Hu was accused by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) of intentionally trying to defraud the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) by hiding his part-time work at the Beijing University of Technology (BJUT). He was arrested on February 27 last year and charged with three counts of wire fraud and three counts of making false statements.
The court did not make public how many of the jurors – four women and eight men, all white – refused to convict. Defense attorney Phil Lomonaco called it a victory for Hu and his family.
Trial testimony has shown federal agents falsely accused Hu of spying for China-based solely on a Google search. After he refused to work as a spy for the U.S. government, agents stalked and harassed him for nearly two years. (Related: The FBI is amazingly good at halting terror plots dreamed up by the FBI.)
Born and educated in China, Hu left to pursue a doctorate degree in Europe and a second in Canada. Hu and his family had settled in Canada before UTK offered him a job in 2013 to teach and conduct research on nanotechnology. He is a recognized expert in the field of brazing, a sophisticated type of welding, and pioneered a method that has proven cheaper and safer than traditional means.
Hu, a Canadian citizen, has lectured across the globe in countries including China, Germany and Japan. Court records show he's been in China 84 days since 2013.
In 2018, the Department of Justice (DOJ) publicly announced the China Initiative – a directive to all federal agents to flush out economic Chinese spies operating in the U.S. Led by the DOJ's National Security Division (NSD), China Initiative reflects the strategic priority of countering national security threats posed by China.
Hu became the first target of the China Initiative to stand trial in a case that hinges on the 2011 "NASA restriction" that bars the space agency from giving its research dollars to China or corporations owned by China. That law has been used as a basis to target professors and researchers working at American universities as part of the China Initiative on combating economic espionage.
Federal prosecutors alleged that Hu intentionally tried to keep NASA and UTK from knowing he worked a part-time job teaching graduate students and researchers at BJUT because of that restriction.
Hu told jurors that he had just a one-hour training session on the stacks of disclosure forms faculty and staff members are required to file. That training included a PowerPoint about the NASA restriction.
Six UTK administrators testified the PowerPoint was the only guidance the university's employees are given about how to comply with the restriction. The PowerPoint stated that the university would provide NASA with a "China Assurance letter" for any proposal for a grant submitted by faculty.
Hu disclosed his ties to BJUT in at least two required forms at UTK, and disclosed them again in email exchanges with UTK officials and a NASA contractor. No one told Hu that he was barred from NASA work.
FBI Agent Kujtim Sadiku testified that he did not know about the China Initiative when he did a Google search of Hu's name in March 2018 after getting a tip that the latter might be a spy. Sadiku said he can't remember from whom he got the tip.
His Google search turned up a couple of press releases in Chinese, including one with a photograph of Hu. Sadiku said he decided to use Google's translation app to dig a bit further.
The translation of the two documents showed Hu's success in academia and research netted him a 2012 "short-term" award to teach students and researchers at BJUT for 20 hours annually through China's Long-Term Thousand Talents Program. The documents also revealed Hu had been invited to speak at a symposium in China in the spring of 2018.
"I investigated him based on his association with the talent program that the U.S. government believes benefits the Chinese military," Sadiku said. "I opened it up as an economic espionage case because the U.S. government believes the program is attempting to acquire technology and information from the United States."
But when Sadiku confronted Hu at his UTK office in April 2018, Hu disavowed any involvement in espionage and called "cheaters" those who agreed to spy for China as part of the Long-Term Thousand Talents Program. Hu also told Sadiku that his research and inventions had helped the U.S. government, the agent said in his testimony.
Sadiku offered Hu another way to help America – spy on China using his part-time work at BJUT as cover. Hu declined and Sadiku ordered a surveillance team that would go on to spend 21 months watching the activities of Hu and his son, then a freshman at UTK. (Related: Your FBI will entrap you.)
Agents also told UTK officials that Hu was suspected of being an operative of the Chinese military using the university as cover to steal secrets from U.S. government agencies. Hu was fired from UTK.
The spy probe eventually went bust, but Sadiku didn't give up his bid to put Hu in handcuffs. Using UTK as part of an undercover scheme, he and fellow federal agents then began building the fraud case that went on trial in Knoxville.
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