The Chinese consulate in San Francisco is harboring a visiting Chinese researcher who was interviewed by the FBI and faces federal charges over concealing her ties to the Chinese military to obtain a visa, according to a court document filed on July 20.
Tang Juan, a researcher at the University of California, Davis (UC Davis), was charged June 26 with visa fraud for making false statements on her visa application for a J-1 non-immigrant visa, which is issued to individuals participating in work- and study-based exchange visitor programs.
Tang sought refuge at the Chinese consulate, where she remains, the U.S. Justice Department said; the FBI is seeking her arrest.
The revelations came after the United States ordered the Chinese consulate in Houston to close to “protect American intellectual property.”
The fugitive is one of four researchers recently charged with allegedly lying about being Chinese military personnel in their visa applications, according to the Justice Department. The others have been arrested.
In addition to these cases, the FBI zeroed in on similar suspects across the country.
“In interviews with members of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army in over 25 cities across the U.S., the FBI uncovered a concerted effort to hide their true affiliation to take advantage of the United States and the American people,” John Brown, Executive Assistant Director of the FBI’s National Security Branch, said in a statement.
Tang stated on her visa application that she never served in the Chinese military, officially known as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). However, an FBI open-source search on published scientific papers showed that she had been employed as a researcher at the Air Force Military Medical University.
The university was formerly known as the Fourth Military Medical University (FMMU) and is subordinate to the Air Force branch of the PLA, according to the school’s website. The university is located in Xi’an, the capital of northwestern China’s Shaanxi Province.
The FBI also found publicly-available photographs of Tang in the uniform of the civilian cadre of the PLA.
According to China’s Ministry of National Defense, civilian cadres are active military personnel without military rank. They are either appointed to junior technical positions or clerical ranks and above.
Tang was interviewed by the FBI at her residence in Davis, California, on June 20 during which she denied serving in the Chinese military, and said she had worn the military uniform because it was a requirement for attending FMMU. Her residence was also searched by the FBI on the same day.
“The FBI assesses that, at some point following the search and interview of Tang on June 20, 2020, Tang went to the Chinese consulate in San Francisco, where the FBI assesses she has remained,” according to the court document.
Prosecutors said in the court document: “As the Tang case demonstrates, the Chinese consulate in San Francisco provides a potential safe harbor for a PLA official intent on avoiding prosecution in the United States.”
In response to the decision by the Chinese consulate to take in Tang, Rep. Mark Green (R-Tenn.) took to his Twitter account to explain Beijing’s motivation for doing so.
“Most countries would cooperate in the U.S. government’s prosecution of such heinous espionage crimes. Why not China? Because the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] wants to steal our intellectual property and profit,” Green wrote.
The news was first reported by Axios.
Other Recent Cases
Aside from Tang, three other Chinese nationals have been charged in similar cases, Wang Xin, Song Chen, and Zhao KaiKai, the justice department said.
Just days earlier, Song was charged for visa fraud on her J-1 visa, after allegedly hiding her position as a PLA civilian cadre and her military relationships to both FMMU and Air Force General Hospital in Beijing. Song was a researcher at Stanford University conducting research related to brain disease.
When Song was arrested, she told her aunt, her custodian, that a Chinese embassy “would take care of her,” according to court documents.
Wang, a researcher at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), did not disclose his employment at FMMU on his J-1 visa application, court document said. He also concealed that he was an active member of the PLA, holding a Chinese military position that equated as the U.S. military rank of major.
Wang was instructed by his FMMU supervisor to “observe and document the layout of the UCSF lab” and replicate it when he returned to China, according to the court document. He was arrested on June 7 at the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) before he could fly back to China and has since been charged with visa fraud.
Zhao, a graduate student studying machine learning and artificial intelligence at Indiana University, was arrested on July 18 for visa fraud, the justice department said. Prosecutors alleged she served in the PLA’s premier scientific research institution, the National University of Defense Technology. They also alleged she attended China’s equivalent to the U.S. Air Force Academy, the Aviation University of Air Force. The FBI found an online photo of Zhao wearing the PLA Air Force uniform, the department said.
In addition, court documents reveal another case of “L.T.,” a researcher at Duke University. L.T. entered the United States on a J-1 visa in February 2019. She revealed she was affiliated with the PLA General Hospital and PLA Medical Academy when interviewed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials (CBP) at LAX on July 12.
Prior to her interview, L.T. was instructed by personnel from her departing flight airliner, China’s state-run Xiamen Airlines, to “wipe her [electronic] devices” since she was about to be interviewed by customs officials.
“She [L.T.] then used WeChat [messaging app] to call her contact at the [Chinese] embassy, who advised her to stay calm, delete her phone, and answer CBP’s questions,” according to court documents
“The PRC [People’s Republic of China] has demonstrated every reason to assist defendant in fleeing the United States and has at its disposal means such as active consular and intelligence services, the ability to issue passports, and state-controlled air transport,” court documents said.
Any success that Beijing might have in helping defendants return to China “would bolster the PRC’s information collection activities in the United States, while undermining the ability of the American criminal justice system to deter the illegal conduct of foreign governments in the United States,” prosecutors warned.
This article has been updated with the latest information.