The University of Massachusetts Boston was one of seven campuses nationwide targeted by a Chinese government official in a visa fraud scheme aimed at bringing foreign government recruiters to the United States under the guise of visiting research scholars, according to court documents.
Zhongsan Liu, 57, of New Jersey, through his agency, the China Association for International Exchange of Personnel, allegedly worked with several unnamed people in the United States to persuade American universities to help Chinese government employees get into the country under a visa program for academics. But these Chinese officials would do little actual research, and their main purpose was to recruit scientists and experts to work in China, according to court documents unsealed in New York federal court earlier this month.
Liu, who was charged with one count of conspiracy to commit visa fraud, was able to bring at least one Chinese government employee to a university in Georgia, according to court documents. He tried to bring in another Chinese official in 2018, and contacted several universities, including UMass Boston, about sponsoring a visa. It is unclear whether Liu was successful, but according to court documents, that Chinese official has not entered.
Raymond H. Wong, an attorney for Liu, said his client did not commit visa fraud.
“I believe the case is politically motivated due to the trade war between our country and China,” Wong said in an e-mail.
The case against Liu comes amid increased tensions between the US and Chinese governments over trade and heightened concern about theft of intellectual property by Chinese students and scholars on American campuses.
Since the FBI investigation into alleged visa fraud, UMass Boston has placed one employee on paid leave.
Baifeng Sun, a UMass Boston employee and former director of the now closed Confucius Institute, an on-campus academic center, said Wednesday she had been placed on administrative leave but declined to comment further.
Sun is not mentioned directly, but in court documents is referenced as the then-president of the Confucius Institute at a Boston university in 2018. Liu talked to and visited Sun about the scholar visas in 2018, according to court documents.
UMass Boston officials declined to comment on the pending government investigation.
“In this matter, we are aiding the authorities, and are taking all appropriate measures on campus,” said DeWayne Lehman, a spokesman for UMass Boston.
Lehman declined to comment on what actions the university has taken.
The Wall Street Journal first reported that UMass Boston was one of the seven universities that Liu reached out to in his quest for visa sponsors.
The case has raised serious questions about UMass Boston’s oversight of its international student and scholar programs.
In the 2017-18 academic year, UMass Boston sponsored nearly 300 foreign researchers, postdoctoral candidates, and graduate assistants, many from China under the so-called J-1 visa program. But the university had few mechanisms to vet and track these scholars and risked running afoul of government immigration requirements, a July 2018 report, obtained by the Globe, warned top administrators.
The report, written by a former immigration compliance specialist at UMass Boston, cautioned that while the university has significantly increased its international student population, it had allocated few resources to oversight and management of this population.
“There are various issues of concern related to the hosting of these visitors, and a mock audit is strongly suggested to see how the institution would fare in the event of a federal audit,” the 2018 report reads. “Particularly, considering that the majority of scholars are from China and the government [is] particularly concerned with Chinese academics.”
The report was sent to UMass Boston’s provost and its interim chancellor, Katherine Newman, according to the union that represents professional staff on the campus.
The employee who wrote the report, the university’s former director of immigration services, declined to comment.
Tom Goodkind, a UMass Boston senior research machinist and a representative of the professional staff union, said the university’s office of global programs has been chaotic in the past year. The office has been reorganized and lost key staff, including the author of the 2018 report who was laid off, Goodkind said.
“It’s good to have international students, but they are not being served well by this level of disorganization,” Goodkind said.
American universities have long welcomed Chinese students and faculty. One in three of the more than 1 million international students on US campuses is Chinese, by far the largest single group.
But federal agencies have been increasingly concerned that China’s ascent has been driven at America’s expense and with the use of technology and science research stolen from US companies and universities. The US government has been particularly critical of China’s talent recruitment programs on American campuses.
Scholars and scientists studying and working at American universities say their visas are being delayed, and they are undergoing more rigorous questioning by US security officials at airports.
According to federal court documents, Liu was having trouble getting US visas for his agency’s employees.
In January 2018, he spoke with UMass Boston’s Sun, who suggested it would be “very easy for us” to get the visa at her university.
“If he/she puts his/her paperwork here, we don’t care if he/she is here in person, as long as he/she takes part in activities when there are any,” Sun said, according to court documents.
But at that time, Liu seemed to think he could get two universities in Manhattan, closer to his agency’s offices, to sponsor the visa, according to the court documents. In a progress report Liu filed in April 2018 to a Chinese agency responsible for recruiting overseas talent, he said he made a trip to Boston in February to talk to the university’s Confucius Institute leader. In his report, Liu mentioned that UMass Boston’s $8,000 fee for its international visiting scholars might also be a hurdle because the Chinese agency didn’t have a precedent for paying fees, according to court documents.
In January, UMass Boston severed its ties with the Confucius Institute, which was a Chinese government-sponsored center that promoted cultural exchange and Chinese languages education. The UMass Boston institute and several around the country have been criticized for promoting censorship abroad and undermining human rights.
After the institute closed, Sun, who was a UMass Boston employee, was assigned to work in the global programs office, according to the university’s employee directory.