US drops case against MIT scientist accused of concealing ties to China
BOSTON — Federal prosecutors on Thursday dropped government charges against Gang Chen, a professor of mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in an embarrassing setback to the government’s drive to crack down on economic and scientific espionage by China.
The case against Dr. Chen was among the most visible of the China Initiative, an effort launched in 2018 under the Trump administration. China has made aggressive efforts to steal American technology, through methods such as recruiting foreign scientists as “non-traditional collectors.”
But many of the resulting lawsuits against researchers, such as the case against Dr. Chen, do not allege espionage or intellectual property theft, but something narrower and highly technical: do not disclose. Chinese affiliations in grant proposals to US funding agencies.
The lawsuits have been criticized for singling out scientists based on their ethnicity and for being overbroad, blurring the line between disclosure violations and more serious crimes like espionage. Academic critics say it has instilled a pervasive atmosphere of fear among Chinese-born scientists.
Dr. Chen was arrested on January 14, 2021, during President Donald J. Trump’s last full week in office, and charged with omitting affiliations with Chinese government institutions in grant applications to the U.S. Department of Health. energy in 2017. He pleaded not guilty to all charges.
In recent weeks, however, Energy Department officials told prosecutors that Dr. Chen had no obligation to disclose all seven affiliations, questioning the basis of the charges, according to people familiar with the matter.
The dismissal decision comes as the Justice Department reviews the China Initiative, considering measures such as removing the name and reclassifying pending cases.
Government officials in the Obama, Trump and Biden administrations have warned that China’s push for global power poses significant threats to the national security and economy of the United States.
Officials who launched the China Initiative feared that Beijing could steal research and other intellectual property by using non-traditional intelligence gatherers, like professors trained to willingly share sensitive information in the name of academic cooperation.
The program resulted in numerous pleas and convictions, like those of a Monsanto employee who was intercepted while leaving the country with a proprietary algorithm and Coca-Cola chemist found guilty of stealing valuable formula. Last month, after less than three hours of deliberation, a Boston jury convicted Harvard chemist Charles Leiber of six crimes, including misrepresentation and failure to report income earned in China.
But other cases against academics have unfolded. The first case to reach trial stage, against Anming Hu, an engineering professor at the University of Tennessee, ended in an acquittal last September after a judge ruled that the government failed to provided sufficient evidence of intentional fraud. The Department of Justice also dismissed seven cases against researchers These last months.
The case against Dr. Chen, a naturalized US citizen since 2000, is the largest of the dismissed cases to date, involving an elite scientist who had strong backing from his university.
Dr Chen, who has been on paid leave from MIT since his arrest, on Thursday thanked his friends and colleagues for supporting him through “this terrible year” and strongly criticized the China Initiative.
“While I am relieved that my ordeal is over, I am aware that this woefully misguided Chinese initiative continues to cause unwarranted fear in the academic community and that other scientists still face accusations,” he said. said in a brief statement issued by his lawyer.
Rachael S. Rollins, who was sworn in as the new US attorney in Boston this month, said the decision to withdraw the case was made after prosecutors obtained new information indicating that Chinese affiliations to the center of the case were of no material importance. to the funding body.
“We understand that our charging decisions have a profound impact on people’s lives,” Ms Rollins said. “As a United States attorney, I will always encourage prosecutors in our office to engage in this type of rigorous and ongoing review at every stage of a proceeding. Today’s dismissal is the result of this process and is in the interests of justice.
When Dr. Chen was arrested a little over a year ago, the tone of the prosecutor’s office was surprisingly different.
At a press conference that morning, then-U.S. attorney Andrew E. Lelling said “the allegations in the complaint imply that it was not just about greed, but loyalty to China. Joseph R. Bonavolanta, the FBI special agent in charge in Boston, said Dr. Chen “knowingly and willfully defrauded at least $19 million in federal grants.”
The charges filed a few days later were more limited in scope. They included two counts of wire fraud, for failing to disclose seven Department of Energy affiliations when applying for a $2.7 million grant to study heat conduction in polymer structures and in a report next step.
Affiliations included serving as “Fourth Overseas Expert Consultant” to the Chinese government, “Review Expert” for the National Natural Science Foundation of China, and Advisor to the China Scholarship Council, among others. He was also accused of failing to declare a Chinese bank account containing more than $10,000 and of making false statements to government officials in his grant disclosures.
In recent conversations, Department of Energy officials told prosecutors that affiliations that Dr. Chen did not disclose would not have prevented the agency from extending the grant, according to two people familiar with the matter.
Understanding the case against Gang Chen
Who is Gang Chen? He is a professor of mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who was arrested on January 14, 2021 and charged with grant fraud. Born in China, he has been a naturalized American since 2000.
In a statement Thursday morning, Dr. Chen’s attorney, Robert Fisher, credited the witnesses who “come forward and told the government how they misunderstood the details surrounding the scientific and academic collaboration,” saying that ” without them, this case would probably still be ongoing. ”
Mr Fisher, a partner at Nixon Peabody, said the scientist had ‘never lied to the government or anyone else’.
“Today is a great day,” he said. “The government has finally recognized what we have been saying all along: Professor Gang Chen is an innocent man. Our defense has never been based on legal niceties. Our defense was as follows: Gang did not commit any of the offenses with which he was charged. Complete stop.”
Biden administration officials are expected to announce changes to the China Initiative in the coming weeks.
“As directed by the Attorney General, the department is reviewing our approach to countering threats posed by the PRC government,” said Justice Department spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle, referring to the People’s Republic of China.
The China Initiative name could be dropped and the cases could no longer be grouped as a separate group but reabsorbed into the workload of the department’s National Security Division, according to current and former Justice Department officials. After initial discussions about offering amnesty in ongoing grant fraud cases, officials are leaning toward resolving the cases individually, officials said.
Mr. Lelling himself, one of the architects of the initiative, now in private practice in Boston, is among those urging the Justice Department to drop prosecutions based on the disclosure of subsidies.
In a post on LinkedIn last month, he wrote that he believed the China Initiative was intended to combat espionage, but that it had “drift and in some respects lost its purpose”.
“You don’t want people to be afraid of collaboration,” he said in an interview. “There is no doubt that on the academic side, the China Initiative has created a climate of fear among researchers. This is one reason why the DOJ should take a step back.
He added, however, that the lawsuits against academics had done some good, prompting researchers to be much more transparent about their Chinese funding.
“If you were looking for general deterrence, it was achieved in spades – we terrified the entire research community,” he said. “What is deterrence? You don’t speed up because you’re afraid you’ll get a ticket. Deterrence is a matter of fear.
MIT President Rafael Reif said he was eager for Dr Chen to return to his duties at the university and that the burden the case had placed on him and his family was “unimaginable”.
“It is difficult to reconcile and come to terms with the pain and anguish that such good people, people we are proud and lucky to know, have endured over the past two years,” Mr. Reif said in a statement. communicated. “This case has also caused continued distress throughout our community, especially for Gang’s friends, students, and colleagues, and for those at MIT and elsewhere who are of Chinese descent.”