A former Harvard chemistry professor was convicted on Tuesday of concealing his ties to a Chinese recruitment program. Until his arrest in early 2020, Charles Lieber, 62, was the chair of the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Top American University. He declared himself innocent.
The conviction of Lieber, whose verdict has yet to be determined by the court, is a high-profile case within the US Department of Justice’s so-called “China Initiative.” The initiative, launched in 2018, aims to curb economic espionage from China, but has been heavily criticized by the academic world. Scholars complain that their studies and their international competitiveness are being compromised, that foreign colleagues are reluctant to cooperate with them, and that studies disproportionately target researchers of Chinese origin, possibly amounting to ethnic profiling.
Justice argued during the trial That in order to protect his career and reputation, Lieber intentionally concealed any participation in the “Thousand Talents Plan”. This is a Chinese government program to hire people with knowledge of foreign technology and intellectual property. Lieber repeatedly hid his involvement from the US authorities, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which provided him with millions of dollars in research funding.
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Lieber also hid his earnings from the Chinese program, such as a $50,000 monthly stipend from Wuhan University of Technology up to $158,000 in living expenses and more than $1.5 million in grants, according to the indictment. The Justice Department, in turn, said Lieber agreed to publish articles, organize international conferences and apply for patents to the Chinese university.
Spying is not proven
Lieber’s attorney argued in vain that justice could not prove that his client “acted knowingly or intentionally.” The defense also emphasized that the senior academic was not accused of illegally transferring technology or commercial information to China.
After a six-day trial, a Boston jury took less than three hours on Tuesday to convict Lieber of all charges. These include two counts of filing false tax returns, two counts of making false statements, and two counts of failing to file reports on a foreign bank account in China. Individual penalties for this can be up to five years in prison.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on December 23, 2021
A version of this article also appeared on NRC on the morning of December 23, 2021
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