Chinese Researcher Pleads Guilty to Lying About Smuggling Cancer Research from Harvard

December 7, 2020 Updated: December 7, 2020

A Chinese national has pleaded guilty in federal court last week to lying to federal investigators about his attempt to smuggle cancer research from Harvard University to China.

Zaosong Zheng, 31, entered the United States on a J-1 visa in August 2018 and conducted cancer-cell research at Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, according to U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling’s office. He was arrested Dec. 10, 2019, at Boston Logan International Airport with 21 vials of biological material packed in a sock in his bags.

When asked by federal investigators whether he was traveling with any biological items or research, Zheng answered “No,” only to admit later that he had stolen the vials from a lab at Beth Israel, where he worked. Zheng stated that he intended to bring the vials back to his own laboratory in China and publish the results under his own name.

As part of Zheng’s plea deal, prosecutors dropped the charge of smuggling goods out of the country. Zheng pleaded guilty to one count of making false, fictitious, or fraudulent statements, and agreed to a judicial order of removal from the United States after his Jan. 6, 2021, sentencing hearing.

That being said, a federal district court judge will ultimately decide whether Zheng should face further penalties. The charge of making false, fictitious, and fraudulent statements carries a penalty of up to five years in prison, three years of supervised release, and a fine of $250,000.

Zheng was fired from Beth Israel after his arrest. In a statement to student newspaper The Harvard Crimson, the medical center’s spokesperson, Teresa M. Herbert, said that “any efforts to compromise research undermine the hard work of our faculty and staff to advance patient care.”

“We are grateful for the diligence and professionalism of federal law enforcement in this case,” Herbert wrote.

Earlier this year, Charles Lieber, former chair of Harvard’s chemistry and chemical biology department, was indicted for two counts of making false statements to federal authorities, and for concealing the earnings he received from China’s Thousand Talents Plan, a program designed to lure individuals with knowledge of foreign technology and intellectual property to China.

According to Andrew Lelling’s office, Lieber has been a “strategic scientist” at Wuhan University of Technology (WUT) in China since 2011 and was a contractual participant in the Thousand Talents Plan from around 2012 to 2017. Under the terms of Lieber’s three-year Thousand Talents contract, WUT paid Lieber $50,000 per month, living expenses of up to approximately $158,000, and awarded him more than $1.5 million to establish a research lab at WUT. In return, Lieber was obligated to work for WUT “not less than nine months a year” by “declaring international cooperation projects, cultivating young teachers and Ph.D. students, organizing international conference[s], applying for patents and publishing articles in the name of” WUT.