Zaosong Zheng, 29, is a promising young Chinese researcher from Sun Yat-sen University who came to America to study with Beth Israel Hospital. With a focus on bladder and renal cancer, for a two-month study-abroad period. As Mr. Zheng was planning to depart back to China, Logan Airport customs found 21 vials of an unknown substance hidden in some socks. Upon detection from customs, and after lying about the matter, the suspect confessed on his plans to steal the vials and use them for research glory in China. Now he faces charges in the United States.
Just a pathetic tale. Beth Israel Hospital is open to an international study, and Mr. Zaosong Zheng had an incredible opportunity to not only study in the biotech hub of the world—Boston—but also establish a face-to-face social network with a world-recognized research center at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. Moreover, the suspect tarnishes the brand of a great Chinese University, Sun Yat-sen University.
Looks like a Clear Criminal Case
Zheng operated with mal intent while at Beth Israel—taking kindness for weakness. As it turned out during his confession while studying there, he stole eight vials of proprietary substance and that he had personally replicated another 11 vials based on another student there—Zhang Tao. It would appear his intent was sinister from the start of his visit as he only had a few months of study there—and that time was spent replicating others’ proprietary research. He acknowledged in his confession—after fabricating a silly story that no one could ever believe—that he planned to bring the stolen vials to his lab at Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hospital for further analysis. He admitted that this was the first thing he would do upon return to China. In an attempt to personalize this admission, he noted he would use the findings to write a paper in his name.
Lone Operator or Something more Sinister?
A real question here is whether Mr. Zheng acted alone or if he is part of a larger operation. In his confession, she tried to establish the lone operator story—declaring he was going to use the research to write a paper in his name. There could be some truth to this. After all, China’s R&D and biotech industry have transformed into a bare-knuckle, winner-take-all environment. Enormous wealth is now possible for scientific excellence translated into commercial success. With a published paper on advanced science (e.g., stolen from Boston, MA), he could become a scientific Rockstar and secure a high-paying job in China.
Or is this part of a bigger, more sinister plot? Could this be happening more frequently in research centers around the world? Could there be pressure placed on PhD students to find out things when they are abroad and bring them back home? There is evidence for pressure within China to establish an R&D and biotech hegemony. Perhaps this type of operation, if it is, in fact, more than just the lone operator scenario, could originate from a university or perhaps even trace back to subtle, or not so subtle government edict.
It is very important that Mr. Zheng is given a fair trial, and then if it is determined that he is guilty—appropriately punished for any wrongdoing. Hopefully, he will learn that it isn’t a good idea to take kindness for weakness and, importantly, to obey the rule of law wherever you reside. The U.S. represents the most open, dynamic, and promising R&D and biotech-related industry, and the openness and dynamism of the culture have been a major underpinning of that success. The subject of Chinese industrial/research espionage has created quite a bit of fear, uncertainty, and doubt with at least some major research centers in America. These institutions, and law enforcement, must remain vigilant. Still, they must also remember that the very reasons for success in America is its openness, diversity, and entrepreneurial and immigrant-infused culture. It must remain that way despite urges to put up more protections, create walls, and the like. Policies and procedures should tighten up, based on observed data points over the past years. Still, the spirit and underlying values of openness and advancement—with the world’s best talents (including China’s) must prevail in America.