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China: NASA mistakenly banned Chinese researchers from conference

By Paul Armstrong and Feng Ke, CNN
updated 2:13 AM EDT, Sun October 20, 2013
Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission members work in the data processing room in Pasadena, California, August 2, 2012.
Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission members work in the data processing room in Pasadena, California, August 2, 2012.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NASA had barred from Chinese researchers from next month's Kepler science conference
  • Xinhua: NASA management apparently misinterpreted a 2011 U.S. security law
  • The law prevents NASA funds from being used to collaborate with China

Hong Kong (CNN) -- Sorry, no Chinese researchers allowed! Oh wait, seems like that was a misunderstanding. Please do come.

NASA's management apparently misinterpreted a security law when it barred Chinese researchers from attending the space agency's Kepler Science Conference in November, China's state-run Xinhua news agency reported Sunday. Xinhua said NASA sent a letter to Chinese scientists inviting them back and cited excerpts from the letter.

NASA did not immediately respond to a request for comment early Sunday morning.

The confusion apparently stemmed from a U.S. law passed in 2011 that prevents NASA funds from being used to collaborate with China or to host Chinese visitors at its facilities.

NASA had announced that Chinese nationals would not be allowed to attend the conference for NASA's Kepler space telescope program at the Ames Research Center due to national security.

The space telescope has been searching for planets outside of our solar system.

Earlier this month, China slammed NASA for its decision to ban Chinese scholars from the conference, calling it "discriminatory."

Gong Li, an official with the Party School of the China Central Committee's Communist party, said the ban was similar to previous U.S. action against the former Soviet Union during the Cold War. He said it also illustrated U.S. fear of China's fast development.

NASA didn't release an official statement on its website due to the U.S. government's partial shutdown earlier this month.

But some U.S. scientists joined in decrying the decision and called for a boycott of the conference.

"In good conscience, I cannot attend a meeting that discriminates in this way. The meeting is about planets located trillions of miles away, with no national security implications," Geoff Marcy, an astronomy professor at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote in an e-mail to the organizers.

'Inaccuracies'

U.S. Republican Rep. Frank Wolf, who drafted the 2011 law, issued a statement on his website that sought to correct "inaccuracies" about the restrictions first reported by Britain's Guardian newspaper.

"I was concerned to read an October 4 article in The Guardian that reported on poor guidance about these policies with regard to restrictions on Chinese nationals attending a conference next month at NASA Ames Research Center. Unfortunately, the article is riddled with inaccuracies, as is, it appears, the guidance provided by NASA Ames staff to the attendees," Wolf wrote.

"As you know, the congressional provision -- which has been in place since early 2011 -- primarily restricts bilateral, not multilateral, meetings and activities with the Communist Chinese government or Chinese-owned companies. It places no restrictions on activities involving individual Chinese nationals unless those nationals are acting as official representatives of the Chinese government."

Security fears

Wolf said NASA officials may have believed the decision was needed because of extra temporary restrictions on foreign nationals after a potential security breach by a Chinese citizen at a NASA facility earlier this year.

In March this year, a Chinese aerospace contractor who worked for NASA was arrested at Washington's Dulles International Airport as he boarded a flight to Beijing.

Bo Jiang, who worked at NASA's Langley's Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, was charged with making false statements to U.S. authorities by failing to disclose all of the electronic devices he was carrying on his one-way flight.

Wolf, who oversees congressional funding of several agencies, told reporters in March he believed Jiang was spying and had access to highly sensitive documents, including source codes for high-tech imaging used in missiles, unmanned aerospace equipment and other technology desired by the Chinese government.

CNN's Holly Yan contributed to this report.

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