A former University of Tennessee professor accused of hiding his ties with a Chinese university to get federal research funds has been acquitted of all charges.
U.S. District Judge Thomas A. Varlan on Thursday acquitted Anming Hu, a 52-year-old citizen of Canada charged with wire fraud and making false statements, of all charges, saying that the U.S. government hadn’t proven its case.
Hu’s case was part of the Justice Department’s “China Initiative,” an effort started under the Trump administration to identify and prosecute individuals stealing intellectual property from American colleges and universities on behalf of the Chinese communist regime.
Hu was first indicted in February 2020. The indictment alleges that beginning in 2016, Hu intentionally provided false statements to the University of Tennessee (UT) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to hide his affiliation with Beijing University of Technology (BJUT), one of 76 top-tier universities directly administered by the Chinese Ministry of Education.
Under a federal law passed in 2011, agencies like NASA are banned from using appropriated funds on projects involving collaboration with Chinese-owned companies or universities. Federal prosecutors said Hu’s statements caused UT to falsely certify to NASA that it was in compliance with that law.
UT officials testified to the court that a conflict of interest disclosure form they sent Hu asked him to list any outside work that earns him more than $10,000, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel. Hu earned less than $2,000 annually from his part-time work with BJUT, and failed to disclose his Beijing work on that form, although he mentioned his ties to BJUT in other required forms and in email exchanges with both UT officials and a NASA contractor.
“[E]ven viewing all the evidence in the light most favorable to the government, no rational jury could conclude that defendant acted with a scheme to defraud NASA” in failing to disclose his ties with the Beijing University of Technology to UTK, the judge wrote in his decision.
Varlan added that “there was no evidence presented that defendant ever collaborated with a Chinese university in conducting his NASA-funded research, or used facilities, equipment, or funds from a Chinese university in the course of such research.”
Civil rights group Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC) welcomed the acquittal, with president and executive director John C. Yang saying in a statement that Hu is “finally free to return to his life and be reunited with his family.”
“We must work vigilantly to ensure that what happened to Dr. Hu and his family does not happen again to anyone,” Yang added.
Federal authorities are increasingly cracking down on U.S. academics and researchers over ties with China-based institutions and China’s state-sponsored recruitment program known as the “Thousand Talents Program” due to concerns that it facilitates the transfer of sensitive U.S. research and intellectual property to the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
GQ Pan contributed to this report.