The FBI is investigating an Ohio State University professor who disappeared and may have given defense secrets to the Chinese government.
Rongxing Li, 56, who taught at the university for 18 years, was internationally famous for his mapping skills, which enabled him to help guide NASA rovers on Mars in 2003 and 2009. Also known as Ron Li, the professor grew up in China. Last year, he quit his job at OSU and vanished.
Li obtained access to Department of Defense technical information by offering a $36.9 million proposal to NASA for imaging work for a 2020 Mars mission. Li said in his 2014 proposal that he knew no Chinese scientists. However, OSU researchers became alarmed because Li had taken a 2012 sabbatical at Tongji University in Shanghai.
Investigators found Li was lying; he had all sorts of contact with Tongji, even his listing as a professor and as the director of a center for spatial information. Worse yet, they discovered he had worked with Chinese government programs to develop advanced technologies.
On Feb. 15, 2014, Li told OSU and NASA he wanted out of the Mars 2020 project, adding he was in China looking after his parents who were ostensibly ill. Days later, his resignation was emailed to the university.
OSU notified the FBI, noting the “unusual circumstances of Li’s departure and the restricted and sensitive nature of some of his research.” The university asserted Li had access to International Traffic in Arms Regulations information with NASA and with Raytheon, an American defense contractor.
On March 1, 2014, the FBI then cooperated with Homeland Security, which searched Li’s wife, Jue Tian, 56, in the San Francisco airport; she was headed for China. On thumb drives belonging to Tian, they found restricted defense information.
In 2014, Li was named a 2014 ASPRS Fellow Award winner. That award is given to active society members who have “performed exceptional service in advancing the science and use of the mapping sciences.”