Another professor-cum-researcher has been taken into custody and charged with defrauding the United States by concealing his affiliation with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and payments made to him by that government, all while working on highly sensitive U.S. government projects. Although the charge is fraud and false statements, the real focus behind the charge is the loss of secrets and advanced technology on a large scale to Beijing.
The U.S. Department of Justice on Monday announced the arrest and indictment of Zhengdong Cheng, a Texas A&M University professor who was conducting research on behalf of NASA.
Cheng is charged with concealing his relationship with the PRC, along with his recruitment into its thinly disguised, bribes-for-secrets “Thousand Talents” program, which provides lucrative pay and research facilities to academics in return for them bringing with them their knowledge and expertise in programs that are of interest and use to China—even though in almost every case, the researcher who is lured into the program is conducting research into sensitive, often classified, areas in which they’ve been bound to secrecy by the United States in return for grants and access to other secrets to aid them in their work.
Cheng’s arrest is only the most recent in a spate of such arrests over the past several months as the United States has begun to crack down on Chinese spying and theft of U.S. technological secrets. Just days earlier, Alexander Yuk Ching Ma, a former CIA officer and FBI linguist, was charged with selling secrets to the PRC for over a decade.
It’s a great thing that the United States is finally getting serious, however belatedly, about halting the large-scale and nontraditional espionage programs China has used to steal American secrets. Beijing seems most interested in dual-use technologies with military applications, or trade secrets that allow China to catch up to, and possibly surpass, the United States economically without the pain or cost of years of study to advance in any particular field.
But it’s worrying that so many researchers appear to have gotten away with defrauding the United States for so long in their passing of secrets to China. After all, the clues are there: frequent trips to China for months at a time, affiliation with Chinese institutions of learning that usually have a technical or specialized research focus, and inflated bank accounts due to the largesse of their PRC patrons (who are nonetheless paying peanuts for what is costing the U.S. tens of millions and years of study to discover by comparison).
Theft of NASA secrets and technologies is particularly worrisome because space is becoming the focus of a high-intensity race among the United States, Russia, and China, all of which recognize the importance of dominance in that “final frontier.” For its part, the PRC has announced plans for a manned moon base, and recently sent an exploratory mission to Mars, just as the United States has done.
Programs like Thousand Talents allow China to rip off our best ideas and technologies right from under our noses by luring professors with promises of huge chunks of money, lab facilities, luxurious quarters, and many other “amenities” of dubious legitimacy.
Several questions remain:
- What is the United States doing to seal the gaps that allowed these thefts and frauds to take place on such a widespread level?
- Are the many agencies such as NASA, the Departments of Defense and Energy, and others, upping their vetting game? Clearly they aren’t doing so well right now.
- Why is there apparently no program in place to ensure that trips abroad by professors and researchers conducting sensitive studies are routinely reported to the relevant agencies by DHS? Surely this is a huge tip-off.
- What is being done to strip the citizenship of naturalized citizens who engage in such treasonous activities? It’s a pretty good bet that this professor was born in the People’s Republic and later naturalized (being a citizen would have been prerequisite to any grant involving sensitive or classified work), although what he did leads any reasonable person to question his commitment to his new country.
- And how about the research institutes and universities in question? They have skin in the game; those grant monies are invaluable, as is the prestige of procuring them. What is their responsibility to oversee these tenured professors and assure that their facilities and projects aren’t being misused or compromised?
With each researcher that gets knocked down in this high-stakes game of whack-a-mole, the answers to these questions just get more pressing.