The chairman of Harvard Universitys chemistry department was arrested on charges of lying about receiving millions of dollars in Chinese funding, in an escalation of U.S. efforts to counter what officials said is a plot by Beijing to mine U.S. universities to catapult China to the forefront of scientific development.A federal criminal complaint alleges that
Charles Lieber,
a pioneer in nanotechnology, misled the Defense Department and the National Institutes of Health about his participation in Chinas Thousand Talents Plan while the U.S. agencies were spending more than $15 million to fund his research group in the U.S.Through its government-backed Thousand Talents Plan and hundreds of similar programs, China pays scientists around the world to moonlight at Chinese institutions, often without disclosing the work to their primary employers.
The case was one of three presented Tuesday by federal authorities in Massachusetts, with each underscoring U.S. concerns that the Chinese government is trying to obtain cutting-edge U.S. research by exploiting U.S. universities and their professors and researchers. Prosecutors have brought a series of cases charging Chinese Americans and Chinese nationals working in the U.S., prompting concern in the scientific community that authorities were racially profiling people. Mr. Lieber is among the first non-Chinese scientists and highest-profile targets to date.
As part of the Thousand Talents program, Wuhan University of Technology gave Mr. Lieber more than $1.5 million to set up a research lab in China, according to the complaint.
The school also agreed to pay him a $50,000 monthly salary and offered about $150,000 in annual living expenses for significant periods from 2012 to 2017, it said.
In exchange, Mr. Lieber was required to work for WUT at least nine months a year by declaring international cooperation projects, cultivating young teachers and Ph.D. students, organizing international conference[s], applying for patents and publishing articles in the name of the Chinese school, the complaint said.
While accepting foreign funding isnt illegal, U.S. authorities require such funds to be disclosed by researchers who apply for U.S. taxpayer-supported funding; U.S. officials said the Chinese programs create conflicts of interest and incentives to transfer intellectual property. Under a contract cited in the complaint, Mr. Lieber was obligated to conduct national important (key) projects…that meet Chinas national strategic development requirements or stand at the forefront of international science and technology research field.
Mr. Lieber, 60 years old, appeared in court Tuesday and was remanded to federal custody pending a detention hearing set for Thursday.
In a separate indictment unsealed Tuesday, a researcher at Boston University was charged with acting as a Chinese government agent and failing to disclose that she was a lieutenant in the Chinese military when she applied for her visa.
Prosecutors also discussed the indictment last week of a Harvard-sponsored researcher accused of trying to smuggle biological research back to China.
Chemistry, nanotechnology, polymer studies, robotics, computer science, biomedical researchthis is not an accident or a coincidence, said
Andrew Lelling,
the top federal prosecutor in Boston, referring to the science at issue in the cases. This is a small sample of Chinas ongoing campaign to siphon off American technology and know-how for Chinese gain.
Mr. Lieber, who has been at Harvard since 1991, has been placed on administrative leave, and neither he nor his lawyer could be reached to comment.
His work helped develop bio-nanoelectronic sensors capable of detecting diseases down to the level of a single infectious virus particle, according to a citation from the Welch Foundation, which funds chemical research and recognized his work last year.
On his Lieber Research Groups website, Mr. Lieber says he is developing a mesh to be injected through a syringe into parts of the brain to better understand how the brain works and to treat disease and brain injury. The long-term goal is to enhance human performance via brain-machine interface.
U.S. authorities have raised alarms about the talent programs.
Failures to disclose the receipt of substantial resources, participation in certain types of programs, and dual employment distort decisions about the appropriate use of taxpayer funds and result in hidden transfers of information, know-how and time, said Kelvin Droegemeier, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, in a statement in response to the cases. His office is running an effort among federal agencies, the private sector, academia, professional societies and nonprofits to address the concerns.
Beijing has denied any systematic effort to steal U.S. scientific research, and Chinese state media have called U.S. allegations of intellectual-property theft a political tool.
When Defense Department investigators asked Mr. Lieber in 2018 about his foreign research collaborations, he told them he had never been asked to participate in the Thousand Talents Program, the complaint said. Two days later, Mr. Lieber instructed a colleague to send him a link to a webpage listing him as running the Wuhan lab. I will be careful about what I discuss with Harvard University, and none of this will be shared with government investigators at this time, he wrote, according to the complaint.
NIH also asked Harvard about Mr. Liebers affiliation with Wuhan that same year, according to the complaint. The professor caused Harvard to falsely tell the NIH in January 2019 that Mr. Lieber had no formal affiliation with Wuhan after 2012, the complaint said.
The complaint cited emails from then into 2017 in which Mr. Lieber and his contact at Wuhan discussed how Mr. Lieber would be paid, with some of the funds from Wuhan to be deposited for him in a Chinese bank account and some provided in cash. Our university has put your salary in your[bank] card and we will help you change the cash for you when you come to Wuhan, the Wuhan contact wrote in one January 2017 message.
A Harvard spokesman said the university was cooperating with federal authorities and initiating its own review into the allegations.
U.S. officials have described what they view as a shift in Chinese intelligence priorities, moving from gathering broad swaths of expertise overseas to seeking specific pieces of technology that fill gaps in research being conducted at Chinese universities and designated as priorities by Beijing.
In the Boston University case outlined Tuesday, the researcher, Yanqing Ye, allegedly responded to direction from colleagues in the Peoples Liberation Army in China between 2017 and 2019 and researched U.S. military websites and two U.S. scientists with expertise in robotics and computer science.
In one April 2019 email, an unnamed co-conspirator and PLA member sent her a message that said: See if [we can] find projects in risk analysis and policy sponsored by the US military by searching risk + US military directly, the indictment said.
In an April 2019 WeChat message, she sent another unnamed co-conspirator a pdf file from a U.S. Navy website using the mil domain, the complaint said. The co-conspirator replied: Now a days, we cant connect to a link with mil top level domain from China…This is probably American taking precautions against us, the person replied, according to the complaint.
Ms. Ye, who is believed to be in China, couldnt be reached for comment. A Boston University spokesman said Ms. Ye left the university in April 2019 and that it would assist in the investigation.
In the third case prosecutors discussed Tuesday, Zaosong Zheng, a cancer researcher whose visa was sponsored by Harvard, was indicted last week on charges of smuggling stolen vials of biological research. Before he was about to board a December flight to Beijing, customs agents at Logan International Airport found 21 vials wrapped in plastic and hidden in a sock, the indictment said.
When agents asked Mr. Zheng if he had any research materials in his luggage, he said no, prosecutors alleged. He later acknowledged the vials and admitted he was planning to take them to China and publish the research in his own name, the indictment said. He is scheduled to be arraigned later this week. A lawyer for Mr. Zheng said: We are looking forward to a jury trial so our client can be found not guilty.
The recent cases underscore the unusual nature of Chinas efforts, officials said.
While we are still confronted with traditional spies…I can tell you China is also using what we call nontraditional collectors such as professors, researchers, hackers and front companies, said Joseph Bonavolonta, who runs the FBIs Boston office.
The people charged Tuesday are manifestations of the China threat, he said.
—Douglas Belkin contributed to this article.
Write to Aruna Viswanatha at and Kate OKeeffe at
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