A NASA-funded scientist has been charged with fraud and conspiracy, federal prosecutors announced Monday, saying he was working as a Chinese researcher at the same time he was taking U.S. government money.
The FBI says Zhengdong Cheng hid his Chinese associations, including being part of China’s Thousands Talents Program that seeks to illicitly siphon U.S. research. If his involvement had been known, he wouldn’t have been allowed on the NASA-funded project.
So he lied about his ties to Texas A&M University, where he was working and which had the NASA contract, the government charged.
“Once again, we have witnessed the criminal consequences that can arise from undisclosed participation in the Chinese government’s talent program,” said John C. Demers, assistant attorney general for national security.
“China is building an economy and academic institutions with bricks stolen from others all around the world,” said Ryan K. Patrick, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Texas, where the case was brought.
The NASA research gave Mr. Cheng access to International Space Station resources, FBI Special Agent Benjamin Harper wrote.
He was able to improve his standing in the eyes of China’s Thousands Talents Program, the FBI said.
The charges are the latest in a string of cases the Trump administration has brought against scientists it says are double-dipping, working for American universities or companies while also in the employ of China, and funneling the research back to Beijing-controlled interests.
Federal law for some years has barred NASA research contracts from going to entities or people with ties to China.
The law specifically includes Chinese universities, which are run under the purview of the central government’s Ministry of Education, in that prohibition. Mr. Cheng was a professor and then director of an institute at Guangdong University of Technology, the FBI said.
Mr. Cheng is charged with conspiracy, wire fraud and making a false statement.
“This is pretty simple: If you work for NASA, you can’t work for Chairman Xi,” said Sen. Ben Sasse, Nebraska Republican. “The Chinese Communist Party has a strategy to lie, cheat and steal its way to technological dominance, and we can’t let that happen. This arrest is good news and it ought to be a warning to others not to get into bed with Beijing.”