RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The Justice Department says four Chinese nationals doing research here in the U.S. have been charged with visa fraud. Three of the defendants are now in federal custody. The fourth is a fugitive, someone hiding out at the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco.
NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas has been following this and joins us now. Hi, Ryan.
RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning.
MARTIN: What more can you tell us about these four individuals and the charges against them?
LUCAS: So the Justice Department says that these four individuals got visas to come to the U.S. to do research, and we're talking about cutting-edge fields - medicine, neurology, machine learning, artificial intelligence. But the Justice Department says that these folks lied on their visa applications by denying that they had links to or were members of the Chinese military. One defendant, for instance, allegedly works in a Chinese military lab and holds a rank equivalent to a major. Another is allegedly a uniformed officer in China's air force.
In court documents recently filed in California, federal prosecutors say that these people appear to be part of a Chinese government program to send military scientists to the United States under false pretense. And American officials say that this is part of a broader effort by China to steal research and intellectual property from the U.S. from U.S. universities, allegations that China denies. But this is a huge source of tension in U.S. relations with China.
MARTIN: And I mean, this is all unfolding in real time. I mean, there's one of these people is actually holed up in the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco. I mean, what's the situation right now?
LUCAS: Right. Prosecutors say that she was a researcher at the University of California, Davis. She said on her application that she had never served in the Chinese military. Investigators say that they found photos of her in a military uniform and evidence that she had worked at a Chinese air force medical university. FBI agents interviewed this woman back in June - so just over a month ago - and she denied serving in the Chinese military. At some point after that interview, the FBI says that this woman basically fled to the consulate in San Francisco and that, as of yesterday when they filed these papers, she is still there.
MARTIN: So I mean, this comes at such a crazy time between the U.S. and China. Things are bad - as bad as they've been in 30 years. I mean, the Trump administration ordered China to close its consulate in Houston earlier this week. Beijing then retaliated, ordering just this morning that the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu, China, be closed. Does this have anything to do with that? I mean, how do we make sense of it in that broader context?
LUCAS: Well, American officials have been taking a harder line increasingly against China in what the U.S. views as a range of malicious activity on China's part and, in particular, economic espionage. Remember earlier this week, the Justice Department announced charges against two suspected Chinese hackers for allegedly stealing intellectual property and trade secrets. Those two had been at it for more than a decade, according to prosecutors, but they are still active. And this year, the Justice Department says, they were allegedly going after U.S. firms doing COVID research.
We have seen case after case after case out of the Justice Department related to alleged Chinese economic espionage and hacking. FBI Director Christopher Wray recently said that the FBI opens a new China-related counterintelligence case every 10 hours. And U.S. officials say that China is using all sorts of people, including researchers like the four we're talking about here, in its spying operations and economic theft.
MARTIN: Just real quick, Ryan, I want to pivot. The inspector general at the Department of Justice has opened an investigation into what's been happening against protesters in Portland and in Lafayette Square here in D.C. Just briefly, what you have on that?
LUCAS: The Justice Department inspector general said that he would look at the use of force in Portland this month. He's going to coordinate that investigation with the Department of Homeland Security. That's important because a lot of the allegations of wrongdoing are against DHS agents. And he will also be looking at the Justice Department's role here in Lafayette Square in D.C.
MARTIN: NPR's Ryan Lucas. Thanks. We appreciate it.
LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.