A Chinese government employee arrested by US authorities appeared in a New York federal court on charges of conspiring to obtain US visas fraudulently for fellow Chinese officials working to recruit US scientists.
The Justice Department said 57-year-old Zhongsan Liu was part of a conspiracy to bring Chinese government employees into the US under the guise of being research scholars when in fact their main goal was to recruit top US scientists and engineers to “divert” know-how and further Chinese national interests.
The case comes as engineers and scientists of Chinese descent fall under growing suspicion by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other security agencies for espionage and theft of trade secrets even as Chinese-American groups raise concern over excessive crackdowns based on racial profiling.
“We welcome foreign students and researchers, including from China, but we do not welcome visa fraud – especially on behalf of a government,” John Demers, assistant attorney general of national security, said in a statement. “We will continue to confront Chinese government attempts to subvert American law to advance its own interests in diverting U.S. research and know-how to China.”
The Chinese Embassy in Washington, which is mentioned in the complaint, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Department of Justice said Liu was arrested in Fort Lee, New Jersey, on Monday and brought before US Magistrate Judge Ona T. Wang. According to a complaint unsealed in court, Liu engaged in various fraudulent visa activities as head of the New York area office of the China Association for International Exchange of Personnel from around 2017 until sometime this month.
The association’s sparse English-language website, replete with grammatical errors, says the group bolsters China’s knowledge base through “exchange of foreign experts and training projects home and abroad”. The group’s touted successes includes safe mining techniques learned during trips to Australia and South Africa and “the brewing technique of French fruit wine, the alpaca and millet in Bolivia”.
The complaint says Liu worked to procure a J-1 Research Scholar visa for an employee in the association’s New York area office. Instead of conducting research at a “corporate research facility, museum, library, university or other research institution” – the main intent of this visa – the officials were brought over to help recruit US scientists, academics, engineers and other experts to work in China, the Justice Department said.
Liu, who is charged with one count of conspiracy to commit visa fraud, could not be reached for comment. The violation carries a maximum sentence of five years. It is not known if he has hired an attorney.
To avoid questions from US authorities on whether the unnamed female visa recipient was a genuine researcher at an unnamed university in Georgia, Liu advised her to travel to the university immediately after arriving in the US, get a social security card, a Georgia driver’s license, bank statement or utility bill, and to periodically visit the university although she was working in the New York area.
According to the complaint, Liu advised her to “show [her] face” and ask the advisor to “assign [her] a subject” and return after a month. “It is not appropriate for you not to show up in person for over a month” he reportedly told her.
“The FBI recognizes the immense benefit of academic freedom in our open society, and we will investigate those who break our laws in an effort to take advantage of that freedom,” Assistant Director John Brown of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division said in a statement.
Liu also worked on procuring a visa for a prospective employee in the association’s New York area office, a person the complaint refers to as “CAIEP-NY Hire”. To help that person get a visa, Liu reportedly contacted several US universities in hopes of securing an invitation letter from one of them to come to America as a research scholar.
The complaint provides some insights into the FBI’s recent investigation techniques involving China’s Thousand Talents Programme. This state-run initiative was started in 2008 to recruit leading international experts in scientific research, innovation and entrepreneurship. Security experts say Beijing has used it to gain prepublication access to sensitive research and attract top teaching and research talent to China.
In Congressional hearings, FBI Director Christopher Wray has warned that China’s use of professors, scientists and students to steal intelligence is a national security risk “in almost every field office that the FBI has around the country”.
The complaint against Liu is signed by Special Agent Erin Prosperi with the FBI’s counterintelligence division, who describes her job as thwarting “economic espionage and foreign intelligence activities” carried out by China from the bureau’s New York office.
Among the tools employed in this case include her own investigation, colleagues’ reports, emails, documents, lawful phone taps, cellphone geolocation and help from an analyst specializing in China’s talent-recruitment program for the past 14 years, Prosperi said.
Liu held the title of president and chief executive of the association’s US operation, the complaint said, which has branches in New Jersey, Georgia and California. According to emails and phone calls monitored by the FBI, the group’s focus is agriculture, industry and commerce, serving as a bridge for “intellectual exchange, consultation, advanced technology and equipment importation”.
The complaint documents Liu coordinating with the Chinese embassy in Washington, the Chinese consulate in New York, a Confucius Institute programme in Boston and consultants amid growing frustration as tighter visa restrictions that make it difficult to properly staff the association’s offices.
The Confucius Institute is a Beijing-linked body that promotes China’s language and culture.
At one point, he reportedly talks to Chinese embassy officials about merging his group with the embassy’s science and technology section so the association can secure diplomatic visas.
“Ever since the new US administration took over, it has become very strict in allowing foreign students and visiting scholars to enter the US,” Liu writes in a report to other Chinese officials, the complaint says.
In one reported conversation, amid fear that US immigration officials will start asking more questions, the woman who obtained the fraudulent visa tells him: “Saying too much is no good; but saying nothing is bad too”.
They also anguish over what to put in documents to give their immigration attorney in their defense.
“After it is translated, they’ll see that you happen to be doing what is banned in the US,” Liu reportedly says.