KU professor accused of fraud under China Initiative goes to criminal trial

Franklin Tao was the first person to be arrested under the Trump administration’s now-defunct China Initiative.

By: - March 21, 2022 5:16 pm

Hong Peng calls for a fair trial for her husband, Franklin Tao, on Monday outside of the U.S. District Courthouse in Kansas City, Kansas. Tao was the first person to be arrested under the Department of Justice’s now-defunct China Initiative. (Allison Kite/Kansas Reflector)

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — The two and a half years since her husband, Franklin Tao, was arrested have been a waking nightmare for Hong Peng and the couple’s two children.

Peng said she is working three jobs while the family falls into debt from her husband’s legal expenses — and his lost income. She said they risk losing their house. Their two teenage children are traumatized, and Tao is severely depressed because of the prosecution that Peng and fellow Asian Americans say is an example of racial profiling of professors by a now-defunct federal initiative.

“The injustice against Franklin left our family in total fear, anxiety and desperation,” Peng said. “We have exhausted our savings paying for legal fees and fighting to survive on my income alone.”

Franklin Tao was the first person arrested under the China Initiative, the brainchild of President Donald Trump’s U.S. Department of Justice. The administration said economic spies with connections to China were stealing American intellectual property, NPR reported. The policy was scrapped by President Joe Biden’s administration last month.

Tao’s China Initiative criminal trial — on seven counts of wire fraud and three counts of making false statements — began Monday at the U.S. District Courthouse in Kansas City, Kansas, where his wife and organizations that advocate for Asian Americans called for fair proceedings and an end to profiling of Asian American professors.

Tao was arrested at his home in 2019 after returning from a trip to China to care for his sick mother and visit colleagues at a university there, according to the New Yorker.

A prolific researcher, Tao was an associate professor at the University of Kansas and a researcher at the Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis. He worked on projects funded by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy, which he is accused of defrauding.

Peng said Tao has worked countless hours to fulfill his dream of becoming an American scientist.

“Now, his career and life has been destroyed by the prosecution and our family has been trapped in this nightmare for over two and a half years,” Peng said.

Peng was joined by representatives of United Chinese Americans, the Asian and Asian-American Faculty and Staff Council at the University of Kansas and the Kansas City Chinese Community Association.

Peng and the groups note Tao is not accused of espionage or stealing intellectual property, despite the China Initiative’s rhetoric.

“Instead of catching spies, DOJ spent their resources catching basically Chinese American professors and academics,” said Haipei Shue, president of United Chinese Americans. 

Shue said the organization supports government efforts to ensure economic and national security — but not at the expense of Chinese Americans’ civil rights.

“We cannot allow this racial profiling, country-of-origin profiling, overzelous government prosecution in this free country of America,” Shue said. “We demand equal protection and justice for Chinese American communities and our professors and academics.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Kansas declined to comment on the pending case, and the University of Kansas declined to comment given that the issue is both a personnel and legal matter.

The trial began Monday with jury selection, which was expected to take most of the day. Judge Julie Robinson estimated the trial would take three weeks.

Charges against Tao

The most recent indictment of Tao, issued in 2020, says he received grant funds from the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation “while concealing his participation in a (Chinese) ‘talent plan,’ his employment at a (Chinese) research university and his (Chinese)-funded research.”

Talent plans, according to the indictment, are “designed to encourage the transfer of original ideas and intellectual property from U.S. universities to (Chinese) government institutions.”

The programs offer competitive salaries and benefits and require participants to engage in similar research in China to the work they do in the U.S., the indictment said. In addition to research, it says participants were “frequently obligated contractually to perform services for the PRC in support of its strategic national development goals and economic revitalization.”

The government alleges Tao took part in one through his employment with Fuzhou University and failed to disclose it to the University of Kansas. It says Tao also certified to the Department of Energy that he was only receiving research funding from the U.S. government.

“Because of the nature of the (Chinese) political system, these employing entities were, functionally, extensions of the (Chinese) Government and the Chinese Communist Party,” the indictment alleges.

However, the indictment doesn’t allege Tao transferred any specific intellectual property through the “scheme.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Allison Kite
Allison Kite

Allison Kite is a data reporter for The Missouri Independent and Kansas Reflector, with a focus on the environment and agriculture. A graduate of the University of Kansas, she’s covered state government in both Topeka and Jefferson City, and most recently was City Hall reporter for The Kansas City Star.