Harvard professor charged with hiding China ties

Posted at 3:35 PM, Jan 28, 2020

BOSTON (AP) — A Harvard University professor has been charged with lying about his ties to a Chinese-run recruitment program and concealing payments he received from the Chinese government for research, federal officials said Tuesday.

Charles Lieber, chair of the department of chemistry and chemical biology, is accused of hiding his involvement in China’s Thousand Talents Plan, a program designed to lure people with knowledge of foreign technology and intellectual property to China.

Lieber was arrested early Tuesday at his office at the Ivy League university, officials said. He was expected to appear in court later Tuesday. A message seeking comment was left Tuesday with his attorney.

Authorities also announced charges against a researcher at Boston University, who is accused of lying about her ties to the Chinese military. Yanqing Ye, who prosecutors say is a lieutenant in the People’s Liberation Army, did work on behalf of the military while studying at the university, like conducting research and sending documents and information to China, officials said.

There was no attorney listed for Ye in court documents.

U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling called the charges “a small sample of China’s ongoing campaign to siphon off America’s technology and know-how for its country’s gain.”

“No country poses a greater, more severe or long term threat to our national security and economic prosperity than China,” said Boston FBI agent Joseph Bonavolonta. “China’s communist government’s goal, simply put, is to replace the U.S. as the world superpower, and they are breaking the law to get there,” he said.

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. He was also awarded more than $1.5 million to establish a research lab at the Chinese university, prosecutors said.

In exchange, prosecutors say Lieber agreed to publish articles, organize international conferences and apply for patents on behalf of the Chinese university, among other things.

Lieber has been placed on administrative leave, Harvard officials said.

“The charges brought by the U.S. government against Professor Lieber are extremely serious. Harvard is cooperating with federal authorities, including the National Institutes of Health, and is conducting its own review of the alleged misconduct,” the school said in a written statement.

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. Zaosong Zheng, who was in the U.S. on a visa sponsored by Harvard, is accused of stealing the materials from a lab at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

Zheng was held without bailby a judge who ruled he was a flight risk. A message was left Tuesday with Zheng’s attorney.

“All of them were either directly or indirectly working for the Chinese government at our country’s expense,” Bonavolonta said of Lieber and the others.

The cases underscore Justice Department concerns about Chinese programs that recruit scientists with access to cutting-edge technology in the U.S. and encourage them to conduct research for Beijing’s gain and even to steal the work of American academics.

In recent years, according to a Senate subcommittee report issued last fall, the programs have been exploited by scientists who have downloaded sensitive research files before returning to China, filed patents based on U.S. research, lied on grant applications and failed to disclose money they had received from Chinese institutions.

The Associated Press, relying on hundreds of pages of documents obtained through public records requests, reported last year that the FBI had been reaching out to colleges and universities across the countries to warn them of the threat of economic espionage on their campuses.


Associated Press reporter Eric Tucker in Washington contributed to this report.