Harvard arrest ups the US ante on China as security threat

The flags of US and China seen near the White House in Washington, DC, in a photo taken in 2011. PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (BLOOMBERG) - A Harvard University chemist, an ex-Coca-Cola scientist and a University of Kansas researcher.

All three have been swept up in a US crackdown on intellectual property theft sponsored by China and linked to the Thousand Talents Plan, a Chinese government programme to recruit overseas researchers.

The charges unveiled Tuesday (Jan 28) against Harvard's Charles Lieber - that he lied to US investigators about his role in recruiting people to pass along scientific research to the Chinese government - mark a high-profile escalation of the Trump administration's effort to root out economic espionage in academic institutions.

While the Justice Department's "China Initiative" has focused on bringing garden-variety cases against engineers and executives accused of stealing technology from American companies for Chinese corporations and startups alike, US officials also have cast greater suspicion on scholars with ties to Beijing-controlled research institutions.

As part of the newest prosecutions announced Tuesday, authorities charged a Boston University researcher who prosecutors say was a lieutenant for the People's Liberation Army and a cancer researcher who allegedly tried to smuggle 21 vials of biological materials in his sock.

"China's communist government's goal simply put is to replace the United States as a superpower," Joseph R. Bonavolonta, the FBI's special agent in charge of the Boston Field Division, said at a press conference. "China is also using what we call nontraditional collectors such as researchers, hackers and front companies."

Prosecutors said Lieber lied to US Defence Department investigators about his involvement with the Thousand Talents Plan and concealed that he was paid US$50,000 (S$68,000) a month and received more than US$1.5 million to establish a lab and do research at Wuhan University of Technology. His deceit caused Harvard to make false statements to the National Institutes of Health about his work with China, because grants that Harvard received required disclosure of ties with foreign governments, the US said. Lieber's lawyer declined to comment on the case.

Agencies across the federal government have mobilised 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 programmes, offer funding to experts to work at least part time in China. A 2018 report by the US National Intelligence Council called such efforts a thinly veiled way "to facilitate the legal and illicit transfer of US technology, intellectual property and knowhow" to China.

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 programme while trying to steal trade secrets valued at US$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 allegedly defrauding the US 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 National laboratory scientist, pleaded guilty in a New Mexico federal court in January after being charged with lying to an investigator about participating in the talent programme for compensation.

Van Andel Research Institute, a Michigan-based biomedical research institution, agreed to pay US$5.5 million as part of a settlement with the US over allegations that two NIH-funded scientists failed to disclose grants from the Chinese government.

To US Senator Rob Portman, who worked on a committee report in November that highlighted concerns with the Thousand Talents programme, Lieber's arrest signalled validation.

"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 US law enforcement officials are applying to ethnic Chinese scientists and, now, US researchers, carries a downside: It chills academic freedom and stifles scientific progress.

"On the one hand, it's good that the US 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 staunch China's well-documented and costly theft of US innovation and know-how has also raised questions about overzealous prosecutors and racial profiling.

Two Tulane University professors, one of them a Chinese citizen, were charged in May with trade-secrets theft after downloading a software model that predicts how the Mississippi Delta will change over time. In July, the Justice Department abruptly dropped the case, saying "extensive investigation" showed prosecutors can't prove the charges.

"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 defence, 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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