All three have been swept up in a U.S. crackdown on intellectual property theft sponsored by China and linked to the
As part of the newest prosecutions announced Tuesday, authorities charged a
“China’s communist government’s goal simply put is to replace the United States as a superpower,” Joseph R. Bonavolonta, the
Prosecutors said Lieber lied to U.S. Defense Department investigators about his involvement with the Thousand Talents Plan and concealed that he was paid $50,000 a month and received more than $1.5 million to establish a lab and do research at
Agencies across the federal government have mobilized against potential Chinese industrial spies, warning companies and universities and anyone else with intellectual property to be particularly vigilant when dealing with Chinese business partners and employees. Tuesday’s action comes weeks after the Trump administration signed a Phase One trade deal with the Chinese.
China has tried to lure overseas scientists for years. Government initiatives, such as the Thousand Talents and Changjiang Scholar programs, offer funding to experts to work at least part time in China. A 2018 report by the U.S. National Intelligence Council called such efforts a
A top official at the National Institutes of Health said in December that the agency has investigated 140 scientists at 70 institutions over failures to disclose income and other significant resources they received from other countries while working on NIH-funded grants.
Prior to Lieber’s arrest, the Justice Department has taken action against other researchers with alleged Thousand Talents ties:
- The ex-Coke scientist was accused in February of seeking a reward from the talent program while trying to steal trade secrets valued at $120 million from companies working with the soft-drink giant on the chemical coating used in bisphenol-A-free (BPA-free) containers. Xiaorong You has pleaded not guilty and faces a trial in April in Greeneville, Tennessee.
- Franklin (Feng) Tao, a University of Kansas associate professor, was indicted for
allegedlydefrauding the U.S. government by taking federal grant money while he was employed and paid by a Chinese research university and failing to disclosed that he was chosen for a Changjiang Scholarship. He, too, has denied wrongdoing.
- Turab Lookman, a former
Los Alamos Nationallaboratory scientist, pleaded guiltyin a New Mexico federal court in January after being charged with lying to an investigator about participating in the talent program for compensation. Van Andel Research Institute, a Michigan-based biomedical research institution, agreed to pay $5.5 million as part of a settlementwith the U.S. over allegations that two NIH-funded scientists failed to disclose grants from the Chinese government.
To U.S. Senator
“The charges show the lengths that China will go for access to top-notch research here in the United States,” the Ohio Republican said in a statement.
But some scholars say the intense scrutiny U.S. law enforcement officials are applying to ethnic Chinese scientists and, now, U.S. researchers, carries a downside: It chills academic freedom and stifles scientific progress.
“On the one hand, it’s good that the U.S. government is looking beyond ethnic identity for these cases,” said Frank Wu, a professor of law at University of California Hastings. “On the other hand, the increasing scope of these investigations threatens American science more generally.”
The push to stanch China’s well-documented and costly theft of U.S. innovation and know-how has also raised questions about overzealous prosecutors and racial profiling.
“Every prosecution should have all the fundamental facts and materials in place before they’re brought forward,” said Jeremy Wu, a retired federal official and member of APAJustice.org, a group that addresses racial profiling.
He said the federal government’s approach to the Thousand Talents Plan “is generating a lot of fear and suspicion, especially for those working in the health fields.”
Tao, the Kansas professor, has mounted an aggressive defense, claiming both that he never accepted a teaching position in China and that he was framed by a vindictive co-worker. He argues the prosecution’s case is based on “fabricated tips” from a visiting scholar who was angry because she thought Tao didn’t give her enough credit on some research papers.
Lieber, whose Harvard biography page lists him as an honorary fellow of the Chinese Chemical Society, was placed on indefinite administrative leave by the university after his arrest. Harvard called the charges “extremely serious” in a statement and said it’s cooperating with federal authorities.
At a court hearing scheduled for Thursday, prosecutors are set to argue that Lieber shouldn’t be released on bail because of the risk he’ll try to flee before his trial.
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