A Harvard University department chair and two Chinese nationals were charged on Tuesday in the United States for lying about their links to the Chinese government. The trio also includes researchers at Boston University and at a Boston hospital.
The charges are part of an aggressive effort by US authorities to block what they say are Chinese efforts to steal US scientific and technological advances. “This is a very carefully directed effort by the Chinese government to fill what it views as its own strategic gaps,” said Andrew Lelling, US Attorney for the District of Massachusetts, as he revealed the charges in a news conference.
Prosecutors charged Charles Lieber, chair of Harvard University’s Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, with lying about his participation in China‘s Thousand Talents Plan, which aims to attract research specialists working overseas.
Two Chinese researchers – Yanqing Ye and Zaosong Zheng – were charged with being agents of a foreign government.
Yanqing Ye is a Boston University robotics researcher. Prosecutors said Ye lied about being in the Chinese army. Prosecutors said Ye is a lieutenant in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, which she did not disclose when she obtained a visa to enter the US. She is accused of passing information on research conducted at Boston University to China’s government.
Zaosong Zheng is a cancer researcher at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. Zheng was arrested last month at Boston Logan International Airport as he tried to leave the US with 21 vials containing sensitive biological samples in his baggage. He planned to return to China to continue his research there, prosecutors allege.
Joseph Bonavolonta, who runs the FBI’s Boston field office, said Lieber had received millions of dollars from the Chinese government and that he lied about that to federal investigators and officials at Harvard.
According to a court filing, Lieber made materially false, fictitious, and fraudulent statements to the US Department of Defense about his role in the plan, and to the National Institutes of Health about that role and also his affiliation with Wuhan University of Technology in China.
Lieber was charged with one count of making false statements to a US government agency, according to court records. He was not charged with anything related to traditional espionage, Bonavolonta said, adding that investigators were trying to determine if anything other than money motivated his actions.
Harvard and Boston University said through spokespeople that they were cooperating with investigators.
“The charges brought by the US government against Professor Lieber are extremely serious,” Harvard said in a statement. “Professor Lieber has been placed on indefinite administrative leave.”
Lieber was arrested on Tuesday. Efforts to reach him were unsuccessful.
Beth Israel officials could not be reached for immediate comment.
Lieber, Ye, and Zheng are the latest in a series of academics the US has criminally charged for their dealings with China.
In August, federal prosecutors charged a University of Kansas researcher for failing to disclose ties to a Chinese university.