Top Harvard Scientist Allegedly Worked Secretly For China, Lied About Taking Chinese Cash, Prosecutors Say

Dr. Charles Lieber, who chairs the chemistry department at prestigious Harvard University, was arrested Tuesday morning on charges that he lied about taking a job with the Chinese government that paid him almost $2 million over three years, plus another $1.5 million to build a research lab at a university in China, according to an announcement by the United States Justice Department.

Federal agents also arrested two Chinese nationals that morning. One of them, Yanqing Ye, is an officer with China’s People’s Liberation Army who, prosecutors say, concealed that she worked for the PLA while posing as a “student” and sending U.S. research materials to the country.

The other individual arrested Tuesday, Zaosong Zheng, is accused by the Justice Department of stealing “21 vials of biological research” from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, Massachusetts, and attempting to smuggle them to China on a commercial flight out of the city’s Logan Airport. Zheng worked on cancer research at Beth Israel hospital since April 2018, according to the Justice Department announcement.

The three cases are separate, the DOJ said, but they are all part of its “China Initiative.” This program is aimed at combating national security threats such as the theft of trade secrets and other forms of economic spying.

Members of China’s Peoples’ Liberation Army.

Though economic espionage by China has been an issue in the Donald Trump administration’s ongoing trade talks with the world’s most populous country, a new trade deal announced by the president in December has been blasted by critics as “total capitulation,” and “a disaster” for the U.S.

The arrest of Lieber was the most stunning of the three cases announced on Tuesday. In 2017, the now-60-year-old scientist was named a “University Professor” by Harvard — the school’s highest rank for faculty. This made him one of only 26 currently serving at the Cambridge, Massachusetts, Ivy League institution, according to a New York Times report.

Lieber’s research focuses on the fields of nanoscience and nanotechnology. In 2017, Harvard’s president praised Lieber as “an extraordinary scientist” whose nanotechnology studies have already led to “valuable applications that improve the quality of people’s lives.”

But according to the Justice Department allegations, Lieber secretly worked for the Chinese government-run Wuhan University of Technology (WUT) starting in 2011. He also worked for China’s Thousand Talents Plan, according to the allegations, which claim that under one three-year contract, he was paid a salary of $50,000 per month, plus an additional $158,000 in “living expenses.”

The Chinese government also gave him a grant of $1.5 million to set up a research lab at WUT, the DOJ alleges.

At the same time, Lieber was raking in about $15 million in federal grant money from the Defense Department and National Institutes of Health. Recipients of such government grants must reveal any foreign employment or income — but Lieber allegedly lied about his work for China, concealing it from the U.S. government.

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