The accusations against former electrical engineering students Li Xiaoyu and Dong Jiazhi released on Tuesday include charges of trade secret theft and wire fraud conspiracy.
Prosecutors said the two men spied on a Massachusetts biotech firm in January which was known to be researching possible cures for Covid-19. They also hacked a Maryland company less than a week after it said it was researching Covid-19.
The indictment unsealed in Washington state said the two men - who reside in China - recently "researched vulnerabilities in the networks of biotech and other firms publicly known for work on Covid-19 vaccines, treatments, and testing technology".
The first signs something unusual may be happening at the Houston consulate emerged on Tuesday, when people overlooking the building's courtyard noticed several bins on fire.
Footage shows people throwing what appears to be paper into the bins. It is not known who they were. People were later filmed appearing to pour water on the bins.
Emergency services were called to the building on Tuesday evening. However, the Houston police force said on Twitter officers "were not granted access to enter the building", but did see smoke.
亞太地區副國務卿David R. Stilwell直指侯斯頓總領館係中國軍方間諜中心
David Stilwell, the top East Asia official at the State Department, singled out the consulate in Houston
in a New York Times interview as having “a history of engaging in subversive behaviour”.
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been “sending students both overtly and otherwise to American universities to study things to advance their own warfare advantages in the economic world and the rest”, said Stilwell, adding that “at the epicentre of all these activities facilitated by the [People’s Republic of China] mission is this consulate in Houston”.
Stilwell also accused China’s consul general in Houston and other diplomats there of having recently engaged in questionable activity at Houston’s international airport, where they were escorting Chinese citizens onto a chartered flight to China.
Air China, which has made special flights to repatriate Chinese citizens amid the coronavirus pandemic, was holding paperwork with false birth dates for the diplomats, The Times reported Stilwell as saying.
Sources on Wednesday told NBC that the consulate was known as being a center for Chinese spying.
Multiple U.S. officials told the network that the Houston consulate has long been used by the Chinese government to steal valuable medical research, and was involved in attempts to infiltrate the oil and natural gas industries.
They said the consulate is well-fortified, was hardened to prevent U.S. surveillance, and was a high-tech communications hub to coordinate and execute various spying operations.
Mark Warner, Democrat senator for Virginia and ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told NBC News's Katy Tur that he would not discuss the specific intelligence behind Wednesday's closure.
'But I can tell you for the last two years, I and other members of the intel committee have been holding classified briefings with business leaders and academic leaders about the concerted efforts of the Chinese communist party to steal our intellectual property, to steal it from companies, to steal it from universities, to be on better guard,' he said.
Warner suggested the action was driven by the FBI and its intelligence.
Much of the interest in Houston has focused on the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.
In April 2019, three out of five scientists identified by federal authorities as being involved in efforts to steal American research on behalf of China at MD Anderson were ousted by the institution.
A fourth scientist resigned before the conclusion of the investigation, and the fifth was disciplined by the center.