More than a year after he was stopped at Boston’s Logan Airport on his way to China and accused of smuggling 19 vials of biological research specimens in a sock, Zaosong Zheng, 31, a former scientist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, has returned to his home country.
Zheng was sentenced earlier this month to time served — which was three months — and was deported from the United States. Zheng pleaded guilty to making a false statement to US customs officials but as part of the plea agreement, federal prosecutors dropped the more serious smuggling charge against him.
Zheng, a former cancer researcher at Harvard University-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, made headlines after his arrest in December 2019, and federal officials held him up as an example of how the Chinese government has infiltrated American academic institutions and is siphoning off cutting-edge research.
Zheng’s arrest, along with that of the Harvard chemistry department chairman Charles Lieber and a Boston University researcher who was also a lieutenant in the People’s Liberation Army, illustrated China’s “massive, long-term campaign to steal US technology for its own uses,” US Attorney Andrew Lelling said last year.
But in court documents, US government officials acknowledged that what Zheng took from the hospital’s research lab and stowed in 19 vials in his suitcase was not worth much. The government’s lab analysis found that the vials were filled with DNA expression vectors, which are used to insert a string of DNA into a gene, and which Zheng had likely made himself.
However, when Zheng was stopped at the airport and asked by federal officers if he was traveling with any biological items or research, he falsely answered “no,” according to court documents. He later acknowledged to investigators that he had stolen the material from the hospital’s lab and planned to conduct his own research in China.
“What Zheng took had little value,” court documents filed by the government stated. “But the impact of his actions on his sponsoring university, the victim laboratory and similarly situated student immigrants is significant. Zheng’s crime requires serious consequences as a deterrent to others who might exploit the openness of our universities to their own benefit.”
Zheng, who was in the country on a student visa, was fired from Beth Israel after his arrest. He spent 87 days in prison and then was placed on house arrest in Boston. He was allowed to move to Maryland in October and live with his wife, who is also from China and works as a postdoctoral researcher at the National Institutes of Health.
One of Zheng’s attorneys, Norman Zalkind, said his client wouldn’t have been treated as aggressively if he had been from a European country. But the US government fears that in the global competition for scientific dominance, America is being overtaken by the China, and it is going after even smaller crimes with zeal, Zalkind said.
“It’s part of the world of competition between each other,” he said.
The Trump administration has expanded on former President Barack Obama’s efforts to combat intellectual property theft by China and has aggressively pursued colleges and those who work there. The federal government has cracked down on American universities that have failed to disclose millions of dollars in foreign gifts that they have received.
American scientists who have been recruited by Chinese talent programs or have failed to report foreign funding when applying for US government research grants have also come under greater scrutiny.
Last week, the US Attorney’s Office in Boston charged Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Gang Chen, 56, for failing to disclose ties to China when applying for a federal grant. Chen, a naturalized US citizen and the one-time head of MIT’s mechanical engineering department, was charged with wire fraud, failing to file a foreign bank account report, and making a false statement in a tax return, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors alleged that while working at MIT, Chen held various appointments with the People’s Republic of China designed to help that country in science and technology by providing advice and expertise — sometimes directly to Chinese government officials. Chen was often paid for his work on behalf of the Chinese government, prosecutors allege.
Chen’s attorney, Robert Fisher, said in a statement that his client “loves the United States and looks forward to vigorously defending these allegations.”