Late last week, former Texas A&M University professor and NASA researcher Zhengdong Cheng pled guilty to falsifying official documents and violating NASA regulations after failing to disclose ties to institutions with Chinese Communist Party (CCP) connections.

Cheng was arrested in 2020 on charges of conspiracy, wire fraud, and making false statements after an investigation revealed that he intentionally hid connections to “multiple Chinese corporations, including Chinese universities.”

Cheng’s 2020 arrest revealed his ties to “various entities or programs owned or operated either directly or indirectly by Chinese companies and/or the People’s Republic of China.” An investigation found that Cheng failed to disclose his employment as the director of a soft matter institute at a technology university founded by China’s Ministry of Education.

The former professor, who worked in Texas A&M’s Department of Engineering, also conducted research for NASA, receiving almost $750,000 in federal grant money. Although conditions for receiving grants required Cheng to disclose foreign connections, he neglected to inform the university or NASA about his ties to Chinese institutions. As a Texas A&M employee, Cheng was also required to disclose potential conflicts of interest, including other income sources or employment, which he failed to do.

Earlier this year, a Texas Scorecard investigation revealed how the CCP is infiltrating government, commerce, and educational institutions across Texas. In 2007, Texas A&M established a Confucius Institute, a “Trojan Horse” used to deliver CCP propaganda under the guise of Chinese culture and language education.

The organization controlling these institutes, commonly referred to as “Hanban,” has close ties to the CCP’s Ministry of Education and provided Texas A&M with $100,000 and thousands of books and other teaching materials to start its Confucius Institute. The group also agreed to fund the salaries of two hand-picked Chinese instructors. However, Texas A&M’s Confucius Institute closed in 2018 after facing increased scrutiny from the U.S. Department of Education.

The charges against Cheng came from the Trump administration’s China Initiative, a Department of Justice program created to investigate the “deliberate, systematic, and calculated threats posed, in particular, by the communist regime in China, which is notorious around the world for intellectual property theft.”

After pleading guilty to two charges, Cheng must pay a $20,000 fine and an $86,876 restitution to NASA. Prosecutors also decided the 13 months Cheng spent in jail waiting for his trial was “an appropriate sentence in the matter,” and he will not face further incarceration.

In response to the charges against Cheng, Texas A&M’s Chancellor John Sharp promised the university would remain vigilant in preventing foreign influence from infiltrating research programs.

“Texas A&M and the Texas A&M System take security very seriously, and we constantly are on the look-out for vulnerabilities, especially when national security is involved,” said Sharp. “We will continue to work with our federal partners to keep our intellectual property secure and out of the hands of foreign governments who seek to do us harm.”

Katy Marshall

Katy graduated from Tarleton State University in 2021 after majoring in history and minoring in political science.