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Former Texas professor pleads guilty to making false statements on China ties

Former Texas A&M University, College Station, material scientist Zhengdong Cheng pleaded guilty today to two federal charges of making false statements to NASA that hid his ties to two Chinese universities. Cheng also agreed to repay NASA $86,876, funds awarded for a microgravity experiment to be conducted on the International Space Station.

Despite his conviction, Cheng’s plea represents the latest case to crumble under the Department of Justice’s (DOJ’s) China Initiative, a controversial law enforcement campaign that has prosecuted two dozen U.S. academic scientists, predominantly of Chinese ancestry. Many were initially charged with trying to defraud the government, often accompanied by statements from DOJ officials that implied they had shared research results that would benefit China and threaten U.S. national security. Some scientists pleaded guilty and went to prison. But in most cases the government either abandoned the most serious charges, failed to convince a jury the defendants were guilty, or had convictions later overturned by the federal judge.

In Cheng’s case, the government initially charged him with nine counts of defrauding the government as well as making false statements. But at today’s hearing, before the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, in Houston, U.S. Attorney Jennifer Lowery announced the government had agreed to accept Cheng’s plea on the two counts of making false statements. The two sides also agreed on a sentence of time served, referring to the 13 months that Cheng spent in prison after his arrest in August 2020.

At issue was a 2010 clause attached to NASA’s annual spending bill that banned the agency from funding any research involving Chinese entities. NASA interpreted that clause, written by former Representative Frank Wolf (R–VA) as a way to punish China for its treatment of ethnic and religious minorities, as applying to Chinese universities as well as to companies and government agencies.

Cheng admitted today he had failed to disclose his work for two Chinese universities—Guangdong University of Technology and Southern University of Science and Technology—when applying for and working on the NASA grant before and after it was awarded in 2013. He agreed to repay the agency, and to pay a $20,000 fine.

Cheng joined the Texas A&M faculty in 2004 and was terminated in December 2020.

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