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.
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.'”