BOSTON (WBZ NewsRadio) — The chair of Harvard University's Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology has been charged with lying about money he accepted from the Chinese government, the U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Andrew Lelling's office announced Tuesday.
In additional unrelated cases, two Chinese nationals working in the United States were indicted, accused of passing U.S. research to the Chinese government—with one caught allegedly attempting to smuggle biological research on a flight to China, and the other accused of spying for the Chinese People's Liberation Army.
Harvard's Dr. Charles Lieber, 60, is charged with willfully making materially false, fictitious, and fraudulent statements to the Department of Defense and National Institutes of Health regarding his involvement in China's "Thousand Talents Plan" and with Wuhan University of Technology.
Lieber appeared in federal court in Boston Tuesday afternoon, where he was ordered held until a bail hearing Thursday. Federal prosecutors asked he be held as investigators looked into new information.
In an affidavit, the FBI claims Lieber was paid a salary of $50,000 per month and an additional $150,000 per year from his "Thousand Talents" contract, and was awarded $1.5 million by the Chinese government to establish a research lab at the university in Wuhan. The money was given to Lieber to work, research, and recruit for China.
But Lieber also has contracts with the United States government that require disclosure of foreign research collaboration and payments from foreign governments. According to the affidavit, he has received a total of $8 million in Department of Defense grants since 2009, and a total of over $10 million in National Institutes of Health-funded grants since 2008.
When interviewed by DoD officials in 2018, Lieber allegedly denied being part of China's Thousand Talents Plan; then, when NIH officials investigated Lieber's Chinese ties later that year, the FBI alleges Lieber "caused Harvard to make materially false and misleading statements about his connection to WUT and the Thousand Talents Plan" in a written statement to the NIH.
U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling. (Karyn Regal/WBZ NewsRadio)
At a press conference Tuesday morning, Lelling said he wouldn't exactly call Dr. Lieber a "spy."
"I think the word 'spy' is a little too loaded," Lelling said. "I think what I would say is that, in the case of Dr. Lieber, we don't know precisely what motivated him, but we have not charged him as an unregistered agent of a foreign power ... It appears he was simply corrupted by money."
The affidavit also claims Lieber signed an agreement with Wuhan University of Technology to allow visiting Chinese students the "same access as normal Harvard graduate students"—though Lieber allegedly did not have the authority to sign such an agreement.
Harvard said Lieber was placed on indefinite administrative leave, during which he will not have access to Harvard's campus or continue in his teaching roles.
"The charges brought by the U.S. government against Professor Lieber are extremely serious," the university said in a statement. "Harvard is cooperating with federal authorities, including the National Institutes of Health, and is conducting its own review of the alleged misconduct."
Smuggling Biological Research
Lelling's office said Zaosong Zheng, 30, of China, stole and tried to smuggle to China 21 vials of cancer-cell research from his work at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
Zheng, who was in the United States on a J-1 visa, was caught with the vials hidden in a sock inside one of his travel bags as he attempted to board a flight from Logan Airport to Beijing. When questioned by federal agents, Zheng allegedly admitted to stealing the vials from the Wenyi Wei laboratory at Beth Israel.
"Zheng stated that he intended to bring the vials to China to use them to conduct research in his own laboratory and publish the results under his own name," Lelling's office said.
He has been in custody since December 30, charged with one count of smuggling goods from the United States and one count of making false, fictitious, or fraudulent statements.
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center Issued the following statement regarding Zheng:
"We are deeply proud of the breadth and depth of our research programs. Any efforts to compromise research undermine the hard work of our faculty and staff to advance patient care. We are grateful for the diligence and professionalism of federal law enforcement in this case and are fully cooperating with the government’s ongoing investigation of this matter."
'Aiding The People's Republic Of China'
The other Chinese national, Yanqing Ye, 30, is accused of falsely identifying herself as a "student" on her J-1 visa—when in reality, she is a Lieutenant in the People's Liberation Army, the Chinese military.
Lelling's office said that, while Ye studied at Boston University's Department of Physics, Chemistry, and Biomedical Engineering from October 2017 to April 2019, she was secretly performing tasks for People's Liberation Army officers, "such as conducting research, assessing U.S. military websites and sending U.S. documents and information to China."
"Ms. Ye left Boston University in April, 2019," Boston University said in a statement to WBZ NewsRadio. "We look forward to assisting the US Attorney’s Office as it continues its investigation."
Ye is charged with one count each of visa fraud, making false statements, acting as an agent of a foreign government, and conspiracy—but she's currently in China, and has not been arrested.
WBZ NewsRadio's Karyn Regal (@Karynregal) reports