US charges three, including Harvard researcher, with lying about China ties

District attorney Andrew Lelling listens as the FBI's Joseph Bonavolonta announces federal charges against the three individuals.
District attorney Andrew Lelling listens as the FBI's Joseph Bonavolonta announces federal charges against the three individuals.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - A Harvard University department chair and two Chinese nationals who were researchers at Boston University and a Boston hospital were charged on Tuesday (Jan 28) for lying about their links to the Chinese government.

The charges are part of an aggressive effort by US authorities to block what they say are Chinese efforts to stealing American 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 were charged with being agents of a foreign government. They were Yanqing Ye, a Boston University robotics researcher who prosecutors said lied about being in the Chinese army, and Zaosong Zheng, a cancer researcher at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center who was arrested last month allegedly trying to smuggle research samples out of the country.

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 United States. She is accused of passing information on research conducted at Boston University to China's government.

Zheng was arrested last month at Boston Logan International Airport as he tried to leave the United States with 21 vials containing sensitive biological samples in his baggage. He planned to return to China to continue his research there, prosecutors allege.

Joe Bonavolonta, in charge of 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 Defence 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 United States has criminally charged for their dealings with China.

In August, federal prosecutors charged a University of Kansas researched for failing to disclose ties to a Chinese university.