Harvard professor charged for lying about $1.5M Chinese research scheme

Cheryl Sanders
January 29, 2020

In a criminal complaint unsealed on Tuesday, Charles Lieber - a leading nanoelectronics researcher and the chair of Harvard's department of chemistry and chemical biology - is accused of making false statements to the U.S. Department of Defense about his role in China's Thousand Talents program, a recruitment initiative that offers payments and perks to scientists trained overseas to convince them to come to China.

"This is a very carefully directed effort by the Chinese government to fill what it views as its own strategic gaps", said Andrew Lelling, U.S. Attorney for the District of MA, as he revealed the charges in a news conference.

Yanqing Ye, 29, was charged in an indictment with visa fraud, making false statements, acting as an agent of a foreign government, and conspiracy. "Professor Lieber has been placed on indefinite administrative leave". He was arrested Tuesday morning and will appear later before a federal magistrate, according to a spokeswoman for the MA U.S. Attorney's office. He has not been charged with economic espionage, that is, passing along intellectual property.

Charles Lieber, the head of Harvard University's chemistry department, has been charged with lying to USA officials about his involvement with a Chinese government-run recruitment program and his affiliation with a Chinese university. His deceit caused Harvard to make false statements to the National Institutes of Health about his work with China, because grants that Harvard received required disclosure of ties with foreign governments, the U.S. said.

Prosecutors said that he has led the Lieber Research Group at Harvard since 2008.

Recipients of these grants have to disclose any conflicts of interest, including financial support from foreign governments or organisations. Unbeknownst to Harvard University, beginning in 2011, Lieber became a "Strategic Scientist" at Wuhan University of Technology (WUT) in China and was a contractual participant in China's Thousand Talents Plan from in or about 2012 to 2017.

The cases level charges against both American and Chinese nationals.

Under Lieber's Thousand Talents program contract, prosecutors say, he was paid $50,000 a month by the Wuhan University of Technology in China and living expenses up to $158,000. In return, Lieber was obligated to work for WUT "not less than nine months a year" by "declaring global cooperation projects, cultivating young teachers and Ph.D. students, organizing worldwide conference [s], applying for patents and publishing articles in the name of" WUT.

Washington has increased its scrutiny on China's Thousand Talents Plan since 2018, when the two countries started to be locked in a trade battle, and Beijing has reportedly refrained from talking publicly about the program. During one interview with investigators, prosecutors say that Lieber stated that he was never asked to participate in the program but he "wasn't sure" how China categorized him. Zheng, who was a a Harvard-sponsored cancer researcher, has been indicted on that charge along with a count of making false statements. Lieber caused Harvard to falsely tell NIH that Lieber "had no formal association with WUT" after 2012, that "WUT continued to falsely exaggerate" his involvement with WUT in subsequent years, and that Lieber "is not and has never been a participant in" China's Thousand Talents Plan.

"China's communist government's goal simply put is to replace the United States as a superpower", Joseph R. Bonavolonta, the FBI's special agent in charge of the Boston Field Division, said at a press conference. On her J-1 visa application, Ye falsely identified herself as a "student" and lied about her ongoing military service at the National University of Defense Technology (NUDT), a top military academy directed by the CCP. The push to staunch China's well-documented and costly theft of U.S. innovation and know-how has also raised questions about overzealous prosecutors and racial profiling.

Lieber has been a longtime collaborator with researchers in China. In 2017, he was honored with the NIH's Director's Pioneer Award for his work on a mesh electronic system that could integrate with the central nervous system.

Last month, a medical student from China was also charged in Boston with trying to smuggle vials of research specimens in a sock in his suitcase bound for China.

Cancer researcher Zaosong Zheng was arrested at Boston Logan International Airport with 21 vials of biological samples in his bag.

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