The Charles Lieber case reveals America’s scientific rivalry with China

CHARLES DEAR, a renowned Harvard chemistry professor, tried to avoid jail time by lying to federal investigators about his work in China over the past decade. He may have seemed like a reasonable if unethical gamble; the federal probe was investigating allegations that China was stealing scientific knowledge. No evidence suggests that Mr. Lieber stole anything. But sometimes the cover-up isn’t just worse than the crime, it is the crime. On December 21, Mr. Lieber was found guilty of lying to federal authorities and failing to report both Chinese-earned income and a Chinese bank account. He could face up to 26 years in prison and $1.2 million in fines, though as a first-time offender he likely won’t be punished as severely. Still, Mr. Lieber is 62 years old and has late-stage lymphoma. A few years behind bars could result in a life sentence.

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His fall is a cautionary tale. America’s growing geopolitical rivalry with China has made previously innocuous relations with Chinese academics suspect. As in similar cases, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has pursued, proving that Mr. Lieber or his associates engaged in espionage was a difficult task. His arrogance made his job easier. However, as the crackdown on Chinese economic espionage continues apace, American science could suffer.

Ambitious scientists like Mr. Lieber depend on large research budgets and access to top talent. Despite receiving more than $15 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Department of Defense (Defense Department) between 2008 and 2019, the opportunity to raise significantly more funding, this time from China, proved irresistible. Partnerships with foreign universities, including Chinese ones, were not unusual. In 2011, Mr. Lieber signed an agreement with the Wuhan University of Technology (WUT) to collaborate on fundamental research in nanotechnology, his area of ​​expertise. He also signed a three-year contract in 2012 to participate in the China Thousand Talents Program, a government contracting scheme to attract foreign scientists, which would provide $1.5 million in funding for a new laboratory at WUT. Lieber himself would receive up to $50,000 a month, part of which would be deposited into a Chinese bank account, along with compensation for living expenses.

Mr. Lieber did not disclose these details, both to the I.R.S. on their tax returns, and investigators from the Defense Department and NIH when they knocked on his door in 2018 and 2019. Although partnerships with foreign universities are legal, the US government requires scientists who receive federal funding to disclose ties to foreign universities. And China’s organized efforts to obtain valuable technologies through espionage are no secret. China has committed billions to acquire them in key sectors identified as priorities, including nanotechnology. While some areas, like green energy, may be largely benign, others, like aerospace and materials science, have military applications.

In response, the DOJ launched its “China Initiative” in November 2018, a campaign to prosecute cases of Chinese economic espionage. As Margaret Lewis, a law professor at Seton Hall University, explains, this was an unprecedented effort to target crimes related to a country and focus on “non-traditional” sources of intelligence, such as academics.

The prosecution of Mr. Lieber might seem like proof of the success of the China Initiative, but that is not necessarily the case. The researchers admitted in court that they chose to pursue Lieber in part because of the presence of ethnic Chinese researchers in his lab, which increases the risk of surveillance of individuals based on their race, a violation of the DOJown guidelines. “This plays directly into Beijing’s narrative of anti-Chinese racism,” says Emily Weinstein of the Center for Security and Emerging Technology, a think tank.

Another concern is the government’s heavy-handed approach. Proving economic espionage is difficult: Prosecutors must show that any knowledge transferred was in fact a trade secret and persuade the jury that the defendant acted with the intent to benefit a foreign government. As a result, the DOJ has focused on zealously processing disclosure problems in universities; so far, all of his college-related convictions have focused on investigative, security, and tax fraud cases, not espionage. The government argues, not without reason, that contacts with Chinese universities will, by definition, pass on scientific expertise to the Chinese government. But DOJ you may not fully understand the grant making process and the specific technologies involved. His case against Anming Hu, a professor at the University of Tennessee, ended in an acquittal for lack of evidence.

When the FBI came to arrest Mr. Lieber in January 2020, he admitted he was “not completely transparent by any stretch of the imagination… I was afraid of being arrested, as I am now.” Scholars watching his case will no doubt be more careful, even investigating his associates. The suspicion that he now clouds any association with China could have a chilling effect. As geopolitical rivalry intensifies, the government is rightly concerned that an ever-increasing range of technologies could give China an economic or military advantage. But failing to outline which technologies pose risks can lead researchers to avoid any collaboration with China, even in mutually beneficial areas. American scientists can also refrain from hiring researchers with family ties to China. For a country whose greatest strength is attracting the world’s best and brightest, this could prove detrimental.

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This article appeared in the US section of the print edition under the headline “Scientific Suspicion.”

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