CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — It was Donald J. Trump’s final full week in workplace, so Andrew E. Lelling, the federal prosecutor in Boston, knew he had restricted time left in his job. However there was yet one more necessary arrest to announce, one that will burnish his file on a key initiative for President Trump’s administration.
Police that morning had arrested Gang Chen, a professor of mechanical engineering on the Massachusetts Institute of Know-how, on suspicion of hiding affiliations with Chinese language authorities establishments so as to safe $19 million in U.S. federal grants.
Dr. Chen’s prosecution was the most recent within the Justice Division’s two-year-old China Initiative, which goals to root out analysis scientists passing delicate know-how to China.
At a information convention that morning, Mr. Lelling stated he believed that Dr. Chen, 56, who grew to become a naturalized U.S. citizen twenty years in the past, had remained loyal to the nation of his start.
“The allegations of the criticism suggest that this was not nearly greed, however about loyalty to China,” he stated.
Within the 10 days since Dr. Chen’s arrest, his colleagues have publicly protested, arguing that prosecutors have overreached, blurring the road between disclosure violations and extra critical crimes, like espionage or mental property theft.
Greater than 160 members of the M.I.T. college have signed a letter arguing that the Chinese language affiliations Dr. Chen is accused of hiding have been routine tutorial actions, reminiscent of reviewing grant proposals, and never ones that clearly required disclosure.
Dr. Chen has pleaded not responsible and was launched on $1 million bond. M.I.T. is paying for his authorized protection, one thing that has not occurred in comparable instances, together with that of a Harvard professor, Charles Lieber, who was charged final yr with hiding his Chinese language funding sources.
The Biden administration has signaled it’ll keep a troublesome line on Chinese language mental property theft, and scores of investigations are underway.
“To place this risk into perspective, we’ve now reached the purpose the place the F.B.I. is opening a brand new China-related counterintelligence investigation about each 10 hours,” stated Joseph R. Bonavolonta, the F.B.I.’s Boston particular agent in cost.
However some students say the China Initiative — which thus far has led to costs towards about 10 U.S. lecturers and 6 visiting analysis scientists — ought to rethink prison prosecutions which can be primarily based solely on disclosure of overseas funding.
“There are numerous components of this prison criticism that seem like genuinely troubling,” stated Elsa B. Kania, an adjunct senior fellow within the know-how and nationwide safety program on the Heart for a New American Safety, of the Chen case. “These costs, absent different proof, don’t seem to justify such a drastic response.”
The Wall Road Journal final week reported that Justice Division officers are contemplating the introduction of an amnesty program that will permit lecturers in the US to reveal previous overseas funding with out risking a prison investigation. Excessive-level officers have circulated a draft proposal alongside these traces, the newspaper reported.
A watch-popping cost
The case introduced towards Dr. Chen on Jan. 14 was eye-popping, partly due to the sums concerned.
Prosecutors stated Dr. Chen, who is understood for his work on nanoscale heat-conduction physics, had acquired $19 million in U.S. grants since 2013, whereas concurrently receiving $29 million in overseas funding, together with $19 million from a analysis college funded by the Chinese language authorities.
“The actual victims in these instances are you, the taxpayers,” Mr. Bonavolonta stated on the information convention. “We consider he knowingly and willingly defrauded at the very least $19 million in federal grants by exploiting our programs to boost China’s analysis in nanotechnology, in making use of for scarce federal grants.”
Although receiving grant cash from China is authorized, failing to reveal Chinese language affiliations to the U.S. authorities can result in costs of wire fraud or false statements.
The costs detailed in an indictment filed 5 days later have been extra restricted.
There have been two counts of wire fraud associated to disclosure. In 2017, prosecutors stated, when making use of for a $2.7 million grant from the Vitality Division, Dr. Chen had didn’t disclose 5 affiliations — he served as a “evaluation professional” for China’s Nationwide Science Basis and a “fourth abroad professional guide” to the Chinese language authorities, as an illustration. Then, in a progress report in 2019, he didn’t checklist these and three new Chinese language affiliations, together with one which pledged to pay him $355,715, the indictment says.
A 3rd and fourth cost have been extra simple: Dr. Chen had failed in 2018 tax filings, the indictment says, to declare a Chinese language checking account containing greater than $10,000, as required by regulation.
Mr. Lelling acknowledged that Dr. Chen was not accused of passing any delicate info to China.
“It’s about fraud and in regards to the tax costs,” he stated. “The criticism affidavit doesn’t go into whether or not or not delicate info was, the truth is, conveyed from Professor Chen to China. I can say extra broadly that the technique the Chinese language use is to foster these analysis collaborations by lavishly funding the work of overseas scientists.”
In an interview final yr, Mr. Lelling, who serves on the Justice Division’s China Initiative steering committee, stated that he hoped that high-profile prosecutions would have a pervasive impact in academia, urgent researchers to adjust to disclosure legal guidelines.
“Having a chilling impact on worldwide collaboration just isn’t the objective, so that could be a draw back,” he stated. “The upside is, now that is on the market. Now the tutorial neighborhood is aware of that the federal authorities is critical about enforcement on this space.”
‘He is superb at getting cash’
Zhigang Suo, a colleague and pal of Dr. Chen, stated it had been clear for nearly a yr that federal investigators have been making ready a case towards him.
Final yr, upon returning to Boston after a visit to China, Dr. Chen was questioned by immigration officers, who seized his laptop computer and telephone, stated Dr. Suo, a professor of engineering and utilized science at Harvard.
What made Dr. Chen susceptible, Dr. Suo stated, is that elevating cash, together with from China, was a serious component of his job at M.I.T., particularly between 2013 and 2018, when he served because the director of the college’s Division of Mechanical Engineering.
“He’s an exceptionally distinguished researcher,” Dr. Suo stated. “He was excellent with getting cash.”
Throughout that interval, Dr. Chen grew to become the general public face of M.I.T.’s collaboration with SUSTech, a analysis middle based by the native authorities in Shenzhen. The deal, Dr. Suo stated, completed two issues directly: It allowed the Chinese language to advance their analysis in nanotechnology, and in addition offered M.I.T. with cash for its personal researchers.
“After all, the intention is to assist the Chinese language, however the final objective is to get cash for M.I.T.,” he stated. “On this case, M.I.T. knew. They signed off on this large deal. The president signed off on this large deal.”
Rafael Reif, the president of M.I.T., launched a press release final week noting that the $19 million in funds offered by the collaboration with SUSTech weren’t offered to Dr. Chen individually, however to M.I.T.
“Whereas Professor Chen is its inaugural M.I.T. college director, this isn’t a person collaboration; it’s a departmental one, supported by the institute,” the assertion stated.
The $19 million in Chinese language funding associated to the SUSTech challenge, although highlighted within the prison criticism, was not talked about within the prison indictment that was filed 5 days later.
If lecturers have protested extra vigorously on Dr. Chen’s behalf than in earlier instances, it’s as a result of the actions Dr. Chen is accused of hiding struck his colleagues as strange ones, stated Yasheng Huang, a professor at M.I.T.’s Sloan Faculty of Administration.
“These are the issues we lecturers do each single day — writing letters of advice, elevating cash to assist analysis,” Dr. Huang stated.
He stated researchers discovered themselves trapped by a coverage shift on the a part of the U.S. authorities, which in previous years inspired collaboration with Chinese language establishments with out aggressively scrutinizing potential conflicts.
“The coverage has modified,” he stated. “Beforehand, the stuff you have been doing have been OK. Now they aren’t OK. I believe there are reliable nationwide safety issues, however to criminalize regular tutorial conduct just isn’t a option to remedy nationwide safety issues.”