Following an FBI investigation this summer, more than 1,000 researchers who had hidden their affiliation with the Chinese military fled the United States, the Justice Department said Wednesday.
The exodus came in the wake of the arrests of six Chinese researchers accused of lying on their visa applications about their ties to the People’s Liberation Army and a warning to the Chinese ambassador that individuals who had not disclosed their true status needed to leave or face arrest.
The figure is startling, and some experts and former FBI officials said the actual number of researchers who currently work for the PLA is likely far lower. It is plausible, they said, that all had some affiliation to the military at some point and would be vulnerable to pressure to spy for the government.
The Chinese Embassy did not respond to a request for comment.
In July, the Justice Department announced the indictments of six Chinese individuals accused of concealing their PLA ties. One tried to escape arrest by seeking refuge in the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco.
One researcher was under orders to study the exact layout of a medical lab in order to replicate it in China, federal agents alleged. Another stole software code that his adviser at the University of Virginia had developed over two decades, the government alleged.
Those arrests, coupled with the July closure of the Chinese Consulate in Houston, which U.S. officials said served as a command-and-control node to direct spying operations, sent a signal to Beijing, officials said.
“They allowed us to message the Chinese government: If you’re going to send individuals here, you’ve got to do so honestly and you can’t hide their affiliation to the Chinese government and the Chinese military,” said Assistant Attorney General John Demers, who disclosed the 1,000-plus figure at the Aspen Cyber Summit on Wednesday.
The aim of the prosecutions, he said, “is not just to disrupt the individual but the broader activity” of Chinese theft of U.S. research.
The FBI and Justice Department knew that the scope of China’s effort to obtain U.S. technology was broad, but they were surprised when, in the wake of the consulate closure, so many people left the country, one U.S. official said.
“The breadth and depth of the exodus was not expected, but it was appreciated,” said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity.