WASHINGTON—When Assistant Secretary of State David Stilwell told China’s ambassador that the Houston consulate must close within 72 hours, he delivered a related message: Remove all Chinese military researchers now in the U.S.
The July 21 order on the researchers, which hasn’t been previously reported, was the culmination of months of rising concern in the Trump administration over what U.S. officials depict as an intelligence-gathering operation aided by Chinese diplomats to collect cutting-edge scientific research from American universities.
The alleged sources for that intelligence, according to U.S. officials and court documents filed in related cases, were Chinese postgraduate researchers in areas such as biomedicine and artificial intelligence who had, to varying degrees, hidden from immigration authorities their active-duty statuses with the People’s Liberation Army.
Investigations are in early stages, and much about the events leading to the consulate’s closure remains classified and hard to assess. But U.S. officials say the interactions between researchers and Chinese diplomats spurred the action to close it.
One cause for U.S. suspicion was the way Chinese diplomats behaved after the White House decided in May to restrict future visas for such researchers. When the Federal Bureau of Investigation began questioning some of them, Chinese officials began to extract the researchers from the U.S. and offered instructions that U.S. officials say would be unusual for diplomats simply dealing with academics who had decided to return home.
In one instance, researchers brought to the Chinese Embassy in Washington were told to delete or reset all their electronic devices because they would be interviewed by U.S. officers at the airport, prosecutors allege in court papers.
In another, Chinese diplomats misled the State Department about a visit to Indiana, in which they counseled an artificial-intelligence doctoral student that the U.S. government might contact him because of his military background, which he hadn’t disclosed on his visa application, according to an FBI affidavit. Lying on a visa application is a federal crime.
Discussions had been under way in the Trump administration over potentially closing a Chinese consulate to counter a range of behavior, including what it views as a Beijing-directed campaign to fulfill the country’s military and technological ambitions in ways that jeopardize U.S. national security.
China’s Foreign Ministry said its diplomats “have never engaged in activities incompatible with their status.” China denies U.S. accusations of intellectual-property theft, characterizing the clash as political.
After the Houston consulate was ordered to close, China shut the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, bringing already-tense relations between the U.S. and China to a new low.
China has four remaining consulates in the U.S. as well as its embassy in Washington. The U.S. also has four remaining consulates and an embassy in mainland China.
The Justice Department in recent weeks has charged four Chinese researchers in federal court with visa fraud. Two have pleaded not guilty, and two haven’t entered pleas.
The government’s evidence hasn’t yet been presented to the defense attorneys of the accused.
In some of the cases, the researchers did little to hide their Chinese military affiliations, using email addresses from Chinese military institutions or listing employment at a Chinese military university on a résumé—signs they might have viewed their research as part of a longstanding system of U.S.-China academic exchanges.
In one case, a Chinese biomedical researcher in San Francisco, who is accused of lying about holding the equivalent rank of major in the PLA, told investigators he was under orders from a supervisor in China to study the exact layout of the lab where he worked to replicate it at home, according to court documents. He also said he had a designated contact at China’s consulate in San Francisco, the documents say.
U.S. officials believe Chinese military-affiliated researchers represent a small sliver of the approximately 370,000 Chinese who study in the U.S. as part of international academic exchanges. Prior to President Trump’s May order, the State Department had very limited authority to deny visas to foreign scholars unless they sought to work on controlled or classified research.
The Trump administration early on began to broaden the definition of areas deemed of interest to U.S. national security. Bipartisan consensus has been building since the end of the Obama administration for a more aggressive Washington approach to relations with Beijing, which has been growing more hostile toward the U.S. and its allies.
In recent weeks the White House has accelerated the campaign, including by ordering planned bans on some of the most popular apps made by Chinese tech firms and further restricting telecommunications firm Huawei Technologies Co. from obtaining U.S. components necessary for its survival.
In academia, the administration has sought to curtail Chinese government programs that fund research in the U.S. by probing a lack of disclosures by academics who also apply for U.S. taxpayer-funded research grants.
In January, Charles Lieber, a Harvard University pioneer in nanotechnology, was charged with lying to U.S. government investigators when asked about more than $1.5 million he received in Chinese backing. He has pleaded not guilty and the case is expected to go to trial. A lawyer for Mr. Lieber said he is innocent. “We will not let Professor Lieber be used as part of anyone’s political agenda,” the lawyer, Marc Mukasey, said.
The same day, the Justice Department unveiled an indictment against a Chinese researcher at Boston University who prosecutors allege failed to disclose that she was a lieutenant in the Chinese army in what served as a preview of the summer’s moves. That researcher had already left the country.
Harvard and Boston University said they have cooperated in the investigations.
On May 29, Mr. Trump announced the ban on new visas for graduate-level and above researchers who have worked to support China’s military buildup.
Admissions made by one researcher as he was trying to leave the U.S. prompted authorities to scrutinize such researchers already in the country. The FBI since June has interviewed some 50 researchers in 30 cities that they believe are in the Chinese military.
Mr. Trump’s order appeared to startle China. “They started to scramble,” said one U.S. official. Chinese diplomats began to behave in what the U.S. officials viewed as unusual ways, and researchers started to quickly leave the country.
