Was China’s Houston Consulate Trying to Steal the Coronavirus Vaccine?

Was China’s Houston Consulate Trying to Steal the Coronavirus Vaccine?

  • China’s efforts to use the Houston consulate to steal science and technology secrets were “particularly aggressive and particularly successful,” Trump administration indicates.

China may have been using its now-closed consulate in Houston as a base of operations for industrial espionage as it seeks to be the first to hit the market with a vaccine for the novel coronavirus, Trump administration officials indicated on Friday.

The Houston facility is near the largest medical complex in the world and a bevy of research universities and critical infrastructure projects. Officials said the consulate has been used at least 50 times in the past 10 years to help recruit members of the Thousand Talents Program, China’s effort to target top Chinese and foreign experts from around the world in cutting-edge fields to bring their skills back to Beijing.

In recent years, China has made a concerted effort to leap ahead in scientific research and technology by targeting Chinese nationals and foreign experts. Chinese Consulate officials in Houston had been directly involved in communications with researchers and guided them on what information to collect, the officials said.

“From where I sit and you look at what happened with the corona outbreak in China in 2019, they have been very clear about their intent to be the first to the market with a vaccine, and the medical connections here aren’t lost on me,” a senior State Department official told reporters on Friday. “The medical connection in Houston is also pretty specific.” It was not immediately clear what trade secrets China was able to target from the facility.

On Friday, China retaliated for the closure of its U.S. consulate, ordered by the State Department on Tuesday, by ordering the closure of the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, China. U.S. officials did not clarify whether Chinese consular officers would leave the Houston facility by the Friday deadline.

Also on Friday, the U.S. effort to push back against Chinese spying took another step forward, after American authorities arrested a fugitive Chinese researcher and uniformed officer of China’s Air Force who was hunkered down in the Chinese consulate in San Francisco. Juan Tang is likely to appear in U.S. District Court on Friday, after the FBI earlier this week arrested three other individuals charged with visa fraud and lying about working for China’s People’s Liberation Army.

Like other consular facilities, the Houston consulate had been long used as a base of operations for Chinese intelligence services, officials said, because of their status as sovereign territory within the United States. But a senior intelligence official said that science and technology intelligence collectors from the Houston area were “particularly aggressive and particularly successful.” Earlier this month, FBI Director Christopher Wray said that the agency opens a new Chinese espionage case approximately every 10 hours.

In July 2019, a Houston businessman, Shan Shi, was found guilty of conspiring to steal trade secrets from a Texas company that makes drilling equipment for the oil industry. Shi, a naturalized U.S. citizen, was acquitted of conspiring to conduct economic espionage on behalf of China.