US charges NASA researcher for concealing Chinese ties

Chinese American arrested for secretly participating in Beijing’s ‘Thousand Talents Plan’ while conducting federally funded research

NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C. (Pixabay photo)

NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C. (Pixabay photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — NASA researcher and Texas A&M University professor Cheng Zhengdong (成正東) was arrested by U.S. prosecutors Sunday (Aug. 23) for attempting to conceal his affiliation with the Chinese government while conducting federally funded research.

According to the U.S. Justice Department, Cheng was charged with wire fraud, conspiracy, and making false statements on allegations that he was secretly collaborating with a Chinese university and at least one Chinese-owned company during his NASA research. Cheng is believed to have been a participant in China's "Thousand Talents Plan" (TTP, 千人計畫), a program to recruit international talents that is widely seen as a tool to gain Beijing access to foreign technology.

The prosecutors said the 53-year-old had received nearly US$750,000 in federal funding to conduct research at the space agency. They added that NASA would have denied Cheng the grant money if it had known about his close affiliation to Beijing, South China Morning Post reported.

Meanwhile, Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers said the U.S. has once again "witnessed the criminal consequences" of the TTP. He promised that the Justice Department will continue to track down participants in the recruitment program to ensure the safety of the American people, reported CNA.

Cheng is not the first such talent to hide his connections to the TTP while conducting research for his own government.

In January, Harvard University professor Charles Lieber was charged with concealing his ties with the Chinese program and a People's Liberation Army lieutenant. Zhu Fenglian (朱鳳蓮), spokeswoman for Beijing's Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO), said last November that at least 72 Taiwanese professionals had enlisted in the program.

Cheng Zhengdong charged with wire fraud, conspiracy, and making false statements. (Texas A&M University screenshot)