Two days after the order, a chartered flight that Chinese diplomats told U.S. officials would carry Chinese students home amid coronavirus travel restrictions departed Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport. U.S. officials said they later realized military researchers were among the passengers.
One week later, Wang Xin, a visiting biomedical researcher at the University of California, San Francisco was pulled aside by Customs and Border Protection at the Los Angeles International Airport as he prepared to catch a flight with his wife and child to the Chinese city of Tianjin.
The university was aware Mr. Wang was employed at China’s Fourth Military Medical University, which was on his résumé, according to a UCSF spokeswoman. Mr. Wang informed the university in May he and 16 colleagues in the U.S. were being recalled, according to court documents.
Under questioning, Mr. Wang acknowledged he held a rank equivalent to major in the Chinese military and that he lied in saying on his visa application his service ended in 2016 to boost his chances of gaining admission to the U.S., according to the court filings.
He said he had a designated contact at the San Francisco consulate. He also said he had been told by his supervisor in China to copy the layout of his lab. Federal agents later found files of UCSF research on his computer and other devices that authorities allege he intended to share with his colleagues in China, according to court documents. He admitted he had wiped clean his chat history on
the Chinese messaging service, according to the documents.
Mr. Wang was charged with visa fraud and pleaded not guilty during a Zoom appearance from the Santa Rita jail. His attorney declined to comment.
A few weeks after Mr. Wang’s arrest, the Chinese Embassy summoned a Chinese researcher at Duke University, identified only as “L.T.,” to Washington, U.S. prosecutors allege. There, the filings say, she and four others met with a man they called by the Chinese honorific “teacher,” who instructed them to delete or reset their electronic devices.
At the Los Angeles airport on July 12, L.T. said personnel at China’s state-run Xiamen Airlines told her U.S. border protection officers were going to be interviewing her, and reminded her of the instruction to wipe her devices, the filings say. She used the WeChat app to call her embassy contact, who advised her to follow instructions and remain calm. L.T. was allowed to travel to China, the Justice Department said. Duke University declined to comment.
The next day, agents confronted Song Chen, a neurologist at Stanford University researching neuromuscular disorders, with a photo of her in a military uniform. She had listed a Chinese hospital as her employer on her visa application, according to court filings.
She also had been in touch with the Chinese consulate in New York. A letter she addressed to the consulate said she had received authorization from the PLA air force to extend her stay in the U.S. and acknowledged that she lied about her employer on her visa application, prosecutors allege.
Agents found the letter in a folder she had deleted from her hard drive, according to the court filings. Prosecutors see this as evidence of her Chinese military affiliation and of deception aided by consulate officials.
She was charged with visa fraud. An attorney for Ms. Song and a Stanford spokeswoman declined to comment.
On July 17, officials from China’s Chicago consulate traveled some 250 miles to Bloomington, Ind. Consulate officials are required to explain any travel more than 25 miles from their home base; in this instance, they told the State Department they were meeting with a woman to deliver student health supplies. They left out that they would meet with an Indiana University doctoral student in artificial intelligence who hadn’t disclosed his military affiliation on his visa application, prosecutors alleged.
The meeting lasted 45 minutes in a public park near the student’s apartment, according to FBI agents who monitored the contact. The consulate officials warned the student, Zhao Kaikai, that the U.S. government might contact him because of his military background, Mr. Zhao later told the FBI, prosecutors said.
A trash can next to his bed held documents ripped up by hand, and a search of his electronic devices, seized from his home and workspace at the school, found he had deleted nearly all WeChat content before July 11, prosecutors alleged.
An attorney for Mr. Zhao said: “If words were adequate to express my dismay at the direction the [Justice Department] has taken in these cases, I might find a few.”
An Indiana University spokesman declined to comment beyond confirming that Mr. Zhao was a Ph.D. candidate in the school’s informatics program.
The Chinese consulate in San Francisco took in another researcher, Tang Juan, after she was questioned by FBI agents in mid-June about her denial on her visa application that she was ever in the Chinese military, when a photo on the internet showed her in uniform.
She was at the University of California, Davis to conduct cancer research on a Chinese government scholarship. Prosecutors said a later search of Ms. Tang’s electronic devices turned up Chinese military documents that allegedly detailed her research “related to antidotes for biological agents.”
Ms. Tang stayed at the consulate for a month but was arrested by the FBI leaving a local medical facility on July 23.
Ms. Tang’s attorneys said she went to the consulate to ask for assistance after being questioned and that consulate employees believed Ms. Tang, who suffers from asthma, needed to be seen by a doctor because of the distress of learning of the warrant for her arrest.
She pleaded not guilty to charges of visa fraud and false statements. A lawyer for Ms. Tang said in a statement that she came to the U.S. “solely for the purpose of scientific study.”
A UC Davis School of Medicine spokesman said Ms. Tang’s work was in the research laboratory for radiation oncology and that the school was cooperating with authorities on the case.
Officials in the Justice Department and elsewhere in the Trump administration saw a pattern of behavior they believed jeopardized U.S. national security and justified action against China’s diplomats.
“The consulates were directing PLA associates on how to avoid detection and what materials to erase on their phone,” said John Demers, Assistant Attorney General for National Security, in an interview. “We deduced from that, OK, this is part of a much bigger effort than maybe we were even aware of.”
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