Chinese researcher who took refuge in San Francisco consulate in US custody, officials say

A person walks past China's consulate in San Francisco, California, on July 23, 2020.
A person walks past China's consulate in San Francisco, California, on July 23, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

SAN FRANCISCO (BLOOMBERG) – US officials said on Friday (July 24) they now have custody of a Chinese researcher who had taken shelter at the country’s consulate in San Francisco after she was charged with trying to hide her military background.

Officials briefing reporters declined to discuss the circumstances of the arrest of Juan Tang, a researcher at the University of California at Davis who was accused of lying on her US visa application.  

Tang became a flash point in deteriorating US-China relations when federal prosecutors declared her a fugitive on Thursday (July 24) and spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry called her a victim of “political persecution.” She is set to appear in federal court in Sacramento on Monday (July 27).

As the countries have sparred publicly by closing each other’s consular offices in Houston and Chengdu, the Justice Department is investigating universities across the US in an attempt to uncover members of China’s military forces who it says are hiding in plain sight.

“These members of China’s People Liberation Army applied for research visas while hiding their true affiliation with the PLA,” Assistant Attorney-General for National Security John C. Demers said in a statement.

“This is another part of the Chinese Communist Party’s plan to take advantage of our open society and exploit academic institutions. We will continue to conduct this investigation together with the FBI.”

Days after US agents interviewed Tang last month, prosecutors filed a criminal complaint against her in federal court, under seal.

Prosecutors said in a court filing this month that the Chinese consulate in San Francisco provides “a potential safe harbor for a PLA official intent on avoiding prosecution in the US.” 

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin stopped short of saying whether Tang was being sheltered by diplomats.

“We urge the US to stop using any excuse to limit, harass and crack down on Chinese scholars and Chinese students in the US,” he told a regular news briefing in Beijing. 

The Justice Department said in a statement that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has interviewed other visa holders suspected of having an “undeclared affiliation” with the Chinese military in more than 25 American cities.

The statement identified three others, besides Tang: Xin Wang, arrested June 7, had risen to the equivalent rank of Major as a lab technician for the People’s Liberation Army, and lied about his military career to get a visa to do research at the University of California in San Francisco, prosecutors said. 

Chen Song, a neurologist doing research at Stanford University, was arrested July 18 because she lied about her affiliation with the Air Force General Hospital in Beijing, according to the statement. A search of her hard drive revealed the “false front” she presented to her employer, prosecutors said.

Kaikai Zhao, studying artificial intelligence at Indiana University, lied about his service in China’s National University of Defense Technology, according to the Justice Department. A complaint against Zhao was unsealed earlier this week. 

The criminal complaint against Tang, unsealed on July 20 in a Sacramento, California, federal court, accused her of falsely denying connections to the Chinese military and the Chinese Communist Party.
 
Tang applied for a US visa in October to study cancer treatments at the state university campus located just outside of Sacramento. 

An FBI agent said in the complaint that Tang had apparent connections to the military, based on an internet search of news articles. Agents interviewed her at her apartment in Davis last month and seized electronic material under a search warrant. 

Tang denied any connection to the military or the Communist Party, but agents found a photograph of her in military uniform in the electronic material.
 
Tang told the agents she was required to wear the uniform to attend medical school because it was run by the military.  They also found an application for government benefits in which she listed her political affiliation as a Communist Party member, according to the agent’s affidavit.