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Harvard Professor Charged with ‘False Statements’ about China Ties

Harvard University professor Charles Lieber leaves the Moakley Federal Courthouse with his wife Jennifer, right, in Boston, Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020.
Harvard University professor Charles Lieber leaves the Moakley Federal Courthouse with his wife Jennifer, right, in Boston, Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020.
Harvard Professor Charged with ‘False Statements’ about China Ties
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The United States Department of Justice announced Wednesday that a Harvard University professor and two Chinese nationals have been charged in connection with aiding China.

Charles Lieber is head of Harvard’s Chemistry and Chemical Biology Department. U.S. officials say he was arrested and charged with making false statements to the Defense Department about his ties to a Chinese government program.

The Justice Department claims that Lieber lied about his involvement with a program known as the Thousand Talents Plan. It said the Chinese government and the Wuhan University of Technology (WUT) gave him more than $1.5 million dollars to set up a laboratory and carry out research in China. In exchange, WUT gave the Harvard professor $50,000 a month and also paid for housing and other living expenses.

Nearly 200 investigations into threat

The Justice Department also announced charges against Yanqing Ye, who is currently in China. The charges include visa fraud, making false statements and acting as an agent of a foreign government.

U.S. officials arrested Zaosong Zheng, another Chinese national, in December 2019 at Boston’s Logan International Airport. He is accused of attempting to secretly transport 21 containers of biological research to China. One month later, he was charged with smuggling goods from the United States and making false statements.

The New York Times reports there are at least 180 investigations of intellectual property theft at 71 universities and other institutions across the United States. The Thousand Talents "foreign experts" program is a major focus of the investigations.

The Justice Department has described the plan as one of China’s top talent recruitment programs. It is designed to interest and help high-level scientific researchers who would then support China’s scientific development, economic growth and national security.

Serious charges

"The charges brought by the U.S. government against Professor Lieber are extremely serious," said Harvard, in a statement to the technology website The Verge.

When U.S. researchers get financial help from the government, they must tell the truth about their connections with foreign organizations. The punishment for making false statements in this situation could include up to five years in prison and a fine of $250,000.

In the past six months, other university researchers have faced criminal charges for passing knowledge to China. One of them was Turab Lookman, a scientist who formerly worked at the Los Alamos laboratory in New Mexico. Last week, he admitted in court to lying about his involvement with the Thousand Talents Plan.

U.S. officials said they became interested in Lookman after he told a co-worker he had citizenship in four countries, including India, where he was born.

Cancer institute leadership involved

In December, Alan List resigned as chief executive officer and president of the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute in Tampa, Florida. An investigation found that List and Thomas Sellers, a vice president and director at Moffitt, and four of the cancer center’s researchers hid their ties to a Chinese medical university.

Additional employment

Feng (Franklin) Tao worked as a chemist at the University of Kansas. In August, federal officials charged him with four counts of fraud for working full-time for a Chinese university while receiving U.S. government money. Tao has denied the charges. His lawyer said that the case could have been a misunderstanding because of the researcher’s employment in China over the summer holidays.

The university says Tao is on administrative leave from his position as a professor of chemical engineering. Last month, the government announced more charges against him.

Wang Longmeng is a political commentator who lives in France. He said the Thousand Talents program had for many years tried to steal high technology from around the world.

"[Some] scholars and officials who live in a democratic system and enjoy all its freedoms will aid...those who would harm it for personal gain.”

Wang added, "Western countries should get hold of a list of those recruited to China's Thousand Talents Program and investigate them one by one."

I’m Jill Robbins.

Quiz - Harvard Professor Among Researchers Charged With ‘Making False Statements’ About China Ties

Quiz - Harvard Professor Among Researchers Charged With ‘Making False Statements’ About China Ties

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Ng Yik-tung and Sing Man reported on this story for Radio Free Asia’s Cantonese Service, and by Jia Ao reported on it for RFA’s Mandarin Service. Jill Robbins adapted the report for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

What do you think of intellectual property theft by university researchers? We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section.


Words in This Story

talentn. a person or group of people with a special ability to do something well

fraud n. the crime of using dishonest methods to take something valuable from another person

intellectual propertyn. something (such as an idea, invention, or process) that comes from a person's mind

theftn. the act or crime of stealing

recruit – v. to persuade (someone) to join you in some activity or to help you

focusn. a main purpose or interest