NASA researcher pleads guilty to hiding Chinese government ties while accepting US funding

  • NASA researcher Zhengdong Cheng pleaded guilty on Thursday to charges of violating NASA regulations and falsifying official documents.
  • Cheng, who also worked as a professor at Texas A&M University, was arrested in August 2020 for allegedly hiding his ties with a Chinese university and a Chinese-owned company.
  • Cheng’s arrest came under the Trump-era China Initiative, which sought to counter national security threats such as hacking, trade secret theft and economic espionage associated with China.
  • The program was terminated in February amid claims of stunting academic collaboration and contributing to anti-Asian hate.

A NASA researcher pleaded guilty on Thursday to charges related to hiding ties with the Chinese Communist Party while accepting federal grant money.

Zhengdong Cheng, who also worked as a professor at Texas A&M University (TAMU) from 2004 until he was fired after his arrest in August 2020, was originally charged with wire fraud, conspiracy and making false statements. As part of an agreement with prosecutors, he pleaded guilty to new charges of violating NASA regulations and falsifying official documents.

As a result, U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen sentenced Cheng to the time he had already served in his pretrial incarceration, according to the Associated Press. Cheng also agreed to pay $86,876 in restitution and $20,000 in fines.

Cheng’s prosecution was part of the China Initiative, a Trump-era program that sought to counter national security threats such as hacking, trade secret theft and economic espionage associated with China. It was terminated in February following claims that it impeded academic research and fuels anti-Asian hate.

Cheng was accused of willfully obscuring his affiliations and collaboration with a Chinese university and at least one Chinese-owned company for several years. The terms of his research team’s grant — which amounted to nearly $750,000 — prohibited participation, collaboration or coordination with China, any Chinese-owned company or any Chinese university.

In addition to the federal funding, Cheng allegedly reaped other benefits from his affiliation with TAMU and NASA, including access to the International Space Station, where China has been banned since 2011.

“Once again, we have witnessed the criminal consequences that can arise from undisclosed participation in the Chinese government’s talent program,” former Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers said at the time. “Professor Cheng allegedly made false statements to his university and to NASA regarding his affiliations with the Chinese government. The Department of Justice will continue seeking to bring participation in these talent programs to light and to expose the exploitation of our nation and our prized research institutions.”

Cheng is “relieved that this unfortunate chapter of his life is behind,” his lawyer Philip Hilder told AP.

“He’s a proud, loyal United States citizen and he looks forward to getting back to being a productive member of our society,” said Hilder.

 

Featured Image via Texas A&M University / NASA

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