DOJ: Harvard University professor lied about work for the Chinese government

Harvard University (Photo: USA TODAY)

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department charged a Harvard University professor with lying about money he received from the Chinese government, part of the U.S. government's effort to prosecute theft of American trade secrets.

Charles Lieber, chair of the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Harvard, was arrested Tuesday on accusations that he made a materially false, fictitious and fraudulent statement about work he did for a program run by the Chinese government that seeks to lure American talent to China.

Lieber was paid $50,000 a month and up to $158,000 in living expenses for his work, which involved cultivating young teachers and students, according to court documents. He also received more than $1.5 million to create a research lab at the Wuhan University of Technology in China.

Lieber, who specializes in nanoscience and is principal investigator of Harvard's Lieber Research Group, has received more than $15 million in grants from U.S. federal agencies since 2008. He is required to disclose any conflicts of interest and money he receives from foreign governments.

But authorities say Lieber denied his affiliation with the Chinese program, called the Thousand Talents Plan, and with Wuhan University.

Lieber told investigators and Harvard University officials in 2018 that he "is not and has never been a participant" in the program and he "had no formal association" with Wuhan University after 2012, according to court documents. He claimed the university "continued to falsely exaggerate" his involvement.

“These charges, and others like them across the country, illustrate the serious and persistent threat of China’s efforts to steal intellectual property and research from our nation’s universities," John Demers, assistant attorney general for national security and head of the Justice Department's China Initiative, said in a statement.

"Through programs like the Thousand Talents, visa fraud, and just plain theft, the Chinese government has made it a priority to develop its technological knowledge at American expense," Demers said.

American universities should guard against this threat by maintaining transparency in funding sources and professors' commitments and by bolstering security around their research, he said.

Lieber, 60, a widely recognized academic, has been with Harvard since 1991. His biography describes him as a "pioneer in nanoscience and nanotechnology."

In a statement, Harvard University said it is cooperating with investigators and is conducting its own review of the allegations. Lieber has been placed on indefinite administrative leave and is not allowed on campus.

The Justice Department also charged two Chinese nationals, but their case is not related to Lieber's.

Yanqing Ye, 29, and Zaosong Zheng, 30, each were charged with visa fraud, making false statements, acting as an agent of a foreign government and conspiracy. Both came to the United States through a work-study program of the State Department.

Ye, a member of China's armed forces, falsely identified herself as a student in her visa application, authorities say. Ye continued to work for the People's Liberation Army while studying at Boston University from 2017 to 2019. Authorities say her work involved researching U.S. military projects and compiling documents for the Chinese government. Ye is now in China.

Zheng, who was arrested last month, worked at a medical center in Boston from 2018 to 2019. Prosecutors allege he tried to smuggle 21 vials of biological research to China. Federal officers stopped him at Boston Logan International Airport last month and found vials hidden in a sock in one of his bags.

Zheng later admitted he was planning to use the vials to conduct research at his own laboratory and publish the results under his name, authorities say.

The Justice Department and the FBI have been investigating and prosecuting individuals for alleged theft of trade secrets and economic espionage as part of its China Initiative.

The initiative was launched in 2018 in response to findings by government agencies about China's practice of acquiring intellectual property and technology from other countries.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Harvard professor Charles Lieber accused of lying about work for China