Beijing’s Recruitment Efforts in US Exposed After Chinese National Charged With Visa Fraud

By Frank Fang
Frank Fang
Frank Fang
Frank Fang is a Taiwan-based journalist. He covers news in China and Taiwan. He holds a Master's degree in materials science from Tsinghua University in Taiwan.
September 17, 2019 Updated: September 17, 2019

A Chinese national was arrested and charged with fraudulently obtaining U.S. visas for Chinese government employees, for the purpose of assisting Beijing’s efforts to recruit talents in the United States and advance its national goals, federal prosecutors allege.

Liu Zhongsan, 57, of Fort Lee, New Jersey, faces one count of conspiracy to commit visa fraud, which has a maximum penalty of five years, according to a Sept. 16 press release from the U.S. Department of Justice.

“Liu broke the law by seeking visas for employees of the government of the People’s Republic of China [PRC] to enter the United States under false pretenses,” Assistant Director of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division John Brown said in a statement.

Prosecutors allege that Liu helped these Chinese government employees obtain visas under the guise of research scholars, but “in reality, their assignment was to recruit top U.S. talent to benefit the government of China,” Brown said.

From 2017 to September 2019, Liu worked for the New York office of the China Association for International Exchange of Personnel (CAIEP).

According to the court complaint, CAIEP is a Chinese government agency that recruits U.S. scientists, academics, engineers, and other experts who can assist in Beijing’s technological and economic development needs. This overseas agency is under the control of the State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs (SAFEA), which is, in turn, a department within China’s cabinet-like State Council.

“CAIEP is a PRC government agency, specifically, the overseas arm of SAFEA that works to recruit experts from the United States, among other countries, for projects and positions in China,” according to the complaint.

Before assuming his position in the United States, Liu worked for nearly 26 years at the CAIEP in China and SAFEA. He once held the position of general director of the Secretariat of CAIEP in China, according to the complaint.

Liu coordinated his visa scheme with Chinese government officials at SAFEA, China’s embassy in Washington and the Chinese Consulate General in New York City, prosecutors allege.

He fraudulently procured J-1 research scholar visas—which permit foreign nationals to come to the United States for the primary purpose of conducting research at a research facility, museum, or university—for two Chinese officials, who, in fact, intended to work as employees at the CAIEP in New York.

One was a prospective hire who ultimately didn’t enter the United States, according to the complaint.

For the CAIEP employee, Liu helped her “enhance her false appearance” as a research scholar at an unidentified university in Georgia. Liu ensured that the employee obtained a driver’s license in Georgia, and instructed her to periodically visit the university while working full-time at CAIEP.

Liu also reached out to multiple unidentified U.S. universities in order to have one of them sponsor the prospective hire to come to the United States as a J-1 research scholar under false pretenses, according to prosecutors.

“We welcome foreign students and researchers, including from China, but we do not welcome visa fraud–especially on behalf of a government,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney General John C. Demers in the press release.

The court document also claimed that Liu took part in recruitment efforts for one of China’s well-known state-run recruitment programs, the Thousand Talents Plan.

In an email to SAFEA in December 2017, Liu sent an annual report for the CAIEP New York office, containing a summary of activities that he had undertaken since arriving in the United States around March 2017. Liu wrote that he recruited “Thousand Talent [sic] Plan experts” for “work or … activities in China,” identifying several by name.

It is unclear if Liu was actually successful at recruiting those experts.

Prosecutors warned of the potential for such recruits to conduct intellectual property theft, “Thousand Talents Plan recruits typically sign contracts that detail the specific research the recruit will perform or the business the recruit will develop in China. That contractual obligation often resembles or even replicates the work the recruit performs or performed for his or her U.S.-based or other overseas employers, thereby leveraging the recruit’s knowledge and access to intellectual property obtained from U.S.and foreign businesses and government laboratories,” the complaint stated.

Demers similarly highlighted that Beijing intended “to subvert American law to advance its own interests in diverting U.S. research and know-how to China,” in the press release.

At a March 2018 briefing, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission pointed out that the Thousand Talents program, which was rolled out in 2008, has brought more than 4,000 foreigners to China’s laboratories, companies, and research centers.

Frank Fang
Frank Fang
Frank Fang is a Taiwan-based journalist. He covers news in China and Taiwan. He holds a Master's degree in materials science from Tsinghua University in Taiwan.