Is the U.S. Trying to Smear This Veteran as a Chinese Spy?
The feds investigated this U.S. Army veteran for working for Beijing—and got nowhere. Now they’re probing him all over again, as they try to send him to China.
He’s a Chinese-American veteran with an honorable discharge, U.S. citizenship, and a master’s degree from an Ivy League university. But the feds tried to run him out of the Army and investigate him for being an agent of the government of China.
Now that those attempts have failed, the government is trying to strip him of his citizenship—and send him back to the People’s Republic, where he could face a whole different kind of exposure.
Cheng Li—not his real name—asked The Daily Beast to refer to him under a pseudonym because he fears potential retribution from the Chinese government for his service in the U.S. military if the government prevails and he gets deported.
Cheng was one of many immigrants who became an American citizen through the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) program, an initiative created in 2008 that allows non-citizens with in-demand language skills to get citizenship after serving in the military. His case highlights how the controversy over the treatment of immigrants in the U.S. armed forces, which became a flashpoint during the Trump administration, is continuing into the Biden era.
Critics say the Trump administration targeted MAVNI recruits as part of its broader crackdown on immigration, and point in particular to the Pentagon’s dismissal of 500 people in the program in just one year as evidence of a broad-brush attempt to remove immigrants from military service.
Cheng’s attorney, Lance Curtright, told The Daily Beast that his client was unfairly targeted as part of that broader purge of immigrants in the military. But now, Curtright said, Cheng has to fight off the same set of allegations about loyalty and honesty in immigration proceedings—even though the Army already considered and rejected them.
“You have a guy who’s already beaten this charge having to beat it again and he is a U.S. citizen who honorably served our country. I think it’s really disgusting how they’re treating these MAVNIs,” Curtright said in an interview.
The Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment from The Daily Beast.
Cheng enlisted in 2016 after spending three years in the U.S. on a student visa studying in an Ivy League master’s program.
On paper, he was everything the MAVNI program was looking for: a native Mandarin Chinese speaker fluent in English and willing to serve in the American military.
When he applied for naturalization that year as part of MAVNI’s requirements, Cheng was asked whether he had ever joined or was “associated (either directly or indirectly) with the Communist Party” or whether he’d ever been a member of a Chinese military unit. He answered “no,” leading to repeated—and so-far failed—efforts by the Army, FBI, and Justice Department to accuse him of lying.
The trouble for Cheng began in 2017, after he finished basic training and sat for security screening interviews with Army counterintelligence officers. The investigators asked Cheng about his family and friends, and he volunteered that his cousin and a friend of his father worked for China’s Ministry of Public Safety. He also told investigators that he’d participated in a mandatory two-week training course with the People’s Liberation Army that featured firearms and hand-to-hand combat training. In court documents, the FBI alleged that Cheng’s replies “contradict his oral and written responses to the questions asked from his U.S. Application for Naturalization.”
In court documents, FBI agents played up the “weapons training” Cheng supposedly received and how he “learned how to fire bullets and march” with the Chinese military as a college student. Despite the government’s dark intonations, Cheng’s training wasn’t an attempt to join or associate with the Chinese military. Rather, it was part of a mandatory two-week indoctrination experience forced on all Chinese undergraduates. It was introduced as part of Beijing’s attempt to counter the student protest movements that spawned the Tiananmen Square protests with nationalist propaganda. Far from an elite instruction in the art of combat, many Chinese students are often forced to march around with wooden rifles as part of the experience.
In 2018, the FBI followed up on the Army’s interviews with Cheng, with interviews of their own. Agents again asked him about his family members and their potential associations with China’s Communist Party and, faced with more specific questions, Cheng provided more specific answers. He told the agents his parents were party members, and denied that a family friend in the Ministry of Public Security had asked him to speak to mutual friends visiting the U.S. from China about how to get their own citizenship.
Court documents obtained by The Daily Beast show FBI agents investigated Cheng on suspicion of lying to federal agents and acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign power—the latter a charge that’s often been used of late against spies. The government even obtained a search warrant for his residence, phone, and WeChat account in search of evidence to support the allegation.
But nothing ever came of the probe, and the government never charged Cheng with a crime.
“I think that was a fishing trip that didn't work out well for them,” Curtright said of the investigation.
In the wake of those interviews, the Army tried to boot Cheng from the service on the grounds that he had allegedly lied about his supposed CCP ties. “They’re taking a very broad approach to how that question is worded,” Curtright said. “It asked him if he’s ever been associated, directly or indirectly, with the CCP. He indicated that he’d never had any such affiliation because he was never a member himself and he didn’t think he had any association with the CCP either.”
"The only reason why they know about these things is because he was trying to be honest with them," he added.
The Army brought Cheng before a separation board based on allegations that he had lied about his background and alleged association with the CCP. The evidentiary threshold for a case in an Army separation board is only a preponderance of the evidence, rather than the more stringent standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt” used in criminal trials. Nonetheless, “After a fully vetted trial in which the Army prosecutors brought evidence and witnesses, the Army Separation Board decided they didn’t prove it and they dismissed the charge” against Cheng, his attorney said.
Cheng’s career in the military, however, was effectively over, and he rode out the remainder of his service in a professional limbo, unable to obtain a security clearance, until he was honorably discharged in 2019.
With the Army’s attempts to investigate Cheng having gone up in smoke, the Department of Justice is now trying to denaturalize him, which would strip him of his citizenship. All based on the same allegations that he lied on his naturalization application—but this time under the Biden administration.
“Basically, [the U.S. government] is attempting to leave Mr. Cheng stateless after he served them honorably in the U.S. military,” Curtright said.
China does not recognize dual citizenship, and automatically strips the citizenship of any Chinese national who naturalizes in a foreign country, leaving an open question of where Cheng could go in the event that the U.S. government succeeds in denaturalizing him.
“To prove their case in a denaturalization context, they have to show some type of subjective intent. What did he mean when he answered these questions? Did he mean to deceive?” Curtright said. “There’s absolutely no evidence of that whatsoever. What you have instead is a guy who filled out a form and supplemented it with correct information later.”