Around 6:30 a.m. on Jan. 14, 2021, numerous federal agents stormed into my home, woke my wife and daughter from their sleep, handcuffed me, and put me in jail, charging that, in my role as a professor at MIT, I had failed to disclose funding from various Chinese entities. I had known that I was under investigation by the Department of Justice under its China Initiative, launched during the Trump administration: When I returned to Logan Airport from a trip abroad in January 2020, I was interrogated and all my electronics were confiscated. Just a month before I was arrested, however, the US Attorney’s office for Massachusetts, under then-US Attorney Andrew Lelling, informed my lawyers that there was no imminent indictment.
Regarding this sudden shift, after my arrest prosecutors on this case indicated to my lawyers this indictment had been rushed. Both the indictment and the complaint were riddled with basic factual errors — for instance, it listed notes I took at someone else’s lecture as if they were my own thoughts — and I was arrested with less than a week to go in the Trump administration. This meant Lelling was about to leave office. The day of my arrest, Lelling and the FBI special agent in charge of the Boston office, Joseph Bonavolonta, held a press conference where my loyalty to America was questioned. For 371 days, my family and I went through a living hell.
On Thursday, the government acknowledged in US District Court in Boston that it could not prove the charges against me, and said dismissing my case would be “in the interests of justice.”
There is no winner in what seems to me a politically and racially motivated prosecution: My reputation is tarnished, my family suffered, my institute lost the service of a professor and bore the financial burden of my legal defense, US taxpayers’ money was wasted, the ability of the United States to attract talents from around the world has plummeted, and the scientific community is terrified. Lelling and Bonavolonta succeeded in creating the “chilling effect” they wanted by deterring researchers from collaborating with China — but in the process, they managed to blunt one of our great strengths as a nation, our rich history of academic research and collaboration, which leads to discoveries happening here instead of in some other country. They did this at a time when international scientific collaboration is urgently needed to address humanity’s existential threats, such as COVID-19 and global warming. Now, for whatever reason, even Lelling is acknowledging that the China Initiative he helped create has “lost its focus.”
Let me be clear: While part of my story is certainly about the terribly misguided China Initiative, it also involves critical mistakes on the part of the FBI, federal prosecutors, and other federal investigative agencies. As my team of lawyers argued, Bonavolonta and his agents ignored basic exculpatory evidence, failed to interview critical witnesses until after I was arrested, and dramatically embellished facts in various official documents. Exculpatory information that, under the Constitution, the prosecution was required to turn over — such as a witness saying that I never was in a talent program, a Chinese government initiative to provide funding to researchers and scientists, which was one of the government’s key allegations — was withheld for months until demanded by my lawyers. While I am relieved that my case has been dropped “in the interests of justice,” I respectfully request a thorough review of this matter by Congress and the US Department of Justice to hold individuals accountable for this glaring misconduct.
I came to America from China more than 30 years ago. It is where I have chosen to raise my family and contribute my life’s work. The promise of this nation is that race is not supposed to matter. But it is hard for me to look at the China Initiative and conclude that was the case.
Although it is true that not every professor charged is of Chinese descent, the vast majority are, and — as is becoming clear as these “grant fraud” cases falter — the Justice Department’s misguided theory of prosecution could likely apply to thousands of professors who failed to list every routine professional activity with any entity in a foreign nation (which was not a requirement at the time). As a nation, we can be more true to our ideals — and a better world leader — by acknowledging our wrongdoings and learning from our mistakes rather than blindly pressing forward. While acknowledging mistakes can be painful, history shows that it is the best way forward.
Gang Chen is a professor of mechanical engineering at MIT.