WASHINGTON – The Justice Department postponed this week to drop cases it filed last year against five visiting researchers accused of hiding their ties to the Chinese military, raising questions about the department’s efforts to address national security threats China posed.
The department filed requests Thursday and Friday to dismiss visa fraud and other charges it brought against the researchers last summer as the Biden government wrestles Beijing for its cyberattacks and harsh raids in Hong Kong and the far western part Xinjiang region to account. The layoffs also come as the State Department’s No. 2 officer Wendy R. Sherman is due to meet with Chinese officials in Tianjin, China, in the coming days.
“Recent developments in a handful of cases of defendants with alleged undisclosed links to the People’s Liberation Army of the People’s Republic of China have prompted the department to reassess those charges,” said Wyn Hornbuckle, a Justice Department spokesman, giving some details. “We have decided that it is now in the interests of justice to turn her away.”
The arrests were part of a spate of cases last summer involving researchers and academics with ties to China as the Trump administration aggressively tried to contain Beijing’s efforts to steal intellectual property, corporate secrets, military intelligence and other information it to influence its global expansion. At that time, the United States ordered China to close its consulate in Houston, accusing it of being a center for “massive illegal espionage and influence.” China denied the allegations and forced the closure of a US consulate in Chengdu in retaliation.
As part of the Trump-era initiative, the Justice Department prosecuted people linked to the Chinese government for serious computer violations and industrial espionage. It also went against China’s efforts to cultivate and influence academics at American universities and research centers, and arrested academics accused of inappropriately disseminating technical expertise and other research.
Officials said more than 1,000 researchers linked to the Chinese military left the United States following the arrests last summer.
Hornbuckle said the recent filings do not reflect a departure from the initiative and that the division “continues to place a very high priority on countering the threats to American research security and academic integrity” posed by Beijing.
Among the five scientists arrested was a cancer researcher named Tang Juan, who was charged last July and whose trial was due to begin Monday in the eastern borough of California.
Credit…Department of Justice, via Associated Press
A federal court on Friday upheld the Justice Department’s motion to dismiss Ms. Tang’s case several weeks after a judge concluded that the FBI had failed to inform her that she had the right not to incriminate herself, and dismissed the Department’s false testimony charges.
Complicating the case was a draft FBI analysis released earlier this year that said there was no clear link between those charged with disguising their ties to China, such as she and the four other defendants, and those who illegally provided information the country.
A senior Justice Department official said the analysis led the defense attorney to ask questions that the department was unable to resolve before the trial of Ms. Tang was due to begin.
The department also found that the maximum sentence for visa fraud charges is one year or less, and since Ms. Tang and the other defendants had already been imprisoned for a year or otherwise restricted while awaiting trial, have they had essentially served their time.
The Department’s motion to dismiss Guan Lei, Wang Xin, Song Chen and Zhao Kaikai is pending in federal courts in California and Indiana.