Researcher Under FBI Investigation for Allegedly Hiding Ties to China

March 5, 2021 Updated: March 5, 2021

A Chinese researcher who once worked at The Jackson Laboratory is under FBI investigation, for allegedly failing to disclose his financial ties to China in applications for U.S. government funding.

Ruan Yijun, a geneticist, failed to disclose his participation in a Chinese state-sponsored recruitment program called the Thousand Talents program and his collaboration agreement with China’s state-run Shenzhen People’s Hospital, according to an FBI affidavit unsealed on Mar. 2. The affidavit was filed in federal court in Bangor, Maine, on Dec. 30 last year.

The Jackson Laboratory (JAX) is a nonprofit biomedical research institution based in Maine. Its mission is to discover genetic solutions for treating human diseases. According to Ruan’s curriculum vitae (pdf) available on the JAX website, he began working at JAX’s genomics research center at the campus of the University of Connecticut Health Center in 2012.

Also in 2012, he signed up for the Thousand Talents program, according to his curriculum vitae.

According to the FBI affidavit, Ruan was listed as the primary investigator on 17 JAX research projects that received over $15.3 million in funding from the U.S. National Institute of Health (NIH) from 2014 to 2020. Ruan’s failure to disclose his ties on those NIH applications could be a violation of federal wire fraud laws, according to the FBI.

The Thousand Talents program that Ruan signed up for was offered by China’s Huazhong Agricultural University, which is located in Wuhan, the capital of central China’s Hubei Province. According to the affidavit, he had a relationship with the university until at least December 2018 while still being employed by JAX.

Beijing rolled out the Thousand Talents Plan in 2008 to aggressively recruit promising science and tech researchers from foreign countries to work in China.

In July last year, FBI Director Christopher Wray warned about China’s job-recruitment programs while speaking at the Washington-based think tank Hudson Institute.

“Through its talent recruitment programs, like the so-called Thousand Talents program, the Chinese government tries to entice scientists to secretly bring our knowledge and innovation back to China—even if that means stealing proprietary information or violating our export controls and conflict-of-interest rules,” Wray said.

The affidavit revealed details about Ruan’s contract for the talent program, based on his email communications with Huazhong Agricultural University.

Under his contract, Ruan was given the title of “distinguished professor” at the Chinese university and he would receive 100,000 yuan (about $15,400) per month pre-tax for an unknown period of time, as well as a 150-square-meter housing on campus.

According to one email, Ruan was given 1 million yuan (about $154,400) in subsidy by the Chinese regime for his participation in the Thousand Talents program. The money was deposited to his account at the state-run Bank of China.

In December 2015, Huazhong Agricultural University announced on its website that the school made a breakthrough in human genetic research that was published in the U.S. scientific journal Cell. Ruan was one of the scientists behind the research.

Ruan entered a collaboration agreement with the Shenzhen People’s Hospital in October 2016 and maintained a relationship with the hospital until at least September 2019, according to the affidavit. Based on one email between Ruan and the hospital, Ruan was a team leader for a hospital project, and was entitled to earn 800,000 yuan (about $123,500) per year and 4 million yuan (about $617,700) in five years.

Ruan’s work at the hospital is connected to China’s science ambitions. A hospital report stated that the project headed by Ruan “will not only provide strong fundamental support for continued innovation in China’s life sciences, clinical medicine, and biotechnology industries, but will also provide China with a world-leading opportunity in the field of clinical medical genomics, which should not be missed,” according to the affidavit.

A 2017 document by the municipal government in Shenzhen showed that Ruan was one of several Chinese and foreign medical experts recruited by the city to work at local medical institutions. The Shenzhen government subsidized the Shenzhen People’s Hospital about 10 million yuan (about $1.5 million) for recruiting Ruan.

The U.S. attorney’s office in Maine declined to comment on the investigation. According to the Associated Press, no charge has been filed against Ruan.

Stephanie Wasco, chief communications officer at JAX, told The Epoch Times that the lab is “fully cooperating” with the FBI and the Department of Justice.

Follow Frank on Twitter: @HwaiDer