A female Chinese military officer was charged with spying while posing as a student at Boston University, but was able to flee the country after FBI agents interviewed her about her links to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
PLA Lt. Ye Yanqing was indicted in a separate criminal case involving Dr. Charles Lieber, chairman of Harvard’s chemistry department, who was arrested on Tuesday and charged with lying about receiving tens of thousands of dollars from the Wuhan University of Technology and lying to the Pentagon about the foreign money.
The involvement of Lt. Ye and two other senior PLA officers highlights the Chinese military’s involvement in Beijing’s large-scale program of recruiting foreign specialists.
A third Chinese national who was arrested last month, Zheng Zhaosong, was indicted for attempting to smuggle biological research samples while working as a researcher at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.
Lt. Ye falsely stated in visa documents that she was a student and did not disclose her active-duty PLA position, according to court papers. She was charged with acting as a foreign government agent, visa fraud, making false statements to investigators and conspiracy.
Investigators say Lt. Ye was under control of “senior leaders of the PLA while conducting research at Boston University pursuant to a J-1 non-immigrant visa.” Those leaders include one colonel and a second lower-ranking officer who were professors at China’s National University of Defense Technology in Harbin, China.
Lt. Ye was tasked by the PLA to gather intelligence on U.S. military websites and send documents and information back to China. The indictment said Lt. Ye also lied on her visa application when she denied engaging in espionage, sabotage and export control violations in the United States.
FBI and Customs and Border Protection agents questioned Lt. Ye on April 20, 2019, at Boston’s Logan International Airport, and the indictment charged that she lied about having links with PLA officers at the university. However, she admitted to being a PLA officer and member of the Communist Party of China.
A search of her electronic devices revealed extensive spying and contacts, including through the messaging service WeChat.
Investigators discovered that she had supplied the PLA with information on two U.S. experts in robotics and computer science.
Lt. Ye worked on one project that “focused on a risk-assessment model designed to assist the PLA in deciphering data for military applications,” the indictment says.
The interview apparently tipped off Lt. Ye that she was under investigation and ended her work at Boston University’s Department of Physics, Chemistry and Biomedical Engineering, where she worked from October 2017 until last April. The Justice Department said Tuesday in announcing the case that Lt. Ye was “currently in China.”
The arrests and indictments are the latest in a series of Justice Department actions against Chinese high-tech spying and technology theft, estimated by the White House to involve transfers of information worth between $250 billion and $600 billion annually.
Earlier this month, a University of Kansas professor, Tao Feng, was indicted for secretly working for a Chinese university while working on projects funded by the Energy Department and National Science Foundation. In September, the FBI arrested a Chinese official in New Jersey, Liu Zhongsan, on visa fraud charges as part of a covert program to recruit American experts in high-technology research fields.