- The Washington Times
Wednesday, December 22, 2021

The former chair of Harvard‘s chemistry department has been convicted of lying to federal authorities about his ties to the Chinese government and a Communist Party program prosecutors say is designed to steal technology secrets. 

Charles Lieber, head of a Harvard-backed research group, was found guilty by a federal jury on two counts of making false statements to federal authorities, making and subscribing a false income tax return, failing to file reports of foreign bank and financial accounts with the Internal Revenue Service.

While serving as head of the Lieber Research Group at Harvard, Lieber failed to disclose that he had become a “Strategic Scientist” at the Wuhan University of Technology in Wuhan, China, and a participant in the Thousand Talents Plan, which is a plan to recruit scientists for Chinese development, economic and national security projects.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian defended the Thousand Talents Program. He said on Wednesday that the U.S. should not stigmatize the program and “instead do something conducive to China-U.S. scientific and people-to-people exchanges and cooperation.”

Lieber hid his links to the Chinese talent program, suspected of recruiting individuals to pass foreign technology secrets to China, to protect his reputation, according to prosecutors.

Lieber received more than $15 million in federal research grants between 2008 and 2019, including grants from the National Institutes of Health.

“There is now no question that Charles Lieber lied to federal investigators and Harvard in an attempt to hide his participation in the Chinese Thousand Talents Program,” said acting U.S. Attorney Nathaniel R. Mendell. “He lied to the IRS about the money he was paid, and he concealed his Chinese bank account from the United States. The jury followed the evidence and the law to a just verdict.”

Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, the ranking Republican on the Senate Homeland Security Committee, commended the Justice Department for its work to prosecute Chinese theft of U.S. taxpayer-funded research and said the case highlights the degree to which leading universities are targeted by Beijing. 

“Lieber is a clear example of China’s continued attempts to steal our taxpayer-funded research,” Mr. Portman said. “This harms our important academic institutions, federal grant-making agencies and American businesses.”

Lieber received a salary of up to $50,000 per month as part of this Thousand Talents contract. In addition, he received up to $150,000 in living expenses from the Chinese-government backed program and $1.5 million to establish a research lab at the Wuhan University of Technology.

Prosecutors said Lieber also agreed to apply for patents on behalf of the Chinese university.

The federal jury agreed that Lieber lied to federal authorities in 2018 and 2019 about his involvement in the Thousand Talents program and his affiliation with the university in Wuhan.

He also failed to disclose his salary and contract payments from the program to the IRS in 2013 and 2014 and failed to report his bank account in China for a foreign bank and financial account review between 2014 and 2015.

“Mr. Lieber exploited the openness and transparency of our academic system,” FBI Special Agent in Charge Joseph R. Bonavolonta said. “The FBI will not hesitate to work with our law enforcement partners to focus on those who put their financial and professional interests ahead of our country’s economic prosperity.”

Mr. Portman and Sen. Thomas R. Carper, Delaware Democrat and chairman of the Senate subcommittee on investigations, led a yearlong probe in 2019 into Chinese attempts to steal U.S. intellectual property through talent recruitment programs like the Thousand Talents Program. The lawmakers say taxpayers have unwittingly funded Chinese military and economic breakthroughs since the late 1990s. 

The case is part of the Justice Department’s “China Initiative,” launched in 2018 to curb Chinese espionage attempts targeting university researchers and professors among others.

The program has faced criticism from faculty members at several prominent universities who argue that the Justice Department initiative limits U.S. competitiveness and stifles efforts to recruit foreign scholars in the U.S. The faculty also say the program targets researchers of Chinese origin.

Mr. Portman, though, said more still needs to be done. He introduced the Safeguarding American Innovation Act, designed to curb Chinese theft of taxpayer-funded research. The Senate passed the measure earlier this year, but the bill has stalled in the House. 

“This case shows that it is time for the House of Representatives to pass my Senate-passed, bipartisan Safeguarding American Innovation Act to help stop foreign governments from stealing our research and innovation so that American taxpayer-funded research will be used to level the playing to create jobs for hardworking Americans,” the Republican senator said. “China’s ongoing theft of America’s research and innovation must stop.”

Harvard placed Lieber on paid administrative leave when he was arrested in January 2020.

This story is based in part on wire service reports.

• Joseph Clark can be reached at jclark@washingtontimes.com.

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