The FBI has arrested a Chinese government official as part of China's massive scheme to illegally obtain American technology by recruiting experts in high-tech fields.
Zhongsan Liu was arrested after a lengthy investigation into his role in directing a Chinese government front group in New Jersey called the China Association for International Exchange of Personnel (CAIEP), the Justice Department said in a statement.
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A criminal complaint in the case dated Sept. 13 also linked the visa fraud charges to a Chinese government-funded Confucius Institute at a U.S. university.
The more than 100 Confucius Institutes have become a major focus of several members of Congress who have sought to have the institutes shut down in response to their role in furthering pro-Beijing propaganda activities.
From 2017 to this month Liu conspired to fraudulently procure U.S. visas for Chinese officials, according to a criminal complaint unsealed in a New York court.
Visas were obtained with the help of six universities in Massachusetts, Georgia, New Jersey, and elsewhere that were not identified by name.
Liu, 57, resides in Fort Lee, New Jersey, and is charged with a single count of conspiracy to commit visa fraud. If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison.
The front group is engaged in recruiting U.S. scientists, academics, engineers, and other experts to support China's large-scale program of developing high-technology in China. Liu has led the front group for 26 years.
In the visa fraud, Liu arranged for J-1 research visas at U.S. universities ostensibly to support Chinese "research scholars" at those schools.
In reality, according to prosecutors, Liu made the arrangements "with the knowledge that, once in the United States, the CAIEP employees would not in fact principally conduct research on behalf of their sponsoring universities but rather would work full time for CAIEP."
The criminal complaint quoted one Chinese official in an intercepted phone call stating that "if he/she is in a college or university and has a PhD degree, it will be very easy for us to give him/her a J-1 [visa]."
The Beijing recruitment effort is part of the Beijing-directed "Thousand Talents Plan" that recruits Chinese-Americans and others to sign contracts outlining specific research in China.
"That contractual obligation often resembles or even replicates the work the recruit performs or performed for his or her U.S.-based, or other overseas employer, thereby leveraging the recruit's knowledge and access to intellectual property obtained from U.S. and foreign businesses and government laboratories," the complaint says.
The program is directed by the Chinese government's State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs.
Liu is a senior official of that agency, according to the complaint and an FBI agent said in the complaint that he infiltrated a meeting attended by Liu when he was identified as part of China's Ministry of Science and Technology, which recently merged with the State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs.
Liu worked with the Chinese embassy in Washington and consulate in New York during the recruitment scheme.
Since 2017, Liu traveled to major U.S. universities seeking "high-caliber experts," professors, and students to work for China.
The complaint included details of intercepted telephone calls and emails between Liu and Chinese officials.
Investigators produced portions of an intercepted email revealing that a Chinese official traveled to Boston to meet the president of a Confucius Institute at the Massachusetts university. Their conversation involved helping a Chinese recruiter become a researcher at the school.
The White House stated in a report on Chinese "economic aggression" made public in 2018 that the Thousand Talents Plan was launched in 2008 and targets scholars who are leaders in their respective fields on high-level research institutes. The targeted scholars "may hold intellectual property rights, key technologies, or patents in technological fields desired by China," the report said.
"Chinese government sources claim over 44,000 highly skilled Chinese personnel have returned to China since 2009 through talent plans," the report said. "As noted by China Daily, which is owned by the Chinese Communist Party: ‘China has more than 300 entrepreneurial parks for students returned from overseas. More than 24,500 enterprises have been set up in the parks by over 67,000 overseas returnees.'"
According to the Pentagon's latest annual report on the Chinese military, the Thousand Talents Plan is used to bolster the People's Liberation Army military buildup.
"China uses various incentive strategies to attract foreign personnel to work on and manage strategic programs and fill technical knowledge gaps, including the ‘Thousand Talents Program,' which prioritizes recruiting people of Chinese descent or recent Chinese emigrants whose recruitment the Chinese government views as necessary to Chinese scientific and technical modernization, especially with regard to defense technology," the report said.
Michael Wessel, a commissioner with the congressional U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, said the arrest was deeply troubling.
"It is another startling example of the lengths to which China will go to acquire our research through illicit means," Wessel told the Washington Free Beacon.
"In the middle of trade negotiations that are focused on addressing China's theft of our intellectual property, it raises serious questions as to whether China will ever negotiate in good faith on this issue. China has made clear that it wants to acquire our key technology by whatever means are necessary—licit or illicit. We can no longer afford to accept empty promises and worthless agreements."
Former CIA deputy director for counterintelligence Mark Kelton said the Thousand Talents Program is part of a major Chinese assault on U.S. business and industry.
"Pilfering of U.S. technology, much of it embargoed military and defense equipment stolen by China and Russia, has reached Cold War levels," Kelton said.
"At the same time, in accord with its so-called Thousand Talents Plan begun in 2008, Beijing is also drawing on the skills of its citizens educated or employed in the U.S. to ‘transfer, replicate and eventually overtake U.S. military and commercial technology.'"
Kelton said the overall loss of U.S. technology and knowledge to China "endangers our national security."
The former CIA counterspy said the Chinese technology collection is stealing American wealth, American jobs, and American competitive advantage.
A November 2018 report by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative on China's illicit trade practices identified a Chinese government-linked company, Oriza Holdings, as a funding source for Thousand Talents.
"Oriza Holdings claims to have established a ‘Thousand Talents' Venture Capital Center, which has 96 equity investment management teams that manage 152 funds exceeding over CNY 131 billion ($20 billion) in value as well as seven debt financing service organizations which have serviced over 4,200 enterprises," the report said.
A Chinese embassy spokesman did not return an email seeking comment.
Assistant Attorney General John C. Demers, head of the National Security Section, said the United States welcomes foreign students and researchers but not government-backed visa fraud.
"We will continue to confront Chinese government attempts to subvert American law to advance its own interests in diverting U.S. research and know-how to China," he said.