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Harvard Chemistry Professor Arrested And Accused Of Lying About Ties To China


A Harvard University professor has been charged with lying to federal authorities about his ties to the Chinese government. The case against Professor Charles Lieber is one of three tied to China that Justice Department officials announced today in Boston. NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas is here with more.

Hi, Ryan.


KELLY: All right, so three China-related cases - let's do the Harvard professor first. What do we know about him?

LUCAS: So Charles Lieber is the chair of Harvard's chemistry and chemical biology department. He's been at Harvard for around 30 years - very prominent in his field. He leads a research group at the university. It focuses on nanotechnology - so tiny technology - in everything from biology and medicine to energy and computing. Officials say that since 2008, he has received more than $15 million in research grants from the U.S. government, so those would be from the National Institutes of Health and the Defense Department. Those funds require you to disclose any ties, particularly financial ties, to foreign universities and foreign governments.

KELLY: And so what's the case against him?

LUCAS: So the criminal complaint filed in Boston says that Lieber secretly signed a contract in 2011 with a Chinese university to guide research at that institution. He didn't tell Harvard about that. He also allegedly signed on to be part of something known as China's Thousand Talents Plan. U.S. officials say that this is a Chinese government program that is designed to, essentially, lure American researchers, American scientists into sharing their expertise with China. The complaint has copies of both of these agreements that Lieber allegedly entered into with China. And he was well-compensated by the Chinese for this. The complaint says that he was paid up to $50,000 a month. He got some $150,000 per year in addition to that for living expenses, more than a million dollars in funding for a lab in China.

Now, his current legal predicament, though, comes from allegedly lying about all of this when asked about it by Pentagon investigators and the National Institutes of Health because remember; grants from the Pentagon and NIH require that you disclose collaboration with foreign researchers.

KELLY: All right, we mentioned there are two other cases that the Justice Department announced, both also related to China. What details do we know about those?

LUCAS: So these are from the Boston area as well, and they are both against Chinese nationals. And one of them - the case is against a Chinese woman who is conducting research at Boston University. The allegations against her include that she lied on her visa form to hide the fact that she is a Chinese military officer. The feds reviewed her electronic devices and found that she had done research on U.S. military projects and was compiling information on two U.S. scientists who specialized in robotics and computer science.

The other case is against a Chinese man who had been doing cancer cell research at a Boston medical center. He was stopped at Logan Airport back in December. Federal agents found 21 vials of biological materials squirreled away in a sock in his luggage. He originally told agents he didn't have anything in his bags, later admitted that he was trying to take the vials to China to do his own research.

KELLY: Wow. All right, so these three cases - is it a coincidence that they were all announced at the same time? Is there a bigger picture here?

LUCAS: Well, the bigger picture - these cases involve nanotechnology, robotics, chemistry, biomedical research. The U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Andrew Lelling said that this is not an accident or coincidence.

ANDREW LELLING: This is a small sample of China's ongoing campaign to siphon off American technology and knowhow for Chinese gain.

LUCAS: So American officials are really trying to push back against what they say is the Chinese government's relentless efforts to steal U.S. intellectual property, U.S. research and trade secrets. They say China is deliberately targeting high-tech fields like the ones we talked about today, and they say China is using traditional intelligence officers but also businessmen, researchers and, yes, academics to try to get their hands on this stuff.

KELLY: Thank you, Ryan.

LUCAS: Thank you.

KELLY: NPR's Ryan Lucas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.