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Chinese researcher arrested by FBI when she left consulate for medical care

Tang Juan in a Chinese military uniform. (U.S. District Court/Released)

The Chinese researcher who sought refuge in China’s consulate in San Francisco after being questioned by the FBI was arrested after she left the compound to seek medical care, newly filed court documents say.

Juan Tang, who entered the United States in December to work as a visiting cancer researcher at UC Davis, has been charged in federal court in Sacramento with lying about her ties to the Chinese military and communist party as part of a nationwide investigation into the activities of Chinese researchers at American universities.

Tang, 37, was questioned by the FBI at her Davis apartment in June, then left Davis and went to the consulate, where she remained for a month before her arrest last week.

She has been held in the Sacramento County Jail without bail as a potential flight risk since then, and the details of her arrest are disclosed in a court filing by her federal defender seeking Tang’s release on bail.

The filing by Assistant Federal Defender Alexandra Negin describes Tang as the wife of a medical doctor and mother of an 8-year-old child who are both living in China.

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“She left the family home at age 18 to attend college and eventually earned her PhD in cellular biology in China in 2010,” Negin wrote. “She is a cancer researcher.

“She is a citizen of China and had not traveled outside of China prior to coming to the United States on December 27, 2019, to work at the University of California, in Davis (UC Davis) doing cancer research for a one-year program.”

Tang lived in consulate for weeks

Tang flew into San Francisco International Airport on Dec. 27 and moved into an apartment in Davis, but shortly after that the lab where she was working closed because of the COVID-19 crisis, court documents say.

“In June Ms. Tang, realizing she was unlikely to be back in the lab to do her work, decided to return to China and had made plans to leave the apartment where she had been staying,” court documents say. “Law enforcement interviewed her and executed a search warrant at her residence in Davis on June 20, 2020.

“Law enforcement seized Ms. Tang’s passport and visa at that time. Concerned about the interaction with law enforcement, and given that she could not go back to China as planned because she no longer had her visa, she reported to the Chinese consulate in San Francisco to ask for assistance. Ms. Tang remained in the consulate for approximately a month.”

Negin wrote that Tang did not realize she had been charged with a crime; the criminal complaint was filed under seal on June 26, and she did not learn she had been charged until July 23.

“She could have tried to obtain a new passport and leave the United States prior to June 26th if she had any intent to flee,” Negin wrote. “Instead, she remained at the consulate awaiting information about her legal situation.”

FBI arrested her when she left to seek medical care

The FBI showed up at the consulate and told workers there that they had a warrant for Tang’s arrest, but they legally could not enter the building and workers there said they would inform Tang of the warrrant “and it would be her decision to surrender or stay in the consulate,” Negin wrote.

“Ms. Tang desired to surrender to be arrested, but was in hysterics upon learning of the warrant, she suffers from asthma, and the consulate employees believed she needed to be seen by a doctor,” Negin wrote. “Counsel believes that law enforcement conducted surveillance on the consulate and after a short time observed Ms. Tang as a passenger in a vehicle being driven by consulate employees leave consulate property.

“Law enforcement followed the vehicle to a medical office where Ms. Tang was seen, medically cleared and then arrested. Ms. Tang could have remained in the consulate to avoid arrest. Instead she agreed to leave consulate property knowing this would allow law enforcement to arrest her.”

Negin argues in her filing that “there is no evidence or indication that Ms. Tang is a danger to the community” and that she does not have a passport that would allow her to flee the country.

Tang’s lawyer says evidence is ‘weak’

Negin also argued that the evidence against Tang — photographs of Tang in military uniforms — “are weak and lend themselves to many innocent explanations.”

“Ms. Tang apparently attended a prestigious medical school that is run by the military in China,” Negin argued. “That does not mean that she was ‘in the military.’

“The civilian students are required to wear uniforms but those uniforms do not indicate that the student is in the military. The civilian students have no rank in the military and are free upon graduation to go wherever they wish to work. There are many significant cultural differences that impact this case.”

In addition, Negin argued, Tang did not have access to any national security or sensitive information, and although she could face up to 10 years in prison federal sentencing guidelines likely would result in a sentence of six months if Tang were convicted.

“She has every incentive to see this case through to its conclusion and return to China after the case is resolved,” Negin wrote. “If she is detained, she will be deprived a speedy trial, as the court is not conducting trials due to COVID-19, and there is a likelihood that if found guilty even after a guilty plea her sentence will be overserved.

“Ms. Tang has no substance abuse issues or other issues that would make her unsuitable for release.”

Prosecutors had not filed a response as of Thursday morning to the request for Tang’s release, but a hearing on the matter is expected to be held Friday.

Tang is one of four Chinese researchers arrested in recent months on charges of lying about their ties to the Chinese military to gain access to the United States and research programs at American universities.

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© 2020 The Sacramento Bee