US Professor Charged for Illegally Using US Research Grants to Aid China

July 10, 2020 Updated: July 10, 2020

A U.S. professor has been arrested for using over $4 million in federal grant money to benefit China’s research in rheumatology and immunology.

Zheng Songguo, 57, a rheumatology professor at the Ohio State University (OSU), was arrested in Alaska on May 22, before he could fly to China on a charter flight, according to a July 9 press release from the Department of Justice (DOJ). When he was arrested, he was carrying multiple items, including several USB drives, three cellphones, and a briefcase containing two laptops.

“We allege that Zheng was preparing to flee the country after he learned that his employer had begun an administrative process into whether or not he was complying with rules governing taxpayer-funded grants,” stated David M. DeVillers, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio, in the press release.

At a detention hearing on Thursday, Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Preston of the federal court for the Southern District of Ohio, ordered Zheng to be held without bond because he was a flight risk.

Zheng is charged with one account of grant fraud for failure to disclose that he was engaged in a scheme to use about $4.1 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to help the Chinese regime. According to the DOJ, the fraud charge is punishable by up to ten years in prison.

He is also charged with one count of making false statements, which is punishable by up to five years in prison. According to prosecutors, he failed to disclose his employment positions in China while being employed at U.S. universities, including Ohio State University (OSU).

U.S. Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers said in the press release that the federal grants were “designed to benefit the health and well-being of the people of the United States—not to be hijacked to supplement the research goals of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).”

According to a criminal complaint unsealed on Thursday, Zhang was an associate professor at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California (USC) from 2000 to 2012. Then from 2013 to 2019, he was a professor of medicine and director of rheumatology research at Pennsylvania State University. He has been a professor and researcher in rheumatology and immunology at OSU since January 2019.

While employed at OSU, Zheng was also employed at the Third Affiliated Hospital at Sun Yat-Sen University, located in southern China’s Guangdong Province. The university’s homepage named him as an expert under the Thousand Talents Plan (TTP), according to the criminal complaint. The website is no longer accessible.

Beijing rolled out the TTP in 2008 to recruit promising science and tech researchers from foreign countries to work in China, for the ultimate goal of fulfilling its ambitions in global tech dominance.

It is unclear when Zheng was first recruited for the TTP. In May 2017, Sun Yat-Sen University announced on its website that Zheng was among six chosen for a provisional state-run recruitment program called the “Pearl River Talent Program.”

There were times when Zheng was receiving money from both the U.S. NIH and National Natural Science Foundation of China (NNSFC), which is managed by China’s Ministry of Science and Technology.

FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) agents found that Zheng did not disclose his funding from NNSFC for a total of four different NIH applications.

For two of those U.S. grants, which he submitted an application for in April 2019, FBI agents found that he was also a project manager on at least three NNSFC grants.

“As part of the NIH grant applications, Zheng made either untimely, incomplete, or no disclosure of foreign components, foreign affiliation, for foreign funding to his employers,” according to the criminal complaint.

One of Zheng’s simultaneous U.S. and Chinese projects was for a project at Sun Yat-Sen University in 2017. The Chinese NNSFC gave Zheng about 600,000 yuan (about $86,400) in grant money, according to the criminal complaint.

In recent months, federal authorities have prosecuted several criminal cases involving U.S. professors who signed up for Chinese recruitment programs, usually the TTP.

In March, a former West Virginia University professor pleaded guilty to fraud in connection to his participation in TTP, according to a DOJ press release.

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, while receiving grant money from NASA. Days later, a former Emory University professor was convicted for tax fraud related to his earnings while participating in TTP.

A former chair of Harvard University’s chemistry department was indicted in June on charges of making false statements about funding he received from TTP while working on sensitive U.S. research, some of it involving lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles.

Follow Frank on Twitter: @HwaiDer