A rheumatology professor and researcher who participated in the Chinese government’s “Thousand Talents Program” has been sentenced to prison for lying to federal authorities during an application for federal research funding, the U.S. Department of Justice announced Friday.
Song Guo Zheng, 58, who lives in Ohio, led a team of autoimmune researchers at Ohio State University and Pennsylvania State University. He admitted that when he applied for research funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), he concealed material facts about his participation in China’s “Thousand Talents Program” and his association and collaboration with a Chinese university controlled by the Chinese government.
Zheng Songguo was arrested on May 22, 2020, when he arrived in Anchorage, Alaska, on a chartered plane to board another chartered plane to flee to China, the Justice Department said. He was carrying three large bags, a small suitcase and a suitcase containing two portable computers, three cell phones, several USB drives, several silver bars, his family’s expired Chinese passports, the deed to his house in China and other items.
Zheng Songguo has participated in the Chinese government’s talent program since 2013, according to court documents. Zheng Songguo pledged to use his research in the United States to contribute to biomedical research in the People’s Republic of China, and he did not disclose conflicts of interest or his commitments to foreign countries to his U.S. employer or the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Justice Department said.
Zheng Songguo pleaded guilty last November to lying about his research grant applications in order to use approximately $4.1 million from the NIH to develop Chinese expertise in rheumatology and immunology.
Songguo Zheng was sentenced to 37 months in prison. He was also ordered to make restitution of approximately $3.4 million to the National Institutes of Health and $413,000 to The Ohio State University.
Zheng’s case is one of a series of arrests of U.S. researchers for concealing ties to China’s “Thousand Talents Program” or other interests while conducting federally funded research. A significant source of federal research funding is the National Institutes of Health.
In another case involving the NIH and China’s Thousand Talents Program announced by the federal Department of Justice this year, former University of Florida professor Lin Yang was arrested for concealing his involvement in China’s Thousand Talents Program while receiving funding from the NIH for muscle imaging technology. In February, he was indicted for concealing his involvement in China’s “Thousand Talents Program” and for setting up his own company in China while receiving a grant from the National Institutes of Health for muscle imaging technology. He returned to China in 2019 and has yet to return to the United States.
Last month, Michael Lauer, director of research affairs at the National Institutes of Health, testified before the Senate in Congress that the NIH, which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, began an investigation into foreign funding of researchers in 2018 because of concerns about undue influence by foreign governments on U.S. researchers.
Lauer said some of the investigations ultimately turned out to be mere misunderstandings, but some uncovered problems. He said, “More than 100 researchers have been removed from the NIH ecosystem in various ways, such as resignation, dismissal, early retirement or internal requests.”
He also said about 34 cases were referred to the DOH Office of Inspector General for further investigation, and some were successfully prosecuted or reached civil settlements.
China uses talent-introduction programs such as the “Thousand Talents Program” to attract foreign researchers with high salaries. Washington is concerned that Beijing is using these researchers to steal U.S. scientific research, trade secrets and intellectual property in the service of Beijing’s strategy to catch up with the United States economically, militarily and technologically.
There are also concerns in the U.S. academic community that a tough judicial crackdown would have a chilling effect on academia and disrupt normal international scientific exchanges.
According to a Wall Street Journal article in January, the Justice Department is considering an amnesty program that would allow U.S. academic institutions and scholars to disclose receipt of foreign funds without fear of possible prosecution. This would mean that the Biden administration may reverse the draconian measures taken under the Trump administration. Reports say officials have been discussing the plan for months and have begun looking at a proposed draft of the plan.
Earlier this month, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Okla.), the ranking Republican member of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the ranking Republican member of the Intelligence Committee, along with six other members of the same party, sent a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland calling on the administration to cancel the plan, which is reportedly The academic amnesty program, which is still being proposed, has not yet been announced.
The Republican lawmakers said they are concerned that the amnesty program could lead to an increased risk of theft of U.S. technology development and academic research.
A statement issued Friday by the U.S. Department of Justice on Zheng Songguo’s prison sentence said authorities will continue to pursue those who used federal funds for research while secretly working for China.
U.S. taxpayer funding for U.S. research is intended to benefit American society and is not an illegal gift to the Chinese government,” John C. Demers, the Justice Department’s assistant secretary for national security, said in the DOJ statement. The American people deserve to see complete transparency when federal funds are brought to bear on research, and we will continue to hold accountable those who attempt to fraudulently obtain these funds and choose to conceal their ties to foreign governments.”
The Justice Department statement quoted FBI Assistant Director for Counterintelligence Alan E. Kohler Jr. as saying, “For years, the defendant concealed his involvement in Chinese government talent recruitment programs and hid his ties to at least five Chinese research institutions. Zheng greedily took federal research funds and prevented others from accessing them to conduct critical research that advances medicine. The FBI will continue to pursue these individuals wherever they may be, even if it’s on a plane in Alaska in the middle of the night.”
Vipal J. Patel, acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Ohio, said in a statement, “We hope Zheng’s prison sentence serves as a deterrent to others from having anything to do with China’s so-called ‘Thousand Man Project’ or any variation thereof. “
Special Agent Chris Hoffman, director of the FBI’s Cincinnati field office, said in a statement, “Today’s sentencing of Zheng recognizes the ongoing threat posed by the Chinese government’s theft of U.S. taxpayer-funded research.”
Special Agent Lamont Pugh III, Chicago regional director of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General, said in the Justice Department statement, “Making false statements to conceal a potential conflict of interest violates the trust and the law. The Office of Inspector General is committed to identifying and investigating individuals who knowingly fail to report or falsify information regarding the source of their research support to ensure taxpayer funds are being used properly.”