Chinese Scientist, Song Gou Zheng was confronted in early May by one of his U.S. employers, The Ohio State University, regarding his foreign affiliations and failure to comply with rules surrounding National Institutes of Health (NIH) research grants. In other words, Zheng’s Chinese affiliations were benefiting from more than $4.1 million in NIH funded research at Ohio State. Like many participants in China’s Thousand Talent Program, they are rewarded handsomely by China for sharing and advancing China’s knowledge in their area of specialization. Zheng’s expertise was in the areas of rheumatology and immunology.

Zheng was arrested in Anchorage, AK on his way to China on May 22, and his case was unsealed on July 9.

Zheng at Different Universities While in Thousand Talents Program

It should be noted, that Zheng has been involved in medical research in the United States for over 20 years. In addition to his current employer, the Ohio State University, he was also affiliated with Pennsylvania State University from 2013-2018. And from 2000-2013 he was affiliated with the University of Southern California.  Zheng’s participation in the Thousand Talents Program began in 2013.

Zheng’s Documented Relationship with China

When arrested, the FBI found details of Zheng’s relationship with China. These included documents which revealed:

  • Confirmation that Zheng received $216,000 per year from Ohio State
  • Signed Thousand Talents Program contract dated March 12 which provided to Zheng an annual salary from China of 1.5 million yuan (U.S. $214,000)
  • Guaranteed Chinese program funding from Sun Yat-Sen University (SYSU) in Guangzho, China, over five years of 10 million yuan (U.S. $1.4 million)
  • Descriptions that Zheng will create a “world-class clinical immunology research and translational medicine team” which will “develop high level international academic exchange and collaboration” at SYSU
  • Additional annual personal remuneration from Guilin Medical University equal to 30% of his Thousand Talents Program salary (U.S. $64,000)
  • Seven current NIH projects, including a five-year NIH STAR grant.
  • Notes indicating that his “world class team … will use the technologies and animal models that the applicant built abroad to promote China’s research and cultivate talents in immunology research at SYSU.”
  • Zheng’s attempt to induce a French researcher into the Hundred Person Plan and to work with his team at SYSU. Court documents identify this individual as Bernhard Ryffel who is associated with the University of Orleans in France.
  • Two separate curriculums vitae (CV) one which concealed Zheng’s relationship with China and its many programs and one which only referenced his U.S. universities employment.

Research and Innovation Require Protection

The U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio, David M. DeVillers, commented, “We allege that Zheng was preparing to flee the country after he learned that his employer had begun an administrative process into whether or not he was complying with rules governing taxpayer-funded grants.  This is our office’s third recent case involving the illegal transfer of intellectual property and research to China. This underscores our commitment to work with the FBI, the Department of Health and Human Services, and our research institutions to protect our country’s position as a global leader in research and innovation, and to punish those who try to exploit and undermine that position.”

How Zheng’s arrest went down

In the world of counterintelligence, luck always plays a role, and in this instance, an alert Customs and Border Patrol (CPB) agent observed Zheng asked a fellow passenger on the charter flight to take onboard two of his bags. The agent admonished Zheng, yet he persisted.

This led to Zheng and the passenger being pulled aside.  When challenged, the passenger admitted the bags belonged to Zheng and she did not know Zheng. The CBP agent inspected the bags, and found “numerous electronic devices.” Zheng was not allowed to proceed to China, and given he was a foreign national, an initial airport interview was conducted by the FBI.

Ohio State Administrators Got Suspicious of Zheng

The events leading up to his attempt to return to China began when Zheng was summoned by Ohio State administrators to assist in responding to the NIH query specific to Zheng’s research and lack of transparency about his Chinese relationships with respect to parallel and siphoned research. At the conclusion of the May 6 meeting, Zheng was placed on administrative leave with pay, which a few weeks later on May 20 was changed to leave without pay.

Once he was notified he was no longer being paid by Ohio State, Zheng was certain about the writing on the wall and put together his plan to abscond from the U.S and head back to China, given his subterfuge in the United States had been stripped bare. Court documents tell us Zheng booked a charter flight to China, pulled together three large bags, and one small suitcase. He also had in his possession, “briefcase containing two laptops, three cellular telephones, several USB drives, several silver bars, and expired Chinese passports (for his family members). Zheng also had with him deeds for property in China.”

Interview Process with the FBI

Zheng dissembled during his initial interview with the FBI and told them he was retiring and returning to China via charter flight as it was the only way to get to China, which morphed to he was returning to China to visit his sick father. Zheng told investigators in Anchorage that he wasn’t involved in the Thousand Talent Program and stuck to his guns, even though the evidence which would be revealed via a search of his electronic devices would show a much more damning picture of Zheng. The reality is he was in a hurry to get out of Dodge and hoped his choice of a charter flights wouldn’t percolate to the surface given the limited number of commercial flights from the U.S. to China. He wasn’t wrong.

During the subsequent investigatory interviews, his wife, Juhua (Julie) Wang, determined that fabricating falsehoods was the avenue of choice in her response to FBI inquiries. She denied knowledge of her husband’s travel to China nor how he traveled from their residence to the airport in Columbus and onward to Anchorage. In addition, while Zheng was detained in Anchorage, Wang placed their residence on the market and then canceled the “for sale” listing fifteen minutes following the FBI interview. The couple’s rental properties (three apartment complexes) in Pomona, CA were not placed on the market.

Zheng Rightly Considered a Flight Risk Per DOJ

The Department of Justice has asked that Zheng be remanded as they view him as a flight risk. Indeed he is, as he was arrested while attempting to flea the U.S., having abandoned his position at Ohio State amidst an investigation by the institute without telling the university that he was departing. The investigation continues, and in addition to Ohio State conducting an internal review, Penn State will no doubt be conducting a review of their Zheng years, as well.

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Christopher Burgess (@burgessct) is an author and speaker on the topic of security strategy. Christopher, served 30+ years within the Central Intelligence Agency. He lived and worked in South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Central Europe, and Latin America. Upon his retirement, the CIA awarded him the Career Distinguished Intelligence Medal, the highest level of career recognition. Christopher co-authored the book, “Secrets Stolen, Fortunes Lost, Preventing Intellectual Property Theft and Economic Espionage in the 21st Century” (Syngress, March 2008). He is the founder of