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1,000+ Chinese military-linked researchers fled US amid summer crackdown, DOJ official says

Assistant Attorney General John C. Demers speaks at a DOJ press conference, Oct. 19, 2020. (Department of Justice/Released)
December 03, 2020

U.S. assistant attorney general for national security John C. Demers said on Wednesday that more than 1,000 Chinese researchers linked to China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) fled the U.S. this summer as the Department of Justice began a crackdown on Chinese researchers who concealed their PLA ties.

“Over this past summer, we arrested five or six researchers who were here from China on visas who were affiliated with the People’s Liberation Army, the Chinese military, but who hadn’t disclosed that affiliation, had hidden that affiliation when they applied for their visas. Those five or six arrests were just the tip of the iceberg, and honestly, the size of the iceberg is one that I don’t know that we or other folks realized how large it was when we began down that road,” said Demers during a panel discussion at the Aspen Institute’s Cyber Summit.

“Between those five and six arrests, between the dozens of interviews that the bureau did of individuals who were here under similar circumstances, and then ultimately the closure of the Houston consulate to disrupt both foreign influence activity and economic espionage activity, more than 1,000 PLA-affiliated Chinese researchers left the country,” Demers said.

Demers, who is also head of the Justice Department’s China Initiative, said the prosecutions the Justice Department was able to bring forward were “just the beginning” of an effort to stop Chinese infiltration into U.S. research, adding, “[the prosecutions] allowed us to message to the Chinese government that if you’re going to send individuals here, you’ve gotta do so honestly, and you can’t do so hiding their affiliation to the PLA and Chinese military universities.

Demers said, “What we’re trying to do in the cases is not just arrest that individual but disrupt a broader course of activity.”

Demers said “there’s no question” the Chinese government is sponsoring the numerous efforts by PLA affiliated researchers to come to the U.S. without disclosing their affiliations and to study at U.S. universities and institutions.

Also speaking during the panel discussion, National Counterintelligence and Security Center Director William Evanina said, “Let’s not kid ourselves, they’re all coming here at the behest of the Chinese government and intelligence services. They’re going to specific universities to study specific fields or areas that are going to benefit the People’s Republic of China in the military.”

Evanina said he also serves a role in disrupting China’s strategy in other countries by briefing European counterparts about the moves of Chinese researchers in the U.S., so that they can be aware of the same Chinese efforts in their own countries.

Evanina went on to say “We are looking at $500 billion a year in lost economic investment, proprietary data, and trade secrets to the Communist Party of China. That’s a lot of money.”

The Justice Department is pursuing numerous investigations into China-related activity. Over the summer FBI Director Christopher Wray said his agency is opening up a new investigation of Chinese-linked threats “every 10 hours.”

Last week, the Justice Department summarized its work in the last year on the China Initiative. The Justice Department revealed it had charged three economic espionage cases “in which the trade secret theft was intended to benefit the Chinese government,” brought fraud, false statements, tax, smuggling and other charges against ten academics, and charged two different former CIA officers with conspiring to deliver national defense information to China.