More than 1,000 Chinese military-linked researchers have left the United States since authorities arrested several suspected undercover Chinese military officers over the summer, according to a senior Justice Department official.
Earlier this year, at least four Chinese researchers were arrested and charged with visa fraud for allegedly lying on their applications about their status as members of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the official name of the Chinese military. One of those researchers was harbored by the Chinese consulate in San Francisco for weeks before he was eventually arrested in late July.
A Chinese visiting student also was indicted on similar charges in January.
John C. Demers, assistant attorney general for national security, said those arrests “were just the tip of the iceberg,” leading to an investigation that uncovered a vast network of suspected undercover PLA researchers across the country.
“Between those … arrests, between the dozens of interviews that the bureau [FBI] did with other individuals who were here in similar circumstances, and then, ultimately, the closure of the Houston consulate to disrupt both foreign influence activity and economic espionage activity, more than 1,000 PLA-affiliated Chinese researchers left the country,” Demers said during a virtual discussion at the Aspen Cyber Summit on Dec. 2.
“They were part of a Chinese government effort to send these individuals here, and to send them here without disclosing their identity.”
In response to the arrests and investigations by U.S. authorities, the Chinese regime instructed the researchers to continue hiding their PLA connections, Demers said.
Court documents filed in July said that the regime was instructing the PLA-linked students to destroy evidence and was coordinating efforts to evacuate them from the United States, after it realized that U.S. authorities were closing in.
The arrests formed part of a spate of prosecutions brought by the Justice Department targeting the Chinese regime’s broad efforts to steal U.S. technology and research. The Trump administration also forced the Chinese consulate in Houston to close in July, saying it was a center for espionage and malign influence operations.
William Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, said at the same event that of the 1,000 PLA-linked researchers, he’s most concerned about the risks associated with graduate-level students.
“Let’s not kid ourselves, they are all coming here at the behest of the Chinese government intelligence services. They’re going to specific universities to study specific fields or areas that are going to benefit … the Chinese Communist Party and the military,” Evanina said.
In another effort to guard against the PLA’s theft of American technology, Trump in May issued a proclamation barring entry to Chinese students at the graduate-level or higher who are affiliated with institutions that support the Chinese regime’s “military-civil fusion strategy.” The strategy dictates that China’s private sector be leveraged to help the PLA’s technological development.
From June to Sept. 8, the State Department revoked more than 1,000 visas of Chinese students with military links falling under the presidential proclamation, the department said in September.