Harvard grad student busted trying to smuggle stolen research to China ‘will plead guilty’

Zaosong Zheng, 30, is set to appear before a Massachusetts judge on Thursday, twelve months after he was arrested at Boston Logan Airport with 21 vials of cancer cells in a suitcase he was taking to China

Zaosong Zheng, 30, is set to appear before a Massachusetts judge on Thursday, twelve months after he was arrested at Boston Logan Airport with 21 vials of cancer cells in a suitcase he was taking to China

A Harvard graduate student who allegedly attempted to smuggle  secret cancer research materials out of the United States will plead guilty to lying to customs agents. 

Zaosong Zheng, 30, is set to appear before a Massachusetts judge on Thursday, twelve months after he was arrested at Boston Logan Airport with 21 vials of cancer cells in a suitcase he was taking to China.     

Zheng told Customs and Border Protection agents at the time that he was not traveling with any concealed specimens. However, he later admitted to having stolen the vials from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, a hospital affiliated with Harvard, where he had been working since 2018. 

Zheng was subsequently charged with making false statements to CBP agents and attempting to smuggle goods out of the US.  

He is now expected to plead guilty to the false statements charge as part of a plea deal. 

At the time of his arrest, the FBI theorized that Zheng may have been trying to smuggle the cells out of the country for the Chinese government.  

There is growing concern among US officials that China is increasing their influence at top American colleges in a bid to steal cutting-edge research and intellectual property to advance their own aims. 

The presence of Chinese spies and their theft of American intellectual property has been dubbed ‘academic espionage’.  

According to a US judge, Zheng was receiving a $2,000-a-month stipend from the Chinese government-run China Scholarship Council. 

FBI Special Agent Kara Spice wrote in an affidavit shortly after Zheng’s arrest that the Chinese government ‘uses postgraduate students and post-graduate researchers and professionals in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics to obtain and often steal intellectual property from the U.S.’ 

Zheng’s roommate, Jialin Li, was reported to be a cadet in the People’s Liberation Army of China and was also employed at the Beth Israel lab. 

At the time of his arrest, the FBI theorized that Zheng may have been trying to smuggle the cells out of the country for the Chinese government (stock image)

At the time of his arrest, the FBI theorized that Zheng may have been trying to smuggle the cells out of the country for the Chinese government (stock image)

‘I believe, based on my training and experience, that Zheng’s appointment at (Beth Israel) was not an accident, and that he was knowingly gathering and collecting intellectual property from Beth Israel possibly on behalf of the Chinese government,’ Spice wrote in her affidavit. 

However, prosecutors have reportedly been unable to conclusively prove that the Chinese government was behind the smuggling attempt. 

Instead, Zheng stated that he intended to bring the vials back to his home country  to use them to conduct research in his own laboratory and publish the results under his own name. 

The maximum penalty for making false statements to US authorities is five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

However, it’s believed prosecutors will instead request that Zheng be deported and barred from returning to the United States for 10 years. 

His court case comes just six months after a Harvard professor was also accused of having illegal ties to Chinese officials. 

In June, Dr Charles Lieber, 61, the former chair of Harvard’s chemistry and chemical biology department, plead not guilty to charges that he lied to U.S. authorities about his ties to a China-run recruitment program and funding he received from the Chinese government for research.

The case largely centers on China’s Thousand Talents Program, established in 2008.  

Zheng admitted to having stolen the vials from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, a hospital affiliated with Harvard, where he had been working since 2018. He is pictured with his wife last year

Zheng admitted to having stolen the vials from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, a hospital affiliated with Harvard, where he had been working since 2018. He is pictured with his wife last year 

In June, Dr Charles Lieber, 61, the former chair of Harvard's chemistry and chemical biology department, plead not guilty to charges that he lied to U.S. authorities about his ties to a China-run recruitment program and funding he received from the Chinese government for research

In June, Dr Charles Lieber, 61, the former chair of Harvard’s chemistry and chemical biology department, plead not guilty to charges that he lied to U.S. authorities about his ties to a China-run recruitment program and funding he received from the Chinese government for research 

According to Lieber’s indictment, ‘China’s Thousand Talents Plan is one of the most prominent Chinese talent recruitment plans designed to attract, recruit, and cultivate high-level scientific talent in furtherance of China’s scientific development, economic prosperity and national security.’

The U.S. government has designated the program as a danger to national security, due to concern about spying and intellectual property theft by Chinese authorities. The program has been dubbed ‘academic espionage’. 

Prosecutors allege Lieber became a ‘strategic scientist’ at Wuhan University of Technology in China in 2011, and from 2012 to 2015 contractually participated in the Thousand Talents Program.

Under his contract, Lieber was paid up to $50,000 per month and living expenses of up to $158,000, prosecutors said. He also was awarded more than $1.5 million to establish a research lab, prosecutors said.

However, at the same time, Lieber was serving as the Principal Investigator of the Lieber Research Group at Harvard University, which received more than $15 million in research grants from the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the U.S.  Department of Defense (DOD). 

As part of that funding arrangement, Lieber was required to disclose potential financial conflicts of interest and all foreign collaboration. Prosecutors allege he did not follow through with this. 

There is growing concern among US officials that China is increasing their influence at top American colleges in a bid to steal cutting-edge research intellectual property to advance their own aims. Harvard is pictured

There is growing concern among US officials that China is increasing their influence at top American colleges in a bid to steal cutting-edge research intellectual property to advance their own aims. Harvard is pictured 

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