A search by U.S. authorities for Chinese researchers with ties to China’s military is leading to intensifying cat-and-mouse tactics involving what prosecutors say are foiled escapes, evidence tossed into a dumpster and a chase through an airport.
FBI agents have questioned dozens of researchers this summer about their work and military affiliations. In recent weeks, the widening operation has triggered efforts by some suspects to evade authorities and led to the arrest of at least two researchers whose work is allegedly tied to China’s military development, according to court filings by prosecutors.
In one case, a researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles studying artificial intelligence is accused by federal prosecutors of destroying evidence sought by the FBI in an investigation into potential technology theft. The researcher, Guan Lei, threw a damaged computer hard drive in a dumpster days after he was stopped from leaving the U.S. at Los Angeles International Airport, prosecutors allege.
In another, a scientist researching fluid dynamics at the University of Virginia is charged with stealing proprietary software code under development for two decades by his adviser, who received U.S. Navy funding. The adviser told investigators that Hu Haizhou, whom U.S. authorities prevented from boarding a flight in Chicago last month, hadn’t informed him he planned to return to China, prosecutors allege in filings in his case.
Messrs. Guan and Hu, arrested separately in late August, are in custody and have yet to enter pleas. A lawyer for Mr. Hu said that in his experience trade secrets charges are “typically overstated.” Mr. Guan’s lawyer didn’t respond to a request for comment. In an affidavit Mr. Guan filed in a related proceeding, he said he spoke with the FBI because he “had nothing to hide” and he believes he was targeted because of the “political climate between China and the U.S.”
Mr. Guan’s fiancée, Yang Zhihui, a Chinese national studying computer science at the University of California, Irvine, was arrested running through the Los Angeles airport to board a flight to China on Aug. 31, even though her lawyer had agreed she would surrender for detention as a witness against Mr. Guan, prosecutors said. Her lawyer said Ms. Yang is a law-abiding student being “jailed in a foreign country, with a complex and very different legal system.”
The FBI sweep launched in June factored into the U.S. decision to close China’s consulate in Houston, after authorities suspected that Chinese diplomats were assisting some of the scholars with evading investigators. On July 21, when the State Department ordered the consulate closed, it also told the Chinese ambassador to get the remaining military researchers out of the country, The Wall Street Journal has reported.
China’s Foreign Ministry has said its diplomats “have never engaged in activities incompatible with their status,” and Beijing has denied U.S. accusations of intellectual-property theft, characterizing them as political. The Chinese Embassy didn’t respond to a request for comment on the latest cases.
At least four cases the Justice Department filed in the weeks leading to the consulate closure accuse researchers of visa fraud for concealing their military ties. Two have pleaded not guilty while two have yet to enter pleas.
The latest cases appear to involve research with military applications that China’s People’s Liberation Army is trying to develop.
Mr. Guan’s research centers on machine learning, an artificial intelligence field. One of his advisers at China’s National University of Defense Technology is a lieutenant general and a leading figure in the PLA’s supercomputer program, according to an FBI affidavit filed with his criminal complaint.
The U.S. and China are competing to develop supercomputers, which have broad uses from climate modeling to nuclear weapons development. Mr. Guan’s defense university is on a Commerce Department blacklist and is suspected of trying to acquire U.S. technology for its supercomputer programs, the FBI affidavit said. The adviser, Lt. Gen. Lu Xicheng, wrote in an article published last year that China must improve its basic research to close the technology gap with other countries.
Neither the university nor Mr. Lu responded to requests for comment.
Mr. Hu, who works for a military-funded lab at Beihang University in Beijing, was researching underwater robotics, according to an FBI affidavit. The code prosecutors accuse him of stealing was developed by his University of Virginia adviser, who runs a collaborative program with other schools funded by the Office of Naval Research.
In an interview with Customs and Border Protection officers at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport on Aug. 25, Mr. Hu admitted he had code on his laptop that his adviser would be upset to learn he had, the affidavit said. Beihang University didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The professor, who wasn’t identified in court filings, told the FBI he had repeatedly denied Mr. Hu’s requests to access his code and didn’t know how he obtained it, according to the affidavit. He told authorities Mr. Hu “had left UVA to return to China without contacting him to bid him farewell, which he found unusual,” the filing said.
A university spokesman said the school is cooperating with law enforcement. The U.S. Office of Naval Research didn’t respond to a request for comment.
At UCLA, Mr. Guan was working in the math department and studied “an optimization algorithm and its application in machine learning,” the criminal complaint said. His supervising professor told FBI agents he wasn’t alarmed by Mr. Guan’s activities and couldn’t think of military or proprietary applications that he might have unlawfully accessed at UCLA.
Though the professor isn’t identified in the complaint, a UCLA webpage for mathematics department professor Yin Wotao earlier listed Mr. Guan as a visiting graduate student. Mr. Yin, whose school webpage last week said he is on leave at a U.S. unit of Chinese e-commerce company
Alibaba Group Holding,
didn’t respond to a request for comment. Alibaba declined to comment.
A UCLA spokesman said the university is cooperating with the investigation.
The FBI over the past year has focused more attention on Chinese scholars whose work in the U.S. it believes may be leading to theft of research secrets. As researchers with military backgrounds became targets this summer, Chinese diplomats warned some of them about the FBI sweep and urged them to wipe clean their electronic devices and social media chats, according to Justice Department filings in several of the cases.
On July 17, FBI agents interviewed Mr. Guan at his Irvine apartment, and he consented to a search of his laptop on site and to two phones, saying he had no other digital storage devices, according to the affidavit. It said the phones and laptops had been recently reformatted leaving little previous data.
Two days later, Mr. Guan went to the Los Angeles airport, and border protection officers questioned him as he tried to board a flight to China, including asking if he had been in touch with a Chinese consulate or embassy. He said he hadn’t, according to the complaint.
The complaint cites records showing Mr. Guan exchanged multiple emails with the Chinese consulate in Los Angeles and embassy in Washington, D.C. in June and July in which he expressed concerns about the defense university’s status on the U.S. blacklist and requested help getting back to China. The FBI accessed the emails through a search warrant served on Google, according to the affidavit, which said Mr. Guan contacted the Los Angeles consulate at the email address firstname.lastname@example.org.
Border protection officers served him with an order stating his “departure would be prejudicial to the interests of the United States,” according to the complaint.
A week later, Mr. Guan took a circuitous walk around his apartment complex in Irvine, stopped beside a dumpster, pulled an object from his sock and tossed it in, the complaint said, citing FBI surveillance. His fiancée, Yang Zhihui, stood lookout, it said.
FBI agents later retrieved a small hard drive from the dumpster that fit the laptop previously searched in Mr. Guan’s apartment, the complaint said. It said the drive bore extensive damage and had been deliberately wiped clean of data.
When FBI agents came to arrest Mr. Guan a month later, according to a filing seeking his detention, he refused to cooperate, “requiring them to knock down his door to effect the arrest,” it said.