NASA researcher and Texas professor Zhengdong Cheng accused for hiding ties with China

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration researcher and Texas A&M University professor has been accused for accepting federal grant money while hiding work he was doing for an university recognized by the Chinese government as well as his affiliation with Chinese-owned companies.

According to a criminal complaint released by the Justice Department on Monday, Zhengdong Cheng faces charges of wire fraud, conspiracy and false statements. He was detained on Sunday.

The case against Cheng is part of a pattern of Justice Department prosecutions against researchers at American universities who are accused of concealing their professional relationships with Chinese universities. The Trump administration has sought to crack down on professors tempted to exploit their ties to China, and their participation in talent recruitment programs, by stealing intellectual property for Beijing’s economic benefit.

Cheng, who was hired in 2004 by Texas A&M, led a team of researchers that received, around $750,000 in NASA grants for space research. At the same time, though, he served as director of an institute in Guangdong, China that was established by China’s Education Ministry, say prosecutors. In addition, he participated in talent recruitment programs established by the Chinese government that the United States says entices professors at American universities to steal cutting-edge research that can be provided to China.

Prosecutors say that  Cheng hid those affiliations from the university and from NASA even as he collected federal grant money, and even though restrictions on the grant barred collaborating or coordinating with China, Chinese universities or China-owned companies.

Cheng’s voicemail box at the university was full and could not accept messages, and it was not immediately clear if he had a lawyer. An email to the university seeking comment was not immediately returned.

The Justice Department will “continue seeking to bring participate in these talent programs to light,” said Assistant Attorney General John Demers, the department’s top national security official in a statement.

US, he top federal prosecutor for the Southern District of Texas, Attorney Ryan Patrick,  said that the talent recruitment programs exploit “our open and free universities.”

“China is building an economic and academic institutions with bricks stolen from others all around the world,” said Patrick in a statement.

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