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‘Chinese economic espionage and theft is a real,’ U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling says

U.S. Attorney Andrew E. Lelling. (Steph Solis/Masslive.com/TNS)
January 29, 2020

Three cases involving a Harvard University professor and two Chinese nationals who allegedly hid their ties to the country while conducting research in Massachusetts highlight the “ongoing threat” of China’s economic espionage campaign and research theft, prosecutors said.

Dr. Charles Lieber, chairman of the college’s chemistry and chemical biology department, was arrested Tuesday morning for allegedly taking hundreds of thousands of dollars from a Chinese university and concealing his work for the school’s government-run program that aims to lure scientists in other countries to share their expertise and research with China, U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling’s office said in a statement.

The case emphasizes the dangers of Chinese counterintelligence, according to the U.S. attorney. Lelling noted how U.S. Attorney General William Barr recently called China the “biggest rival” to the United States.

“Chemistry, nano technology, polymer studies, robotics, computer science, biomedical research — this is not an accident or a coincidence,” Lelling said in a press conference broadcast by WCVB. “This is a small sample of China’s ongoing campaign to syphon off American technology and know-how for Chinese gain.”

Yanqing Ye, a lieutenant of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army and member of the country’s communist party, was also indicted on charges of visa fraud, making false statements, acting as an agent of a foreign government and conspiracy, Lelling’s office said in its statement.

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The 29-year-old, who is now in China, is accused of falsely identifying herself as a student on her J-1 visa application and lying about her ongoing military service at the National University of Defense Technology, a military academy directed by the Chinese Communist Party, according to the statement.

Ye is accused of working as a PLA lieutenant from 2017 to 2019. During that time, she allegedly used U.S. military websites, sent American documents and information to China and compiled information for the PLA on two American scientists with expertise in robotics and computer science, the statement said.

“Our community benefits greatly from the diversity and talent of international visitors and our partnerships with foreign institutions,” Lelling said in his press conference. “But Chinese economic espionage and theft is a real and daily occurrence that we must begin to confront.”

Zaosong Zheng, another Chinese national, was arrested in early December at Boston’s Logan International Airport. The 30-year-old was charged with attempting to smuggle 21 vials of biological research to China. Prosecutors alleged Zheng admitted that he had stolen the vials from a laboratory at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and that he sought to bring the vials to China to use them to conduct research in his own laboratory.

He has been detained since Dec. 30, according to the statement from Lelling’s office.

“As demonstrated by these cases, on the academic side, the Chinese government uses partnerships and exchanges with U.S. schools and research institutions to access cutting-edge research and equipment,” Lelling said. “Obviously, most visiting Chinese academics and researchers are here to work in good faith in U.S. institutions. But some of them are not.

“Some number have been incentivized by the Chinese government, either through the use of money or other means, to gather U.S. research and smuggle it back to China.”

Lieber, principal investigator of the Lieber Research Group at Harvard, became a strategic scientist at Wuhan University of Technology in China in 2011. Unknown to Harvard, from around 2012 to 2017, the 60-year-old was contracted to work in the country’s Thousand Talents Plan, a prominent Chinese initiative that seeks to recruit “high-level scientific talent” to further the country’s “scientific development, economic prosperity and national security,” Lelling’s office said in its statement.

The 60-year-old was allegedly paid $50,000 a month and nearly $160,000 for living expenses by WUT. Lieber was also given more than $1.5 million to create a research laboratory at the Chinese university and was obligated to work at WUT no less than nine months a year, prosecutors said.

The Harvard professor allegedly lied from 2018 to 2019 about his involvement with the Thousand Talents Plan and WUT. In interview with investigators in April 2018, Lieber is accused of saying he was never asked to participate in the Chinese recruitment program but that he was unsure how China categorized him, Lelling’s office said in its statement.

Lieber received more than $15 million in grant money from the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Defense during his time at Harvard. The funds require the disclosure of significant foreign financial conflicts of interest, according to Lelling’s office.

Prosecutors said the professor failed to disclose his relationship with the Chinese university to NIH in November 2018, though, causing Harvard to falsely tell the agency that Lieber “had no formal association with WUT” after 2012.

Lieber was charged with making a materially false, fictitious and fraudulent statement, and he was expected to appear Tuesday afternoon in federal court in Boston, Lelling’s office said in its statement.

The three cases fall under the U.S. Department of Justice’s China Initiative, which seeks to counter security threats posed by China, including trade secret theft, hacking and economic espionage, according to the statement.

“The initiative will increase efforts to protect our critical infrastructure against external threats including foreign direct investment, supply chain threats and the foreign agents seeking to influence the American public and policymakers without proper registration,” the statement said.

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© 2020 MassLive.com