The FBI alleges that a researcher focusing on biology who lied about her connection to the Chinese military in order to receive a U.S. visa has avoided arrest by taking refuge in the Chinese consulate in San Francisco.
According to court filings, Tang Juan was issued a non-immigrant visa last fall to conduct research at the University of California, Davis. But after FBI agents found photos of her in military uniform on the internet, they interviewed her on June 20 about her visa application. She said she had never served in the military and was not a member of the Communist party, the filings say.
After that encounter with the FBI, she headed to the San Francisco consulate, where she's still staying, the FBI alleges. The government brought federal charges against Tang for visa fraud on June 26.
"The FBI assesses that, at some point following the search and interview of Tang on June 20, 2020, Tang went to the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco, where the FBI assesses she has remained," U.S. attorneys wrote in a July 20 court filing.
The filings come at a time of increased tension between the United States and China, and increased scrutiny over possible economic espionage by Chinese citizens working in the U.S.
On Wednesday, the U.S. State Department ordered China to close a consulate in Houston, Texas. Officials said the move was made to protect American intellectual property and "private information." On Tuesday, the Justice Department claimed that two Chinese citizens had tried to steal trade secrets by hacking into firms working on a vaccine for Covid-19.
Trump administration officials, including FBI Director Christopher Wray, have loudly criticized China's use of cyberattacks to steal intellectual property from American institutions. The U.S. has also tried to hamper Huawei Technologies over fears that wireless networks using its technology could be used to spy on Americans.
The detail about Tang's current refuge in the consulate was revealed as part of a separate case about a different Chinese citizen wanted for visa fraud. In the filing, U.S. attorneys attempt to connect Tang's case to other researchers with Chinese military ties, focusing on a university in China, called FMMU, that is affiliated with the People's Liberation Army (PLA).
"Defendant's case is not an isolated one, but instead appears to be part of a program conducted by
the PLA—and specifically, FMMU or associated institutions—to send military scientists to the United States on false pretenses with false covers or false statements about their true employment," the attorneys wrote. "There exists evidence in at least one of these cases of a military scientist copying or stealing information from American institutions at the direction of military superiors in China."
Axios, which previously reported the Tang filing, suggested that using diplomatic immunity, like consulates enjoy, to shelter someone accused of crimes is an unusual move for Chinese diplomats. The Vienna Convention, which is the agreement that outlines how diplomats should conduct themselves when in a foreign country, says that embassy or consulate employees with criminal immunity still have a duty to "respect the laws and regulations of the receiving State."
The U.S. government said in the July 20 filing: "As the Tang case demonstrates, the Chinese consulate in San Francisco provides a potential safe harbor for a PLA official intent on avoiding prosecution in the United States."
A spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in Washington DC did not immediately return a request for comment.