China's Thousand Talents Spy Program Reaches NASA, Texas A&M

Li Xueren/Xinhua via AP

The Department of Justice has arrested a Texas A&M engineering professor and accused him of concealing his ties to China. Dr. Zhengdong Cheng is, according to the DOJ, another of many recruits of China’s Thousand Talents Program.


Cheng allegedly led a team conducting research for NASA. According to the criminal complaint, for several years he willfully took steps to obscure his affiliations and collaboration with a Chinese University and at least one Chinese-owned company.  The terms of Cheng’s grant prohibited participation, collaboration or coordination with China, any Chinese-owned company or any Chinese University, according to the charges.


The charges allege Cheng and TAMU received funds based on Cheng knowingly providing false information to TAMU and consequently to NASA.  In addition to the funds, Cheng personally benefited from his affiliation with TAMU and NASA with increased access to unique NASA resources, such as the International Space Station, according to the complaint.  This access allegedly allowed Cheng to further his standing in China at Guangdong University of Technology and other universities.  The charges further allege he held senior research positions there unknown to TAMU and NASA and was able to serve in the People’s Republic of China Talents program.  China’s Talents Plans are allegedly designed to attract, recruit and cultivate high-level scientific talent in furtherance of China’s scientific development, economic prosperity and national security.

University Chancellor John Sharp issued a statement, saying TAMU worked with the FBI on its investigation of Cheng.

“We worked closely with the FBI on this case, and we gladly will work with them again as needed,” said Chancellor John Sharp of the Texas A&M System. “No one in higher education takes security as seriously as we do at The Texas A&M University System. In fact, we have received several awards from the Department of Defense’s Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency, including one just last month.”


Cheng’s is the latest of several arrests around the nation in 2020 related to the Thousand Talents Program. That plan is a Chinese Communist Party initiative by which China’s military and industry buy access to top-level researchers and their work around the world. Earlier this year, Harvard nanoscientist Dr. Charles Lieber was arrested and indicted on similar charges. In the spring, Professor Simon Saw-Teong Ang of the University of Arkansas was arrested for allegedly concealing ties to China.

The Thousand Talents Program began in 2008 with the goal of recruiting about 2,000 top scientists in key fields to work clandestinely for China. It has reportedly recruited about 7,000 scientists in the United States and around the world, whose cutting-edge work gets funneled into the Chinese military.

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