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Andrew Lelling says arrests will cause academia to take China threat seriously

At a conference, the US attorney for Massachusetts discussed the charges against Harvard chemistry chairman Charles Lieber.

US Attorney Andrew Lelling (center) walks to the podium to announce that Charles Lieber, chair of the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Harvard University, had been arrested in January.
US Attorney Andrew Lelling (center) walks to the podium to announce that Charles Lieber, chair of the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Harvard University, had been arrested in January.Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe

The recent arrest of Harvard University chemistry chairman Charles Lieber for concealing his ties to China will help convince the academic community to take intellectual property theft and espionage more seriously, said US Attorney Andrew Lelling during a panel discussion on Thursday.

College and university administrators have been skeptical of the federal government’s warnings that the Chinese government is targeting their faculty and research. Some have questioned whether federal authorities are being paranoid or practicing racial profiling, he said.

“There’s something of a cultural divide,” Lelling said, between law enforcement and academics. “The enforcement side helps. … Once we convince them this is a threat, they’re quite responsive.”

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Lelling was among four US attorneys who discussed the Justice Department’s China Initiative at a conference hosted by the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington, D.C.

The China Initiative, launched in 2018, aims to disrupt China’s attempts to steal and acquire American research, technology, and talent to gain a global economic advantage, according to the federal justice department.

Lieber’s arrest Jan. 28, one of the most high profile in recent years, was highlighted several times during Thursday’s conference.

Current and former university leaders said during the conference that international collaboration is fundamental to making scientific and research breakthroughs. But they acknowledged that the recent arrests are forcing institutions to tighten their practices and more closely scrutinize faculty and scholars on their campuses.

Lieber’s arrest has put faculty on American campuses on alert, said Mary Sue Coleman, president of the Association of American Universities.

“When they see a department chair at Harvard being called to account, and who may go to jail, believe me, that has done more to help us than anything abstract,” Coleman said.

Lieber, 60, isn’t Chinese but he was targeted for his academic credentials as a pioneer in nanotechnology, according to US law enforcement officials.

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Lieber was charged with making a false statement to federal authorities about his financial engagements with the Chinese government, particularly his participation in the communist country’s Thousand Talents Plan. The plan seeks to attract foreign-educated scientists to China and according to court documents, Lieber was to be paid $50,000 a month, $158,000 in living expenses, and $1.5 million to establish a research lab at a Chinese university.

Lieber kept those ties secret from Harvard, according to federal prosecutors, and when questioned by Department of Defense investigators in 2018, denied he had ever participated in the Thousand Talents program.

Harvard has placed Lieber on paid administrative leave.

In recent weeks, Lelling’s office has also charged two Chinese nationals studying in the United States for their links to the Chinese government.

Zaosong Zheng, a Harvard-affiliated cancer researcher, was arrested on Dec. 10 at Boston’s Logan International Airport. He had allegedly been caught trying to leave the country with 21 vials of cells stolen from a laboratory at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital, where he worked. He was charged with smuggling goods from the United States and with making false statements.

Also charged was Yanqing Ye, who had worked as a researcher in Boston University’s department of physics, chemistry, and biomedical engineering until last spring, when she returned to China. Ye, 29, concealed that she was a lieutenant in the People’s Liberation Army. She was charged with visa fraud, making false statements, acting as an agent of a foreign government, and conspiracy. She remains in China, and the court has issued a warrant for her arrest.

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These cases illustrate the scope of the problem and the variety of ways that China operates, Lelling said.

Federal agencies that fund research need to provide more guidelines to universities, and the academic institutions must vet more closely their faculty grant applications and the researchers they welcome on campus, Lelling and other US attorneys said.

Lelling on Thursday acknowledged that recent law enforcement efforts could chill research collaboration between American academics and their counterparts in China.

But, Lelling said, the United States is trying to combat the Chinese government’s expansive espionage and influence campaign.


Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.