Zaosong Zheng, 29, was a graduate student at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and had entered the US on a visa sponsored by Harvard.
“Zheng’s appointment to [Beth Israel] was not an accident”
Authorities in the US allege that he stole biological specimens from Beth Israel’s lab and, according to an FBI agent, may have been collecting intellectual property on behalf of the Chinese government.
Court documents say that Zheng was arrested by customs officials in December 2019 after he attempted to fly from Boston to Beijing carrying the specimens his luggage.
He initially denied that vials he was carrying were biological specimens but later admitted he had stolen them from Beth Israel according to the documents. He was arrested on a charge of making false statements.
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center is a Harvard-affiliated teaching hospital. The institution fired Zheng after his arrest and his educational exchange visa has been revoked.
“We are deeply proud of the breadth and depth of our research programs,” Jennifer Kritz, a spokesperson for the hospital, told The Boston Globe.
“Any efforts to compromise research undermine the hard work of our faculty and staff to advance patient care,” she said.
According to the report, Zheng had a laptop that belonged to another researcher at the lab who had already travelled to China.
The FBI have alleged that Zheng and the other Chinese researcher may have worked together to smuggle research out of the lab and the country.
“Zheng’s appointment to [Beth Israel] was not an accident; he was knowingly gathering and collecting intellectual property from [Beth Israel] possibly on behalf of the Chinese government,” said Kara Spice, an FBI agent, in a court affidavit.
“This type of behaviour is expected of Chinese nationals when they travel to the United States and rewarded upon their return to China.”
Now Zheng is being held without bail after a judge ruled he was a flight risk.
US District Court Magistrate Judge David H. Hennessy said Zheng’s connections to the Chinese government, which gave him a scholarship, would make it easier for him to leave the country. Hennessy granted the federal prosecutors’ request to detain Zheng until his trial.
The court case comes at a time of increased concerns over US-based scientists working to benefit foreign governments.
An investigation by the US Department of Education into foreign funding at six US universities found that one had received research funding from a Chinese multinational conglomerate to develop new algorithms and advance biometric security techniques for crowd surveillance capabilities.
The FBI and the National Institutes of Health, the US government agency responsible for biomedical and public health research, are investigating the theft of US biomedical research by scientists with links to China.
So far, the NIH has opened more than 180 investigations into potential violations involving foreign influence in US research.