Two Chinese researchers with alleged ties to the Chinese military have been arrested on federal charges while attempting to board China-bound flights, according to separate criminal complaints unsealed on Aug. 28.
One of the arrested was Guan Lei, a 29-year-old researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), who was charged with destroying evidence to obstruct an investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) into whether he had transferred sensitive U.S. software or data to China, the Justice Department said.
Also on Aug. 28, University of Virginia (UVA) researcher Hu Haizhou, 34, was arrested and charged with theft of trade secrets and computer intrusion, the department announced. This came days after he was caught at a Chicago airport trying to transport back to China advanced computer codes that he allegedly stole from the university, prosecutors said.
The arrests of Guan and Hu are the latest in a long string of U.S. prosecutions targeting Beijing’s efforts to exploit American academic institutions for economic or military gain.
Alleged Evidence Destruction
The FBI began an investigation into Guan, a visiting scholar at UCLA’s mathematics department, in July, suspecting visa fraud and that he might be transferring “sensitive software or technical data” to “high-ranking” Chinese military officers, according to a court filing.
Guan wasn’t however charged with those crimes. Instead, prosecutors accused Guan, who lives in Irvine, California, of destroying evidence that likely contained incriminating evidence. FBI agents who were staking out Guan’s apartment on July 25 saw him take out a damaged hard drive from his sock and throw it in the dumpster near the building, court documents said.
The drive was “irreparably damaged and that all previous data associated with the hard drive appears to have been removed deliberately and by force,” according to an affidavit.
Guan discarded the drive after he was interviewed by FBI agents during which he refused the investigators’ request to take his computer away for examination. Days after the July 17 interview, he attempted to board a flight to China but was blocked from doing so.
Destroying evidence is a felony offense that carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison.
Before coming to the United States, Guan studied at China’s National University of Defense Technology, a military academy where one of Guan’s faculty advisors was also a lieutenant general in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) who developed computers used in the military.
Guan had access to UCLA’s Graphics Processing Unit machine that has potential military use, such as surveillance and intelligence applications, court documents said.
Prosecutors allege that when Guan was questioned by customs officials at the airport, he lied that he never had contact with the Chinese consulate in Los Angeles during his near two-year stay in the United States. However, phone records, email exchanges, and Lyft transactions that investigators later found showed that Guan had asked the consulate about sanctions connected with his “university in China” and about the possibility of flying back to China on a chartered plane.
Since the June arrest of Wang Xin, another suspected undercover Chinese military researcher who worked at the University of California, San Francisco, the Chinese regime has instructed military scientists in the United States to destroy evidence and coordinated efforts to bring them back to China, according to recent court documents.
Asked by FBI officers whether he had talked with the Chinese consulate about Wang’s arrest, Guan replied that he “shouldn’t be” worried.
“Isn’t he a soldier? I am not in the same category as him. Plus, the internet says Wang was stealing information. I am here openly, you can search my stuff,” Guan told the FBI officer on July 17, according to court documents.
During this interview, FBI officers discovered that Guan had already wiped clean his Lenovo laptop and two phones before he handed them to the agent for inspection. During a subsequent FBI house raid on July 30, officers discovered that Guan had deleted most of the data from another external hard drive, court document said.
Guan had his first court appearance on Friday. He is due to appear at the next court hearing on Sept. 17.
Alleged Theft of Advanced Computer Codes
Hu was conducting research studying bio-mimics and fluid dynamics at UVA. During a routine inspection on Aug. 25, authorities at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport found Hu to be in possession of “bio-inspired research simulation software code” that he did not have authorized access to, prosecutors said.
The software code, according to court filings, represented 17 years of work by Hu’s professor at UVA, and could be used for making underwater robotics, aircraft engines, among other marine and aerospace applications.
The professor has been awarded grants totaling $1.8 million, as a result of the research conducted with this simulation software, the complaint said. A U.S.-based company that licenses a similar software received more than $1.5 billion in revenue in 2019, it added.
Due to the code’s sensitive nature, the professor told FBI investigators that he had strictly limited physical and electronic access to it, and only shared it with two other graduate students who work under him—which did not include Hu.
The professor and the two graduate students had denied Hu’s request for access on multiple occasions. Hu admitted to the FBI agents that the professor would be upset to learn that Hu had the coding files, according to the court document.
The investigators found around 9,600 source code files on Hu’s laptop for bio-inspired fluid mechanics research, and identified about 55 to be “core code” files that the professor described as “proprietary.” The professor said that Hu could only have obtained these “core cord” files by stealing the three authorized users’ credentials or by hacking into the computer, according to the court document.
Hu worked in the professor’s lab from approximately March 2019 to August 2020, and left for China without telling him, the professor said.
Hu had met the professor in 2017 when the professor gave a lecture at his then university, Beijing-based Beihang University. Hu had been a researcher at a fluid dynamics lab at Beihang, a university funded by the Chinese regime and the Chinese air force. After the lecture, Hu approached the professor to join the UVA research team. Hu had also worked in a research lab for underwater robot technology while studying at China’s Harbin University, which, Hu told investigators, was “of course” funded by the Chinese military.
Hu provided “conflicting and incriminating statements” to FBI agents regarding his activities while conducting U.S.-government funded research, the affidavit said. For example, Hu said the professor was aware that he was taking his research with him to China, but later said that no one had knowledge of the matter.
The Chinese Scholarship Council, which is run by the regime’s ministry of education, covered the costs associated with Hu’s research in the United States. The council required him to give a summary report about his research every six months, Hu told the investigators.