FBI scored one more hit when Chinese national Huajun Zhao was arrested on Sunday March 31, 2013. Zhao was holding two tickets, according to local media coverage, to China on April 2. Zhao was charged with economic espionage.
Zhao's case is strikingly similar to arrestment of Jiang Bo, an ISA contractor working at a NASA facility last month. Jiang was stopped at the Dulles airport holding a one way ticket to China.
From prima facie evidence, there is little doubt that Zhao was up to something. His supervisor Professor Marshall Anderson noticed three vials were missing from his desk on February 22. Surveillance camera mounted in the hallway recorded only one person entered the professor's room around that time. When confronted by campus security, Zhao did not admit nor deny taking the tubes, but promised 'a resolution' in ten days. The stolen material was a compound C-25 being developed at the lab, that is potentially helpful in fighting cancer. Campus security also found tons of files related to the research on Zhao's laptop. Furthermore, campus IT logged a remote access on the day Zhao was suspended at the lab. The cyber invader deleted raw data related to the development of C-25. Campus IT was able to restore deleted data from backup. On the day of his arrest, federal investigators recovered a receipt for a package to China. The missing material is possibility already sitting on a desk in China.
It sounds a typical spy story. However, CIA instructor Walter Burke told us in 2003 movie The Recruit, 'nothing is what it seems.'
History has found spies in many different life forms, singer, dancer, politician, scholar, etc. That's the way it should be, as it makes it difficult to tell. However, there is a clue, they are all smart. No offense to Dr. Zhao, but he is not a winner comparing to his peers.
Forty-two year old Zhao obtained a B.S. degree from Zhejiang University in 1996, which is about 3 years too late for a Chinese and extremely rare nowadays after the great expansion of college admission. If that is still not an indicator, Zhao had been working as senior postdoc at three institutions in the US, but yet couldn't land a real job. It's evident that setting aside Zhao may be a good scientist, he absolutely does not have any street smart.
It is not a great time to be a 'returnee (going back to China after studying abroad)' at this time. China's universities and research institute are increasingly picky and suspicious of the quality of those holding foreign degrees, partially because they already have a very competitive talent pool with advanced skills produced inside China. A foreign degree can no longer buy you any advantage. When looking outsider, Chinese universities are eyeing on specific traits such as English speaking capability to appease students who demand English lectures or past notable award recipients as attractive wall decorations. Zhao must present something valuable to get the attention.
The understanding in the biological field is that any results or discoveries in a research project belong to the sponsor. There is no question that Zhao was stealing something he did not own. However, based on media coverage, it is highly possible that Zhao was stealing something he created, or in the least, jointly created.
Professor Anderson told the media that the intellectual property of the compound belong to his college and University of Cincinnati, where Zhao was employed before he came to Milwaukee. It is more than a coincidence that readers should move their eyes away from. For anyone familiar with biological research, the only plausible inference is that Zhao had been working on this compound in Cincinnati, and that he was brought in to continue this research. Not too long ago, Zhao posted a question on an Internet forum asking how to patent a compound. A researcher in a university will never ask these kind of questions, because there is an army of patent lawyers who will make sure the school secure any such discoveries. Again, for anyone familiar with biological research, the only plausible explanation is that Zhao found something on his own, but haven't reported it to the lab. If so, it is highly unethical, unprofessional, greedy while being foolish, and potentially illegal.
The C-25 compound itself is hardly of any value. In fact, you can say that all biological researchers are working on something that is valuable, or can be valuable. It may be valuable for publishing on an academic journal, or seeking grants, but in this early form, it's very difficult to assess its potential.
It seems that, Huajun Zhao attempted to use results not belonging to himself for personal benefits, which is by definition stealing. However, a charge of economic espionage is a stretch.
Commenting on Jiang Bo's case is tricky. First of all, anything related to NASA could be potentially sensitive one way or another. But more so because Jiang was not caught for doing anything illegal. He broke a rule when taking a laptop back to China without notifying his supervisor. However, that had been cleared by NASA that no sensitive information was on that laptop and the case closed. He was arrested for giving inconsistent answers to federal investigators, but that happened after several hours detention and interrogation at the airport, while he was trying to catch an airplane to China, fleeing from the US. He fled in a hurry because he was named in a congressional hearing which was carried by a local newspaper, as a case for NASA's circumvention/violation of federal laws by allowing Chinese nationals to work at NASA as contractors. It was confirmed later that Jiang did not carry any information with him. In short, Jiang is either a good spy who covered everything well, or an careless but innocent young researcher trapped by political fights.