Austin (KXAN) — Monday evening, faculty, graduate and postdoctoral students at the University of Texas at Austin were sent a message from university leaders alerting them that the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation will be contacting researchers regarding efforts the Chinese government may have taken to illegally obtain research from American universities. This is “including coronavirus vaccine research.”
UT Austin researchers are working on projects to further expedite the development of a COVID-19 vaccine.
KXAN obtained copies of this letter, which was written by UT’s Interim Executive Vice President and Provost Dan Jaffe and Interim Vice President for Research Alison R. Preston.
University leaders said this is part of a “national situation” that may impact some in UT’s research community. They explained the FBI told UT last week that because of the recently ordered closure of the Chinese Consulate in Houston, the bureau will be “contacting UT researchers about the role of the Consulate and efforts by the Chinese government to illegally procure research.”
The university emphasized it does not know whom the FBI will reach to or when that will happen. Additionally, the university said it had not shared anyone’s information or details about ongoing research with FBI agents.
For those who might have been alarmed by this email, the university offered a reminder: “It’s not unusual for federal law enforcement officers to ask to speak with researchers if deemed necessary to support criminal or national security investigations.”
Those at the university who have questions about possible contact from the FBI are asked to contact UT’s Legal Affairs or the deans overseeing their research. University leaders also asked that any researcher who receives a phishing attempt or suspicious email from “a foreign company or entity” should contact UT’s information security office.
The email alludes to the fact that this alert comes as international students, in particular, may face added challenges and uncertainties.
“As we’ve said before, our international scholars are a vital part of our research community,” the university leaders wrote in the email. “You enrich our environment and are critical to our teams’ success, and we value your contributions.”
Direction from the federal government in June stated students studying in the U.S. on certain visas could not remain in the country if they were going to take taking a fully-online course load during the fall semester, which caused concern among UT international students.
On July 12, UT issued a plan for how they would help international students continue their coursework without jeopardizing their visas.
The federal government eventually rescinded that directive and on July 24 issued new guidance which clarified that while continuing non-immigrant students could take an entirely online course load in the fall and maintain their status, new international students would not be allowed to have all of their classes online.
“We realize that this news is coming during an already difficult time,” university leaders wrote in their email Monday, encouraging international UT community members to seek support from university department Texas Global.
Houston consulate closure
In their letter Monday, UT leaders linked to a report from the Houston Chronicle about how U.S. officials took over the Chinese Consulate in Houston on July 24. The Chronicle reported the Trump Administration confirmed the closure on July 22, citing a need to protect American intellectual property and private information.
As the BBC reported, China ordered the closure of a U.S. consulate in the city of Chengdu in response to the U.S. closing the Houston consulate.
CNN reported that U.S. officials alleged last week the consulate in Houston was part of a larger espionage effort using locations around the U.S. and had been implicated in a fraud investigation at a Texas research institution. U.S. officials said last week that leaders at the Houston consulate “were directly involved in communications with researchers and guided them on what information to collect,” CNN reported.
Last week, U.S. officials suggested the Houston consulate was connected to a larger network that spanned more than 25 cities.
Friday, the U.S. Department of Justice announced Juan Tang, a Chinese national and former researcher at UC Davis in California was taken into custody by the FBI after the bureau found probable cause that Tang knowingly omitted her affiliation with a civilian cadre of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army on her visa application.
Inside Higher Ed reports three other academics have been arrested after accusations of lying about their ties to the Chinese military on U.S. visa applications.
Wang Wenbin, the Foreign Ministry Spokesperson at the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco said last week that “U.S. accusations that China’s consulate general in Houston engaged in activities inconsistent with its capacity are nothing but vicious slanders.”
Wenbin also said, “lately the US has been misrepresenting and smearing China’s military-civilian integration policy, employing moral hijack, political pressure and even threat of sanctions against Chinese and American businesses and researchers. China deplores and rejects this.”
KXAN has reached out to the FBI to learn more about the nature of their investigations into research in Texas, and we are awaiting a response.