Chinese researcher ‘hiding’ in San Francisco consulate is arrested

A Chinese researcher who US authorities said was hiding in China’s San Francisco consulate has been arrested and will appear in court later on Friday, as tensions escalate between the superpowers.

Juan Tang is allegedly a member of the Chinese military who was working as a researcher at the University of California, according to court documents unsealed on Monday, which said she was a uniformed officer of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force who had made fraudulent statements on her visa application.

The US Department of Justice said she had sought refuge at the Chinese consulate in San Francisco. A senior US justice department official said on Friday morning that she was arrested on Thursday evening. The circumstances of the arrest were unclear.

Ms Tang is one of four alleged Chinese military operatives recently arrested by US authorities over visa fraud, saying they had concealed the true nature of their work. If convicted, each would face a maximum statutory penalty of 10 years in prison and a fine of $250,000.

In a separate case on Friday, a Singaporean national in federal court in Washington admitted spying for China. Dickson Yeo confessed to working on behalf of China’s intelligence service to recruit military and government employees with high-level security clearances.

Juan Tang in the uniform of China’s People’s Liberation Army © Justice Department/AP

Mr Yeo had set up a fake consulting company advertising fictitious jobs to harvest resumes from US personnel with security clearances, passing the information on to Chinese intelligence operatives if he viewed the person as interesting, according to the statement of offence in his case.

He used a “professional networking website that is focused on career and employment information” to find additional targets to recruit, and would subsequently ask those people for information, the document said. A person familiar with the matter identified the website as LinkedIn.

Mr Yeo recruited a civilian working with the US air force on the F-35B fighter jet programme to give him information about “the geopolitical implications of the Japanese purchasing the F-35 aircraft from the United States,” according to the document.

He also recruited an officer in the US army to write a report about how the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan would affect China, and a US state department employee for a report about an unnamed official who in 2018 and 2019 was a member of Donald Trump’s cabinet.

He paid the army officer and the state department employee $1,000 to $2,000 for the reports, the statement of offence said. Prosecutors said the targets were unaware Mr Yeo was working for China.

Mr Yeo operated from 2015 until 2019, when he was arrested returning to the US in November. He had been intending to overtly recruit the army officer, prosecutors said.

Michael Sherwin, the acting US attorney for the District of Columbia, said the case “again highlights how the PRC intelligence service is operating in our backyard, using proxies to spot and assess American citizens . . . to target and groom for theft of our intellectual property and classified national defence information”.

The cases come as China’s Houston consulate is due to shut later on Friday following claims by the Trump administration that it was at the centre of a nationwide spy network stretching to more than 25 cities. 

In retaliation, China ordered the closure of America’s Chengdu consulate, sparking concerns about increasing friction on a number of fronts, from trade and espionage to rival military ambitions, which could trigger a new Cold War.

US officials on Friday dismissed any equivalence with the action over Chengdu. They argued that conditions in China were so restricted that the US ambassador had been prevented from visiting Tibet, which is under the purview of its Chengdu consulate, and that Chinese operatives by comparison had relatively free rein in the US.

“Beijing is enjoying free and open access to US society, but at the same time they’ve denied that same access to US diplomats in China and foreigners in general. Beijing has also egregiously abused its free and open access to the US as demonstrated by the actions in Houston,” said a senior state department official. “This lack of reciprocity is unacceptable.”

A senior intelligence official said on Friday that although China had established a spy network across the US, activities at the Houston consulate were “particularly aggressive and particularly successful”, adding the US had seen a “1,300 per cent increase” in cases related to economic espionage in China over the past decade.

China’s operations ranged from “fox hunt teams” — sent to induce the return of Chinese dissidents and economic fugitives — to attracting talent at America’s education institutions and stealing medical research, a senior justice department official told reporters.

The justice official said that while it was understood that consulates might naturally serve as a base for espionage, the level of Chinese activity involving the Houston consulate had risen to a level that represented a national security threat. 

“The sum total of the Houston consulate’s activities went well over the line of what we’re willing to accept,” said the official, adding that many prosecutions were unlikely in large part because many Chinese operatives benefited from diplomatic immunity. The intention was to “send a message to the remaining officials that they gotta knock it off”.