An IU Ph.D. candidate and researcher was arrested in July after an FBI investigation alleged he was one of several Chinese researchers in the U.S. who knowingly lied on his visa application by saying he had never served in the Chinese military.
Kaikai Zhao was studying machine learning and artificial intelligence at the Luddy School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. His lawyer, Indianapolis-based Brad Banks, declined to comment on the case. IU does not comment on pending criminal matters.
Zhao was arrested July 18, and a judge decided Aug. 5 to hold him without bail until trial.
Despite investigators' allegations that Zhao “made false statements concerning that military service to conceal the true nature and purpose of his educational pursuits in the United States, federal charging documents do not present evidence of Zhao transmitting information to the People's Liberation Army.
Federal authorities believe this case is part of a program run by the PLA or another institution to send military scientists to the U.S. under false pretenses. Three other researchers — all of whom were studying at universities in California — were arrested in July on the same visa fraud charge. A fourth, who was studying at the University of Virginia, was arrested Friday and charged with theft of trade secrets and accessing a computer without authorization.
In a statement, Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers called the purported scheme “another part of the Chinese Communist Party’s plan to take advantage of our open society and exploit academic institutions.”
Zhao’s case and the four similar ones came after President Donald Trump issued a proclamation in May that barred Chinese citizens at the graduate level and above who have ever been affiliated with a Chinese entity that uses or supports China’s military-civil fusion strategy from being granted visas to study in the U.S. The order also prompted a review of individuals already in the U.S. who fell into that category.
Minyao Wang, a New York City attorney who has worked on intellectual property theft cases related to China, said the government was definitely looking for more evidence of wrongdoing by Zhao, but they probably would have found it by now if they were going to.
“Technically and officially and legally, he has not been accused of doing anything,” Wang said, referring to the absence of charges beyond visa fraud. “But there is obviously the insinuation that like, ‘What the heck are you doing in a research lab in Bloomington, Indiana, if you’re an undercover Chinese military officer?’ And that is actually a very valid question.”
Court documents say an FBI surveillance team saw Zhao meet with two officials from the People’s Republic of China’s Chicago Consulate on July 17 in a park near his Bloomington home. The trip’s stated purpose was for officials to give health packages of masks and wipes to Chinese students.
Wang called the meeting “exceptionally unusual,” noting the officials drove nearly 250 miles to Bloomington, and said it was compelling circumstantial evidence that Zhao is not an ordinary civilian.
In an interview with the FBI after his July 18 arrest, Zhao repeatedly denied having met with consulate officials the day prior until agents told him they watched the meeting happen. Zhao reportedly then told agents the meeting was about his visa, and the officials said the U.S. government might contact him because of his military background and the schools he attended.
On his visa application, Zhao disclosed he had a bachelor’s degree from China’s Aviation University of Air Force and was a joint student Ph.D. candidate at China’s National University of Defense Technology and Naval Aeronautical University, which are all PLA-affiliated.
When asked on the visa application if he ever served in the military, investigators say Zhao answered no.
“He sort of wasn’t being super super honest,” Wang said, “but then he also told people that he went to a Chinese military academy.”
In charging documents, the FBI also noted the Aviation University of Air Force is a similar institution to the U.S. Air Force Academy where students are active military members as they earn bachelor's degrees. Investigators also found photos of Zhao wearing the PLA Air Force uniform and his name on published research concerning military radar technology.
Zhao denied serving in the air force and told investigators he wore the uniform in a photo for a research study he had worked on to raise the prestige of the research paper and school.
As part of the investigation, agents searched Zhao’s Bloomington apartment and office in Luddy Hall. They took documents and electronics from both locations and found a ripped-up copy of his visa application in the trash can next to his bed.
A 2018 policy brief from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute found dozens of PLA scientists have “obscured their military affiliations” to travel and do research in the European Union and countries such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the U.S.
“It’s not clear that Western universities and governments are fully aware of this phenomenon,” the brief reads.
Another Chinese graduate student in Zhao’s intelligent systems engineering program said Zhao was shy but always friendly and helpful. He was also incredibly serious about his work, she said, and would sometimes get to Luddy Hall at 7:30 a.m. and not leave until 10:30 p.m.
He kept sticky notes on his desk and computer monitor at Luddy with encouraging phrases to remind him to keep going and not be afraid of failure. The graduate student, who asked to remain anonymous since the investigation is still open, said she was sad for Zhao and couldn’t see a reason why he would intentionally lie on his visa application.
Their program is also fairly new — it was founded in 2016 — and not yet widely known, she said, so she didn't know why the Chinese government would send someone to steal information from it.
Zhao's goal was to be a professor someday, his peer recalled, and he wanted to finish his Ph.D. as quickly as possible because his wife still lived in China.
Wang said unless the U.S. can find evidence of Zhao transmitting information he wasn’t allowed to take, it’s likely he will be offered some kind of plea deal and move back to China. This would be standard for someone facing this kind of accusation, Wang said.
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