Until last year at the University of Tennessee,
studied, among other things, how to join certain metals together using materials that are more than 1,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. He also ran a group developing similar nanoscale technologies at an institute in Beijing.
Mr. Hu’s research has a range of potential applications including fixing turbines and printing sophisticated electronic sensors. On Monday, prosecutors are set to present their case that Mr. Hu hid his China collaborations from the U.S. government while also receiving National Aeronautics and Space Administration grants for his work in Tennessee.
The trial in Knoxville is the first after a slew of arrests of researchers and years of rising concerns among U.S. authorities that American taxpayers are unwittingly funding Chinese scientific development and boosting China’s drive for global pre-eminence.
The Senate this week is expected to approve legislation that would provide for $190 billion for research in advanced technologies and other programs to try to better compete with China. In its current form, the bill toughens restrictions on recipients of government research funds from also accepting money from government programs from China, Russia, North Korea and Iran.
Mr. Hu faces charges of wire fraud and making false statements related to his work in China. A native of China and a naturalized Canadian citizen, Mr. Hu has pleaded not guilty.
The Justice Department has charged around a dozen academics in the past two years with concealing China work while receiving U.S. government grants. Among them are star nanotechnology experts at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Their defenders, like Mr. Hu’s, say they are innocent and are being prosecuted for administrative errors in an environment that has become hostile to academics with China connections. Several researchers at other schools have pleaded guilty.
In court filings, Mr. Hu’s lawyer has said the prosecution is being driven by the government’s effort to root out Chinese spies, even when evidence is lacking.
FBI agents interviewed Mr. Hu in April 2018 to ask him about Chinese government-backed programs offering grants to U.S.-based researchers to work in China, according to Mr. Hu’s court filings. They asked him to attend an international conference in China and report back; after he declined, a nearly two-year investigation ensued in which the FBI surveilled Mr. Hu and at one point seized his laptop and cellphone at the airport, the court filings from Mr. Hu said.
“Through all these, they found nothing,” his lawyer,
wrote. “This is evidence of a motive to prosecute because they were told to go after Chinese economic espionage.”
Prosecutors said such allegations were unsupported and, in a filing last month, wrote that Mr. Hu hasn’t “offered any factual basis to find that the prosecutorial policy leading to his Indictment was motivated by unconstitutional animus.”
Civil rights groups and those representing Asian-American communities have described these cases as fueling hostility and violence against Asians. Some of the groups have spoken to the Biden administration about their concerns, advocating for a re-evaluation of the government’s efforts, according to
president of one of the involved groups, Asian Americans Advancing Justice.
In an interview, Mr. Hu’s wife said the charges had upended life for the couple and their three children, with Mr. Hu losing his job and the couple struggling to pay legal fees.
“The whole family, we love Canada and the U.S.,” his wife,
said. “My husband, he really, really loves his work…he gives himself to his work.”
Current and former U.S. national security officials say the Chinese government compels Chinese researchers, companies and institutes to cooperate in meeting state-identified goals, chief among them military and scientific development, and offers incentives to do so. That, these officials and policy makers say, warrants a more cautious approach to research collaborations.
“Highlighting these behaviors is not advocating for closing the door to overseas talent, but acknowledging that China has policies that incentivize people to thwart global norms of collaboration,” said
a senior fellow at Georgetown University who previously worked as the U.S.’s national counterintelligence officer for East Asia. “A lot of science is built on trust, and these policies undermine that.”
Ms. Puglisi co-wrote a May report that documented efforts by Chinese diplomats to identify cutting-edge research around the world and chronicled how Chinese companies then pursued those targets.
A February 2020 indictment alleged that Mr. Hu lied to the University of Tennessee about his affiliations in Beijing, and that led the school to falsely certify to NASA its compliance with the agency’s restrictions on Chinese collaborations.
The university received $50,000 under a 2018 grant for Mr. Hu to develop 3D printing technology to print metallic sensors for the Marshall Space Flight Center and $60,000 for his 2016 research for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory involving how to return samples from Mars back to Earth, according to the indictment.
A spokesman for the university said Mr. Hu is no longer an employee but declined to comment further. A spokesman for NASA, which runs both centers, referred questions to the agency’s inspector general, which declined to comment.
While Mr. Hu received those grants, he was also a faculty member of the Beijing University of Technology’s Institute of Laser Engineering. There he supervised a lab and graduate students, worked on projects sponsored by the Chinese government and applied for a dozen patents, according to the indictment, a review of the Beijing university’s website and the websites of others schools in China that described guest lectures by Mr. Hu, and patent applications in China. The university didn’t respond to a request for comment.
On University of Tennessee annual disclosure forms between 2016 to 2019, Mr. Hu answered “No” to a question of whether he was an employee of any organization other than the university, the indictment alleges, and when he applied for a tenured faculty position, he submitted a résumé that omitted his Beijing affiliation.
In a 2017 letter to a professor at another U.S. university, however, Mr. Hu allegedly recommended one of his Beijing students and wrote: “I am a chair professor in Institute of Laser Engineering, Beijing University of Technology,” according to the indictment. In the letter, Mr. Hu allegedly said he has a research group “focusing on super-resolution nano manufacturing and printable electronics.”
Mr. Hu’s lawyer argued in court papers that Mr. Hu had not understood NASA’s restrictions related to Chinese collaborations. Moreover, the lawyer said, University of Tennessee regulations require professors to report only outside employment that was more than 20% of his university work, a threshold he said Mr. Hu’s work in Beijing didn’t meet.
Write to Aruna Viswanatha at Aruna.Viswanatha@wsj.com
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