Senator Proposes New Bill to Safeguard US Research After Recent Arrests of Chinese Professors

May 15, 2020 Updated: May 15, 2020

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) announced that he will soon introduce legislation to protect American research and intellectual property, after another researcher was caught concealing his participation in a Chinese state-run job recruitment program.

The program, called the Thousand Talents Plan (TTP), was rolled out by Beijing in 2008 to recruit promising science and tech researchers from foreign countries to work in China—for the ultimate goal of fulfilling its ambition for global tech dominance.

Dr. Wang Qing—a naturalized U.S. citizen and a former employee of the Cleveland Clinic, one of the top-rated hospitals in the world—was arrested on May 13 on charges of false claims and wire fraud related to more than $3.6 million in grant funding he and his research group received from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), according to a press release from the Department of Justice (DOJ).

According to the criminal complaint, Wang signed on to TTP in 2008.

Wang’s case was the third in less than a week. A professor at the University of Arkansas was arrested on wire fraud on May 8 for failing to disclose funding from TTP and Chinese companies. Days later, a former Emory University professor was convicted for tax fraud related to his earnings while participating in TTP.

“I commend DOJ, U.S. Attorney Herdman and the FBI for arresting another alleged member of China’s Thousand Talents Program,” said Portman, in a May 14 press release from his office.

Speaking on the Senate floor on May 13, Portman gave an outline of the new bill, named the “Safeguarding American Innovation Act.”

The bill would require the federal Office of Management and Budget to track federal grants—where the money is, where it is going, and how it’s being used.

It would also authorize the State Department to deny visas to foreign researchers if it’s determined that their entry could pose a threat to U.S. national security.

Additionally, the bill would require research institutes to have safeguards in place to prohibit unauthorized access to their sensitive research.

Finally, it would require U.S. universities to disclose foreign gifts of $50,000 or more and fines for failing to report such gifts.

Wang Qing

Wang, an expert specialized in genetics and cardiovascular disease, graduated from China’s Gansu Agricultural University in 1984. He then received his Ph.D. in genetics and developmental biology from Cornell University in 1993. He was affiliated with the Cleveland Clinic since 1997.

According to a statement from the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation), “Dr. Wang deliberately failed to disclose his Chinese grants and foreign positions and even engaged in a pervasive pattern of fraud to avoid criminal culpability.”

Following Wang’s arrest, Cleveland Clinic issued a statement, explaining that Wang was terminated following an internal review about his ties to China, which was conducted after the NIH warned about his research ties to China. It is unclear when exactly he was fired.

Wang was a professor of molecular medicine at Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine of Case Western Reserve University and a professor at the Lerner Research Institute.

While employed at Cleveland Clinic’s Lerner College of Medicine, Wang received several NIH grants. According to the criminal complaint, he failed to disclose he was also the dean of the College of Life Sciences and Technology at China’s Huazhong University of Science and Technology (HUST) at least on four occasions from 2014 to 2018. Failing to disclose affiliations with other universities is a violation of the grants’ terms.

Wang was also director of the Human Genome Research Center at the HUST, according to the criminal complaint.

Wang also received at least one grant from the National Natural Science Foundation of China, an agency run by China’s State Council, according to the complaint. The Chinese money was used for some of the same research funded by the NIH grants.

“Dr. Wang’s false representations and promises led NIH to approve and fund grants to Dr. Wang and his research group” at Cleveland Clinic, the FBI statement said.

When applying for three different Chinese grants, Wang also lied about his employment at Cleveland Clinic, saying that his employment had ended in 2004 in one application and 2008 in the other, according to the criminal complaint.

During Cleveland Clinic’s internal review,  Wang admitted on March 3 that China paid him $3 million for his participation in the TTP. Additionally, he was also given free travel and a three-bedroom apartment on the HUST campus for his personal use.

He also admitted to holding recruiting events on behalf of HUST at the Harvard Medical School, University of California at San Francisco, and University of Texas Southwestern, offering to provide around $200,000 to $300,000 in personal compensation per person in addition to research funding, access to graduate students, and laboratory space at HUST, according to the criminal complaint.

Wang admitted to having successfully recruited 40 to 50 researchers for HUST, according to the criminal complaint.

Wang also failed to disclose to Cleveland Clinic that he took genetic samples—donated by families from the United States under a cardiovascular disease program at the clinic—-to China for his own studies, according to the criminal complaint.

Prosecutors also found that Wang did not disclose to NIH or his employer that he was under obligation with the Chinese government to share his U.S.-funded research with entities in China.

“As this case demonstrates, Chinese government-supported talent plans continue to encourage people, regardless of nationality, to commit crimes, such as fraud to obtain U.S. taxpayer-funded research,” said Robert R. Wells, acting assistant director of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division, in the FBI statement.

Changjiang Scholars Program

TTP was not the only Chinese state-run recruitment program that Wang signed up for.

In 2005, Wang was selected to become an expert under the Changjiang Scholars program, a recruitment program rolled out by China’s Ministry of Education in 1998 to attract exemplary academics from the West.

Wang spoke to Chinese state-run media People’s Daily in December 2008, during which he reflected on why he went back to China.

“The all-around development of [my] motherland and the education atmosphere of the Huazhong University of Science and Technology deeply touched me. My career lies in China, and my new dreams fall on Yujia Mountain,” Wang said. Yujia Mountain is located near HUST in Wuhan.

People’s Daily reported that Wang met with another HUST professor named Yang Junguo at a academic conference held in the Chinese city of Tianjin in 2002. And it was Yang and the HUST’s then-vice president Ding Lieyun who successfully convinced him to return to China.

Wang and Yang then became director and deputy director at the HUST’s Human Genome Research Center, respectively.

According to People’s Daily, HUST also successfully recruited Wang’s student Liu Mugen, who did his Ph.D. thesis research at the Lerner Research Institute where Wang was teaching.

Wang said he successfully recruited four unnamed scholars abroad to return to China and work at HUST and that he and the school would rely on different channels to “attract more talents.”

Follow Frank on Twitter: @HwaiDer