U.S. Moves to Drop Cases Against Chinese Researchers

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department moved this week to drop cases that it brought last year against five visiting researchers accused of hiding their ties to China’s military, prompting questions about the department’s efforts to combat Chinese national security threats.

The department filed motions on Thursday and Friday to dismiss visa fraud and other charges it brought last summer against the researchers as the Biden administration grapples with holding Beijing accountable for its cyberattacks and its harsh crackdowns in Hong Kong and in the far western region of Xinjiang. The dismissals also come as the State De­part­ment’s No. 2 of­fi­cial, Wendy R. Sher­man, is to meet in the coming days with Chinese officials in Tianjin, China.

“Recent developments in a handful of cases involving defendants with alleged, undisclosed ties to the People’s Liberation Army of the People’s Republic of China have prompted the department to re-evaluate these prosecutions,” said Wyn Hornbuckle, a Justice Department spokesman, offering few specifics. “We have determined that it is now in the interest of justice to dismiss them.”

The arrests were part of a spate of cases last summer involving researchers and academics who had ties to China as the Trump administration aggressively sought to curb Beijing’s efforts to steal intellectual property, corporate secrets, military intelligence and other information it could use to expand its global influence. At the time, the United States ordered China to close its Hous­ton con­sulate, accusing it of being a hub for “massive illegal spying and influence operations.” China denied the allegations and retaliated by forcing a U.S. consulate in Chengdu to close.

Under the Trump-era initiative, the Justice Department prosecuted people affiliated with the Chinese government for major computer breaches and for economic espionage. It also cracked down on China’s efforts to cultivate and influence academics at American colleges and research centers, arresting academics accused of improperly sharing technical expertise and other research.

Officials have said that more than 1,000 researchers affiliated with the Chi­nese mil­i­tary left the United States after the arrests last summer.

Mr. Hornbuckle said that the latest motions did not reflect a shift away from the initiative and that the department “continues to place a very high priority on countering the threat posed to American research security and academic integrity” by Beijing.

Among the five scientists arrested was a cancer researcher named Tang Juan, who was charged last July and whose trial was slated to begin on Monday in the Eastern District of California.

Credit…Justice Department, via Associated Press

A federal court granted the Justice Department’s motion to dismiss Ms. Tang’s case on Friday, several weeks after a judge concluded that the F.B.I. had not informed her that she had the right not to incriminate herself and dismissed the department’s charge of making false statements.

The case was complicated by a draft F.B.I. analysis issued this year that said it could not show a clear link between people who obfuscated their ties to China, as she and the four other defendants were accused of doing, and those who illegally transferred information to the country.

A senior Justice Department official said that the analysis prompted the defense counsel to raise questions that the department could not resolve before Ms. Tang’s trial was to begin.

The department also determined that the maximum sentence for visa fraud charges is a year or less in prison, and given that Ms. Tang and the other defendants had already been imprisoned or otherwise had their liberty restricted for about a year as they awaited trial, they had essentially served their time.

The department’s motions to dismiss cases against Guan Lei, Wang Xin, Song Chen and Zhao Kaikai are pending in federal courts in California and Indiana.

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