A Harvard graduate student accused of trying to smuggle stolen research material from the U.S. to China pleaded guilty today to lying to Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents who caught him at Boston’s Logan Airport last year with 21 vials of cancer cells hidden in his luggage. Zaosong Zheng, 30, was stopped by CBP on Dec. 9, 2019, on his way to Beijing. Zheng, who had been conducting cancer research at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center since 2018, initially told authorities he was not traveling with any biological specimens. He later changed his story, admitting to having taken some of the research material from a Beth Israel lab, while other vials contained material that had been replicated from other people’s research.
The FBI believed that Zheng was “knowingly gathering and collecting intellectual property from [Beth Israel], possibly on behalf of the Chinese government,” special agent Kara Spice wrote. In a plea agreement dated Dec. 1, Zheng confessed to making false, fictitious, and fraudulent statements regarding the 21 vials. In exchange, the government agreed to drop a second charge for smuggling goods out of the United States. Under federal law, the maximum penalty for making false statements is five years in prison, three years supervised release, and a $250,000 fine. Prosecutors have suggested Zhang be sentenced to time served, with no fine. He is expected to be deported to China, according to court filings, with a 10-year ban on returning to the U.S.