Harvard University scientist Charles Lieber, who is accused of lying about his links to a recruitment program run by the Chinese government, was put on trial on Dec. 14 in Boston. Lieber is also accused of concealing the fact that he had received funding from the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
Lieber pleaded “not guilty” to all charges made against him, but on Dec. 17 video footage of an interrogation with the FBI in 2019 showed him saying “that’s pretty damning” as agents presented a contract he’d signed in 2011 to participate in the PRC’s “Thousand Talents” plan. The five-year contract, written in both Chinese and English, provided $50,000 a month and an additional $158,000 in living expenses.
The nanoscientist and former chair of Harvard’s Chemistry Department was arrested two years ago.
Prosecutors had placed charges on the Harvard professor in January last year as part of the “China initiative” run by the U.S. Department of Justice. The initiative, which began during the Trump administration, seeks to respond aggressively to the Chinese threat of research theft and economic espionage.
In 2011, Leiber became a “strategic scientist” at the Wuhan University of Technology. Subsequently, he became a participant of the Thousand Talents Plan, a program run by the Chinese regime aimed at recruiting overseas talent.
According to U.S. authorities, Beijing uses the program to attract foreign researchers to share their knowledge with China in return for perks and research funding. Wuhan University granted Lieber more than $1.5 million to set up a Chinese lab as part of the program in addition to his personal pay and living expenses.
The U.S. government is not making the case that Leiber’s relationship with the Thousand Talent Plan or the Wuhan University is somehow illegal. Instead, the Harvard scientist is being accused of hiding such relationships from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) as well as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Department of Defence, both of which funded his research.
In 2018, Leiber had made false statements to NIH and the FBI about his China ties. The government has submitted proof of bank deposits from China to Leiber’s accounts. He did not disclose these bank accounts or income to American tax authorities. Harvard has suspended Leiber’s teaching duties and placed him on paid administrative leave.
Several scientists, including around 40 of Lieber’s colleagues, have requested that Washington drop the charges leveled against him, describing him as the victim of an “unjust criminal prosecution.” They specifically stated that such cases were “discouraging U.S. scientists from collaborating with peers in other countries, particularly China.” The 62-year-old Lieber is suffering from lymphoma of a non-curable type.
According to a study of around 2000 U.S. scientists conducted by Professor Jenny Lee, a dean’s fellow for the Internationalization Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona, around half of the scientists of Chinese descent said that they were afraid of being under the surveillance of the FBI.