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Texas A&M professor accused of secretly collaborating with China amid NASA work

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Key Points
  • A Texas A&M professor was charged with conspiracy, making false statements and wire fraud on allegations that he was secretly collaborating with the Chinese government while conducting research for NASA, the Department of Justice said Monday.
  • Zhengdong Cheng, 53, an engineering professor and a NASA researcher, obscured his affiliations and collaboration with a Chinese university and at least one Chinese-owned company, according to a criminal complaint. 
  • Cheng's arrest comes almost two months after the DOJ announced the indictment of a Harvard professor, Charles Lieber, who allegedly made false statements to federal authorities regarding work at a university in China.
Texas A&M professor, NASA researcher accused of secretly collaborating with China
Source: TAMU

WASHINGTON — A Texas A&M professor was charged with conspiracy, making false statements and wire fraud on allegations that he was secretly collaborating with the Chinese government while conducting research for NASA, the Department of Justice said Monday.

According to a criminal complaint, Zhengdong Cheng, 53, a professor in the College of Engineering at Texas A&M and a NASA researcher, obscured his affiliations and collaboration with a Chinese university and at least one Chinese-owned company.

"The terms of Cheng's grant prohibited participation, collaboration or coordination with China, any Chinese-owned company or any Chinese University," the DOJ wrote in a release. 

"Once again, we have witnessed the criminal consequences that can arise from undisclosed participation in the Chinese government's talent program," Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers said in a statement. "The Department of Justice will continue seeking to bring participation in these talent programs to light and to expose the exploitation of our nation and our prized research institutions," he added.

The DOJ has previously described China's Thousand Talents Plan as a tool of the Chinese Communist Party to "attract, recruit, and cultivate high-level scientific talent in furtherance of China's scientific development, economic prosperity and national security." Through this program, the Chinese government would "often reward individuals for stealing proprietary information," the DOJ said.

"While 1.4 million foreign researchers and academics are here in the U.S. for the right reasons, the Chinese Talents Program exploits our open and free universities," said Ryan Patrick, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Texas, adding that ties to the Chinese government must be disclosed. 

Cheng was hired by Texas A&M in 2004 and worked for the Guangdong University of Technology in Guangdong, China, from 2012 to 2018, according to the criminal complaint.

Texas A&M System Chancellor John Sharp said the university worked with the FBI during the investigation into Cheng.

"We worked closely with the FBI on this case and we gladly will work with them again as needed," Sharp told KBTX-TV 3. "No one in higher education takes security as seriously as we do at The Texas A&M University System."

Cheng's arrest comes almost two months after the Justice Department announced the indictment of a Harvard professor who allegedly made false statements to federal authorities regarding work at Wuhan University of Technology in China.

The Justice Department alleges that Charles Lieber, 61, the former chairman of Harvard University's Chemistry and Chemical Biology Department, became a contractual participant in China's Thousand Talents Plan for at least three years.