DOJ abandons visa fraud cases against Chinese military researchers in the US

DOJ abandons visa fraud cases against Chinese military researchers in the US

The Justice Department dropped a half-dozen cases against Chinese military researchers it had accused of lying on their visas to work in the United States in a dramatic reversal that came amid questions about the FBI's analysis of the evidence.

The cases, being heard in the Eastern District of California, were among a batch touted last summer by the DOJ and targeting members of the Chinese military.

“In all of our prosecutions, the Department of Justice evaluates the merits of a case as it prepares for trial," DOJ spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle told the Washington Examiner. "Recent developments in a handful of cases involving defendants with alleged, undisclosed ties to the People’s Liberation Army of the People’s Republic of China have prompted the department to reevaluate these prosecutions, and we have determined that it is now in the interest of justice to dismiss them."

One dropped case involved Tang Juan, whose trial had been slated to begin Monday. Tang was interviewed by the FBI in June 2020 about allegedly concealing her ties to the People’s Liberation Army while applying to be a researcher at the University of California. She then went into hiding in China’s consulate in San Francisco even as the U.S. booted China from its consulate in Houston, and China retaliated by closing the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu.

Tang’s defense lawyers told the court in a trial brief earlier this month that “there is dissension in the FBI’s own ranks” about the case against Tang. The lawyers pointed to an April 2021 draft analysis written by two FBI analysts titled “Defining the Extent of Obfuscation of Visiting Chinese Scholars’ Ties to the PLA.” The analysts suggested that the visa application's military service declaration is potentially ambiguous, making it difficult to determine "whether obfuscation is intentional or for nefarious tech transfer purposes.”

A DOJ official told the Washington Examiner that, in the Tang case, the draft FBI analysis led to follow-up questions and requests from Tang’s defense team that the DOJ couldn’t resolve before the Monday trial date. The DOJ official said that most of the Chinese military researcher prosecutions had been pending for more than a year and that the prison sentences were expected to be less than a year. Noting that most of the defendants had their liberty restricted since last summer, the DOJ moved for dismissal in all five similarly situated defendants.

“We are glad that the government decided to dismiss,” Tang’s lawyers, Malcolm Segal and Tom Johnson, told the Sacramento Bee. “We provided ample reason to do so. It was teetering anyway … We hope Dr. Tang is allowed to return to her daughter and husband on her own.”

The DOJ also sought dismissals in its cases against Xin Wang, Chen Song, Guan Lei, and Zhao Kaikai.

Xin was arrested at Los Angeles International Airport last June while trying to flee to China. The DOJ said he lied on his visa application and was an active-duty PLA member while working at the University of California, tasked with helping China replicate a U.S. lab.

Chen was an active-duty PLA military scientist who was arrested last year for allegedly committing visa fraud as a researcher at Stanford University, and the DOJ broadened its charges against her in February, charging her with destroying documents to hide her status as a member of China’s military.

A DOJ official told the Washington Examiner that dropping these charges was not connected with Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman’s trip to China.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian claimed on Friday that the U.S. was arresting Chinese researchers “under fabricated charges, violating legitimate rights and interests of Chinese nationals."

John Demers, the former head of DOJ’s China Initiative, said in December that more than 1,000 foreign researchers affiliated with the Chinese military left the U.S. following the crackdown against Tang and others last summer.

The half-dozen dismissed cases aren’t the only problems that DOJ’s China Initiative has run into recently. A judge declared a mistrial in June after a jury deadlocked after a trial against Anming Hu, a Tennessee engineering professor accused of concealing his work for a Chinese university as he received grant funding from NASA and other U.S. government agencies.