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Texas A&M professor, NASA researcher charged with hiding ties to China

Texas A&M professor, NASA researcher charged with hiding ties to China
Zhengdong Cheng, 53, was hired by Texas A&M University in 2004. Photo courtesy of Texas A&M University/Website

Aug. 25 (UPI) -- The Justice Department has charged a Texas A&M University professor and NASA researcher with lying about his affiliations with Chinese universities, institutions and a government program that recruits foreign nationals with knowledge of U.S. technology and intellectual property.

Zhengdong Cheng, 53, of College Station, Texas, was charged with conspiracy, making false statements and wire fraud in a criminal complaint unsealed Monday, the Justice Department said in a release.

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"Once again, we have witnessed the criminal consequences that can arise from undisclosed participation in the Chinese government's talent program," Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers said.

According to the complaint, Cheng is accused of participating in a scheme with individuals known and unknown to defraud NASA and gain access to unique resources, including those of the International Space Station, to further research at Chinese institutions and enhance his standing in a Chinese government program that incentivizes foreign Chinese nationals to steal international technology and intellectual property for Beijing.

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Cheng, arrested Sunday, is the latest person to be charged as part of the Justice Department's so-called China Initiative crackdown on those engaged in trade secret theft, hacking and economic espionage for Beijing. It also targets those who pose threats to U.S. infrastructure through foreign investment and supply-chain compromises.

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Dozens, many professors, have been charged under this initiative since its first arrest in April 2018.

"China is building an economy and academic institutions with bricks stolen from others all around the world," U.S. Attorney Ryan K. Patrick for the Southern District of Texas said in a statement. "While 1.4 million foreign researchers and academics are here in the U.S. for the right reasons, the Chinese Talents Program exploits our open and free universities. These conflicts must be disclosed, and we will hold those accountable when such conflict violates the law."

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Cheng was hired by Texas A&M in May 2004 and was part of a research team that received government grants, including a nearly $750,000 grant to conduct research for NASA, the complaint said.

During the application process for this grant, Cheng hid his many paid affiliations with Chinese universities and institutions from NASA and his university. He also failed to disclose that he had taken part in China's River Talent Plan and was an applicant for its Thousand Talents Plan.

"Through these plans, the Chinese government has created a significant financial incentive for foreign, talented individuals to transfer international technology and intellectual property to China, licitly or otherwise," the complaint said.

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China uses the information these assets give it for scientific development, economic prosperity and national security, prosecutors said.

If NASA knew of Cheng's Chinese affiliations, the complaint states, the grant would not have been awarded.

"NASA's funding restrictions are in place to protect taxpayer-financed research dollars and intellectual property," said Special Agent in Charge Mark Zielinski of the NASA Office of the Inspector General. "We will continue to pursue anyone who attempts to circumvent these guidelines and conceal affiliations with Chinese institutions and companies in order to obtain NASA grant money."

The Justice Department said about 80% of all economic espionage prosecutions in the United States accuse the suspect of working for China.

Cheng's arrest came less than a week after the Justice Department announced that former CIA officer Alexander Yuk Ching Ma, 67, had been charged under the China Initiative for communicating classified information to intelligence officials in Beijing.

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