Indiana Daily Student

Trial of IU Ph.D. candidate accused of visa fraud postponed

The trial for an IU Ph.D. candidate from China who was arrested in July 2020 was postponed from May to October, according to court documents.

Kaikai Zhao, the doctoral candidate, was studying in the Luddy School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering. He was arrested for suspected visa fraud, according to court documents. 

The FBI alleges Zhao lied about his military status on his visa application in June 2018 and has current ties with the People’s Liberation Army, China’s armed forces, due to his educational background. Zhao disclosed in his application that he attended three military-affiliated institutions, but said he was a “joint civilian Ph.D. candidate” and had not served in the Chinese military.

IU Ph.D. candidate Kaikai Zhao wears a People's Liberation Army Air Force uniform. The FBI alleges Zhao lied about his military status on his visa application Courtesy Photo

The FBI began investigating visa applicants in certain scientific fields who were affiliated with the PLA in June 2020, according to court documents. It was suspected that certain individuals were collecting information about advanced technology in the U.S. and sending that information to superiors in the PLA, according to court documents.

Huixin Tian, a Ph.D. candidate who has been following the case, said the Indiana Graduate Workers Coalition wants IU to be involved in the case by potentially testifying. Simon Luo, another Ph.D. candidate following the case, said the coalition also wants IU to provide higher quality legal services to its graduate students in general. 

IU spokesperson Chuck Carney said IU is not commenting on the case since it is an ongoing federal investigation.

Tian said she and Luo have been in contact with Zhao’s wife who lives in China. Zhao’s family has not received much communication regarding court dates or whether Zhao could be released, Tian said. 

Minyao Wang, an attorney who has worked on intellectual property theft cases related to China, said the U.S. government has no obligation to notify the family of information from Zhao’s case, but the Chinese consulate has the option to.

“In my experience the Chinese government has not been attentive to this task,” he said in an email.  “Assisting their nationals who are in distress is just not their highest priority.” 

Luo said Zhao’s wife said she had not received any communication from IU as of last month.

Tian said even if IU does not want to be involved in the legal aspect, she believes it would be appropriate for IU to reach out to Zhao’s family. 

“Even an email with some comfort is a good gesture,” she said. 

Luo said he attended a College of Arts and Sciences session on addressing anti-Asian rhetoric and bias in August 2020. During the session, Luo asked what IU had done to help Zhao and his family. 

“In this particular case, my understanding is that both IU International Affairs and IU Legal Counsel are assisting the student,” Rick Van Kooten, IU College of Arts and Sciences executive dean, said in the session’s chat, according to Luo.

The prosecution may issue a new indictment against Zhao in the case, according to court documents. Wang said the postponement was also due to delay from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Zhao is still detained after he was denied bail last year because the FBI viewed him as a flight risk due to evidence presented before a judge, Tian said.

When the FBI searched Zhao’s home in July 2020, agents claimed that Zhao was living out of an open suitcase, according to court documents. Tian said the FBI used this as evidence in Zhao’s probable cause and detention hearing to try to show Zhao could flee. She said living out of a suitcase is actually typical for graduate students, and she said she does not believe that meant Zhao was planning to flee.

“We do not own properties here,” she said. “We just jump from one lease to another. Sometimes there’s some gap time, a month or two, between two leases. We have to crash at a friend’s place. That’s happened all the time.”

Wang said if the FBI cannot prove Zhao was transmitting any information to China, Zhao may be offered a plea deal and allowed to move back to China, which is common in similar cases, Wang said. 

“It has been almost a year, which is interesting because they still haven’t come forward, at least publicly, with any evidence that Mr. Zhao has transmitted any information back to China,” he said.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated the month to which Zhao's trial was postponed.

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