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Sunday, February 2, 2020

Chinese Economic Espionage: The Arrest of a Harvard Professor

     In 2008, Dr. Charles Lieber, a chemistry professor at Harvard University who specialized in the area of nanoscience, was named the Principal Investigator of the Lieber Research Group at the school. In 2017, Professor Lieber, Chairman of the Chemistry Department, had reached the highest rank of University Professor, a position held by only 26 professors at the university. That year he was given the National Institutes of Health Pioneer Award for inventing syringe-injectable mesh electronics that integrates with the human brain.

     During Dr. Lieber's tenure at Harvard, he received $15 million in grand funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Department of Defense (DOD). Recipients of these grants are required by the government to disclose any financial support they receive from foreign governments that could pose a conflict of interest.

     In April 2018, federal investigators looking into China's attempts to steal American scientific and technical secrets, asked Professor Lieber if he had received financial benefits from the Chinese. The professor allegedly said that he had not received any money from China.

     NIH investigators, in November 2018, asked administrators at Harvard if Dr. Lieber had disclosed to the university his professional and financial affiliation with Wuhan University of Technology (WUT) in China. WUT is a large university in Wuhan, a city of 11 million, and the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak. The city, located in central China, is home to 30 colleges and universities. Besides a center of higher education, Wuhan is also a massive Chinese transportation hub.

     Harvard administrators informed the NIH investigators that Professor Lieber "had no formal association with WUT after 2012." However, according to federal agents, this was not true. NIH investigators believed that from 2011 to 2017, Dr. Lieber held the position of Strategic Scientist at the WUT. According to the federal inquiry into the professor's relationship with WUT, China's Communist government paid Dr. Lieber $50,000 a month for his services. Moreover, the professor received, from China, $150,000 a year for living expenses. He also allegedly received a $1.5 million grant to built a laboratory in Wuhan.

     When informed of the results of the NIH investigation, officials at Harvard claimed they had no knowledge of Professor Lieber's financial connections to China after 2012.

     On January 28, 2020, in Boston, Massachusetts, FBI agents and other federal investigators arrested Professor Charles Lieber and two Chinese nationals. The Chinese arrestees were Yanqing Ye, a Boston University robotics researcher, and Zoasong Zheng, a cancer researcher at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

     According to the United States Attorney's Office in Boston, Ye is a lieutenant in the Chinese People's Liberation Army. She is accused of passing information on research conducted at Boston University to the Chinese government.

     Dr. Lieber was charged with one count of making a materially false, fictitious and fraudulent statement to a federal agency. Professor Lieber has not been charged with sharing sensitive scientific information with the Chinese government. Shortly after his arrest, Harvard University placed Dr. Lieber on indefinite leave.

    Professor Lieber denied the federal allegations against him. 

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