A Chinese researcher accused of hiding her military affiliations and believed to have been sheltering for weeks in the Chinese consulate in San Francisco has been arrested by US authorities, officials announced on Friday.
Tang Juan, one of four visiting researchers recently charged with visa fraud, was apprehended on Thursday evening, a senior Justice Department official told reporters during a background briefing. The official declined to disclose details of Tang’s arrest, including whether she had volunteered herself to authorities.
Her status was not considered by officials to qualify her for “diplomatic immunity,” said the official, who noted that while the arrest occurred in San Francisco, the charges in the case lay in Sacramento, where she is expected to appear in court later on Friday.
In a court filing unsealed on July 20, prosecutors wrote that the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had assessed that following a search and interview of Tang on June 20, Tang went to the Chinese consulate in San Francisco, where the FBI said she had remained, despite charges being brought against her on June 26.
According to court documents, Tang entered the US last December on an educational exchange visa to conduct cancer treatment research at the University of California, Davis, but did not disclose apparent military ties in her visa application.
She denied to FBI agents that she had served in the military, and said she did not understand the meaning of the military insignia on various uniforms she was pictured wearing in photographs discovered in authorities’ investigations.
Open source materials referenced in the court documents describe Tang as an associate researcher at an medical university affiliated with the Chinese Air Force.
Tang’s arrest comes amid a rapid deterioration in diplomatic relations between Washington and Beijing, punctuated this week with tit-for-tat orders to close diplomatic outposts in the respective countries.
The Trump administration, citing allegations that the Chinese consulate in Houston served as a command centre for espionage activities, had given the outpost until 4pm local time on Friday to close its doors.
Telephone and email inquiries to the consulate went unanswered on Friday afternoon. Local news outlets including the Houston Chronicle reported a large truck parked outside the building being loaded by masked workers as the deadline neared.
During Friday’s briefing, the Justice Department official characterised the alleged behaviour at the consulate as “illegal” but said it was unlikely the government would be launching criminal cases, “among other reasons because of the diplomatic immunity that consulate officials enjoy”.
US officials have offered few concrete examples of subversive behaviour tied specifically to the Houston consulate, with officials acknowledging on Friday that the move to close the outpost there was in part done for the purposes of deterrence.
“Once you decide that this pattern activity is unacceptable and you’re going to respond, you’re probably going to respond by closing one facility as opposed to every facility,” the Justice Department official said. “And the point of that is to send a message to the remaining officials that they’ve got to knock it off.”
The US government’s suggestion that the consulate in Houston conducted any activity beyond its diplomatic function was “nothing but vicious slander,” foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said on Thursday.
In swift retaliation, the Chinese government on Thursday ordered the US to close its consulate in the southwestern city of Chengdu, a highly symbolic move given that the office’s consular remit includes Tibet, a recurring flash point in bilateral relations.
The tightening of remaining diplomatic channels between the two countries comes as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo this week argued that the US government must seek to “engage and empower” the Chinese people, a task that could now be complicated by the forced withdrawal of diplomatic officers from Chengdu.
But a senior State Department official who previously served in China said that the consular capabilities of the Chengdu outpost were already limited, echoing accusations made by the US administration that its diplomats are not free to conduct outreach work in the country without interference or obstruction by authorities.
The official, speaking at Friday’s briefing, expressed confidence that the administration could “mitigate” the “second and third order effects” from the consular spat, and anticipated future talks with Chinese counterparts to reset the relationship.
“Forty years of broken glass needs to be swept up and put back in order,” the official said, adding: “I think in an honest negotiation with the PRC [People’s Republic of China] we can get back to where we need to be.”
Assessing the aggressive action to close China’s consulate as well as the flurry of criminal cases brought against visiting Chinese nationals, Christopher Miller, an expert in US diplomatic history, said that the administration’s goal was to “reset the past 50 years of expectations”.
The strategy was on full display on Thursday, when Pompeo used an address at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum to argue that the policy of engagement set in motion by the former president had failed.
Trump administration officials have determined that there needs to be a “resetting of expectations as to what China’s aims are, what the methods it’s using are and where it’s headed to have a good understanding of China and the relationship,” said Miller, an associate professor of international history at Tufts University.
For US officials, that task had taken on more urgency with the prospect of a new administration in half a year’s time.
“They want to make sure they can move the goalposts as much as they can in those six months to make sure that whoever comes in after them – whether it’s in six months or four and a half years – can’t shift things back to where they were in the Obama administration,” said Miller.
The Justice Department has announced details on several other federal cases against individuals with direct or indirect ties to the Chinese government, including a Stanford University visiting researcher also alleged to be an active duty member of China’s military and a guilty plea by a Singaporean man, who set up a fake political consultancy to access non-public US government information and funnel the data to the Chinese government.
Song Chen was charged “in connection with a scheme to lie about her status as an active member of the People’s Republic of China’s military forces” while conducting medical research at Stanford, US Attorney David Anderson and FBI special agent John Bennett said in a Justice Department announcement on Monday.
The Singaporean, Jun Wei Yeo – also known as Dickson Yeo – entered his plea to one charge of operating illegally as a foreign agent between 2015 and 2019, according to a separate Justice Department announcement on Friday.
Using his consultancy as a front, Yeo paid a civilian working with the US Air Force on the F-35B military aircraft program for a report about “the geopolitical implications” of the Japanese purchasing the aircraft from the US, according to court documents.
In June, a Chinese military officer named Wang Xin was arrested while trying to leave the US, allegedly with government-funded research from the University of California. He has been charged with visa fraud. According to the FBI’s criminal complaint in that case, Wang holds a position in the People’s Liberation Army that “roughly corresponds with the level of major” and continues to be paid by the PLA.
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