A former professor at Emory University has been convicted of tax fraud in connection to his concealment of earnings from participating in a Chinese state-run job recruitment program that aims to benefit Beijing.
Li Xiaojiang, a 63-year-old naturalized U.S. citizen originally from China, worked at the Atlanta-based university’s department of human genetics for 23 years before being fired in May 2019 for failing to disclose his financial ties to China. His wife, Li Shihua, who worked in the same department, was also fired.
“This defendant thought that he could live two separate lives—one here at Emory University and one in China as a Thousand Talents Program participant,” said U.S. Attorney Byung J. Pak, according to a May 11 press release from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).
Li was sentenced to one year of probation and ordered to pay $35,089 in restitution. Li will also be required to file lawful income tax returns for the period from 2012 to 2018.
Beijing rolled out the Thousand Talents Program in 2008 to aggressively recruit promising science and tech researchers from foreign countries to work in China.
In February, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned about the program’s potential to be exploited for intellectual property theft, during a speech at the National Governors Association’s winter meeting.
“It’s a plan to recruit scientists and professors to transfer the know-how we have here to China in exchange for enormous paydays,” Pompeo said, before pointing to recent federal indictments against professors who participated in the Chinese program while employed at the University of Kansas, Virginia Tech, and Harvard University.
A professor at the University of Arkansas was arrested on wire fraud on May 8 for his failure to disclose funding he received from Chinese companies and the Thousand Talents Program.
Li, while still employed at Emory, joined Thousand Talents in late 2011, according to the DOJ. From 2012 until 2018, he investigated Huntington’s disease with animal models while working at Chinese institutions: the state-run Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and Jinan University, located in southern China’s Guangdong Province.
“Over those six years, Li earned at least $500,000 in foreign income that he never reported on his federal income tax returns,” the DOJ stated.
Specifically, Li worked at CAS’s Institute of Genetic and Developmental Biology, as well as the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau Institute of Central Nervous System Regeneration, a research institute at Jinan University, according to those institutions’ websites.
Li’s fraudulent income returns were exposed after an investigation by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) over his research grant applications in which he failed to disclose his foreign research activity, according to the DOJ.
NIH expressed concerns about the Thousand Talents Program in a report published in December 2018, which warned that the program’s recruits had access to U.S. intellectual property and could potentially transfer key data to China, produced using U.S. federal research money.
Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers said the DOJ would continue to remain “vigilant over programs such as the Thousand Talents Program that recruits professors and researchers to work for China,” in the press release.
Li also participated in another Chinese state-run job recruitment program before 2011 while employed at Emory, according to a document published by the education bureau of China’s Jiangxi provincial government.
The document lists outstanding graduates of Jiangxi’s Nanchang University, where Li was a graduate of its medical college (formerly known as the Jiangxi Medical College) in the early 1980s before moving to the United States for doctoral studies.
The document showed that Li was a chair professor of the Changjiang Scholars program in 2008 at the Huazhong University of Science and Technology, located in Wuhan.
China’s Ministry of Education rolled out the Changjiang Scholars Program in 1998 to attract exemplary academics from the West, of Chinese or foreign descent.
It’s not known what benefits Li received as a Changjiang scholar. But in recent years, China’s central government pays such scholars 200,000 yuan (about $28,210) annually for five years, while regional governments and schools where they work may provide additional financial incentives.
While at Emory, Li also obtained other Chinese government fundings for his research.
According to a 2015 publication by CAS’s Institute of Genetic and Developmental Biology, a genetic study done by Li and his wife and published in the scientific journal Neuron in March that year was partially funded by China’s State Key Laboratory of Molecular Development Biology.
Another study by Li and his wife on Parkinson’s disease, published in the scientific journal Human Molecular Genetics in 2014, was jointly funded by State Key Laboratory; China’s 973 Program; and the National Natural Science Foundation of China, an agency run by China’s State Council.
China rolled out the 973 Program in 1997 to focus on basic science research in eight categories, including agriculture; population and health; and environment and resources.
The 2015 publication also carried remarks by Xu Weihua, the Communist Party secretary of CAS’s Institute of Genetic and Developmental Biology.
During a meeting on March 19, 2015, Xu outlined four suggestions for the year. He said Party organizations within the institute must “value the learning of [Party] ideologies and the results of holding Party-themed events.”
He also said the institute should “strictly strengthen Party idea education,” and its Party organizations should “facilitate the institute’s technological innovation.”
On May 10, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ariz.) told Fox News that he will propose legislation to address threats posed by China’s job recruitment programs, calling the Thousand Talents in particular an “espionage program.”
Cotton said he found it “a real scandal” that participation in this program was legal in the United States. “I’m going to propose legislation that would ban any researcher from accepting Chinese-affiliated funds if they are also working on federally funded programs,” he said.
Most federal cases involving Thousand Talent participants have charged them for failing to disclose their affiliations or intending to transfer intellectual property to China.
Cotton said his bill would also “require universities to make their best effort not to employ anyone who is a part of this talent program.”
“We should not be underwriting those people who are on the Chinese Communist Party’s payroll to send our most advanced cutting-edge technology back to China,” he said.
A previous version of this article misstated when China rolled out the Changjiang Scholars Program. The Epoch Times regrets the error.