combating the virus. Resurgent nationalism aside, spying isn’t OK regardless of who is behind it. 

The key allegation here is that researchers are applying for visas in the U.S. to do research, while actually making the trip for other intentions. The latest batch caught up in the dragnet don’t appear that particularly smart or cunning. Would trained intelligence operatives contradict themselves so quickly? Or perhaps China is, in reality, sending waves of pawns to collect as much information as possible. This seems reckless and not very strategic, but it could very well be the scenario.  

The United States has traditionally been a free and open society, and it is vitally important to keep it that way. Openness and kindness can’t be mistaken for weakness. On the other hand, U.S. mass media shouldn’t turn this into a frenzy based on the issuance of press releases; the courts will determine the facts and apply the law.

Federal Operation

Free and open societies, collaborating on progressing the human condition, is what humanity must strive for. However, these are challenging times—they were even before the pandemic, and now with internal tensions building in American society, federal agencies are on high alert.

So while authorities understand the importance of maintaining an openness to students, academics, and researchers from all over the world, federal agencies now apply closer scrutiny on those coming from certain parts of the world, namely China. 

John Brown, Executive Assistant Director of the FBI’s National Security Branch, suggests that the openness inherent to American society is considered, by some,  an opportunity for espionage as China considers itself in a race to transform itself into a scientific and technological super power.  Brown and his team are now on record, after interviewing people in 25 cities, that a pattern has emerged where members of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army come to do research on one pretense, but in fact have another research agenda—namely spying to obtain intellectual property.  

Research by the Rule of Law

A heightened sense of fear, uncertainty and doubt spooks many honest, hardworking and influential Chinese-originated researchers. Regardless of how intense tensions appear, the Rule of Law must reign supreme. Growing reports of bias and prejudice toward Asians have no place in the U.S. 

The deep, resounding, and enduring principles embodied in the ever-lasting foundation founded in the United States Constitution represents the underlying basis for the ongoing exceptional American experiment. The authorities understand that America must be kept open for medical research to continue this dynamic, unfolding, and enduring experience. The recent tensions and arrests should serve as a deterrent, so that researchers traveling to whichever country follow the rules and laws of that particular country.