Researchers experiment on micro-electro-mechanical systems at Tianjin University on Friday. Photo: Bai Yunyi/GT

Zhang Hao, a Chinese professor with Tianjin University (TJU) who was arrested by the US for economic espionage charges in May 2015, will stand trial on September 10, and the case will likely last a few months, according to information obtained by the Global Times.   

On May 16, 2015, Zhang, then 36, was arrested when he landed at Los Angeles International Airport to attend an international academic conference. The invitation to the conference was reportedly a trap set up by the FBI to capture him.

An insider who is familiar with the case told the Global Times that Zhang’s company ROFS Microsystem filed a lawsuit in Tianjin in September 2017 against Avago Technologies, now combined into US chip maker Broadcom Inc., for intellectual property infringement.

“If ROFS wins, the case can be used as evidence by Zhang’s US attorney,” said the insider. 

According to the insider, the lawsuit came after ROFS found their patented technologies were being used by Avago in the filter chips the latter sold to Apple as early as 2016. 

Immediately after the lawsuit was filed, Avago tried to seek for an out-of-court settlement but ROFS rejected , said the insider. 

Then in 2018, Avago filed a lawsuit against ROFS in Tianjin questioning Zhang’s patent ownership, while Apple filed a lawsuit in Beijing against China’s National Intellectual Property Administration, asking it to invalidate the patent.  

ROFS and TJU hope the three cases can be heard at the same time and a fair result can be reached as soon as possible, the insider said. “They are confident in winning with the abundant evidence they have, which will help Zhang in the trial in the US.”

Zhang Hao. Photo: Courtesy of Zhang’s wife Fan Liping

Deliberate ploy 

Zhang and his colleague Pang Wei gained their doctorates in the US and worked in different American companies until 2009, when they came back to China to assume teaching posts and launched ROFS with TJU. 

US authorities said they stole secrets from two companies that develop technology often used in military systems, Reuters reported in July 2015. 

Zhang is one of six Chinese scientists facing such charges, along with Pang Wei, 39, Zhang’s colleague at TJU and former employee of Avago, and Chen Jinping, 45, an assistant dean of the School of Precision Instrument and Opto-electronics Engineering of Tianjin University and board member for ROFS.

Zhang and Pang had become leading figures in micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS) and filter chips when in the US. They obtained patents for seven technologies in the US and 200 others after they came back to China.  

Why did the US lay out such a deliberate ploy to ensnare Zhang and his company? The answer lies in the company’s main product – filter chips, which are widely viewed as the core component in many industries including modern wireless communication, 5G, internet and artificial intelligence, according to the insider. 

While Avago monopolized filter chip technologies, ROFS grew into a leading company with international competitiveness and small-batch supply capacity, which is of vital importance for the Chinese chip industry to break through the US suppress.  

Evidence that Avago provided to the US court includes emails between Zhang and Pang, which they claimed involved commercial secrets. However, the insider said that these emails were obtained illegally through hacking into the TJU intranet and showed apparent editing and revision stitches. 

TJU invited a number of experts to examine these emails and they agreed that they had been edited, said the insider.  

Another so-called piece of evidence the US side provided is a report which claimed that TJU and ROFS are Chinese governmental institutions, as the university is affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of Education (MOE) and provides funds for ROFS. 

The Global Times found that the TJU only holds 7 percent of ROFS’ shares. The report’s accusation against the school also reveals the report author’s ignorance of China’s system.

China so far has 75 universities affiliated with the MOE.

Zhang’s case not only hugely affected his own career, but impacted TJU’s research into MEMS which was under his leadership, Zhang’s colleague Duan Xuexin told the Global Times. 

Worried families  

Zhang was released on $50,000 bail on July 29, 2015 but has not been allowed to leave California since then. 

Fan Liping, Zhang’s wife, told the Global Times that Zhang has been under great psychological pressure in the past four years living in the US due to the delay in the case. 

Fan said that Zhang is only allowed freedom of activity from 7 am to 9 pm in Northern California, and has to wear monitoring devices. This year, he suffered a serious decline in his health. He was unable to sleep and sometimes vomited when he ate.

Zhang’s case was put on hold since the second half of 2018, according to Fan, amid the escalating US-initiated trade war with China, during which more Chinese scientists and companies have faced suppression, investigation, dismissal and inquiry from the US side. 

Fan also noted US customs officials have become more prejudiced in the past year when she went to US to visit Zhang, including questions on whether she was working for Huawei.

Fan and her family members usually turn off their mobile phones in the US out of fear of being monitored by the US government.   

“All I want is my son to win the case and come back safely as soon as possible,” Zhang’s father Zhang Jiaqi told the Global Times.