A Harvard University chemistry professor was convicted in federal court on Tuesday of concealing his ties to China, securing a victory for the Justice Department’s controversial and faltering initiative to address accusations of “Chinese economic espionage” in the United States.
Lieber, a former chair of Harvard’s chemistry department, had for three years worked as a “strategic scientist” at the Wuhan University of Technology in China as part of Beijing’s Thousand Talents recruitment program. As part of his contract from 2012 to 2015, according to an affidavit, the university in Wuhan paid Lieber a salary of as much as $50,000 per month, $150,000 in annual living expenses and grants of more than $1.5 million to create a research lab at the Chinese university.
A Chinese contract described him as a “high-level foreign expert,” and in exchanges with officials at the university in Wuhan, he specified how he preferred to receive his salary — half in U.S. dollars, “with the remainder deposited” into a Chinese bank account, he wrote in 2014, according to the affidavit.
But in an interview with Defense Department investigators at his lab on Harvard’s campus in 2018, according to the affidavit, Lieber said he had never been asked to participate in the Thousand Talents program, and that he “wasn’t sure” how China categorized him.
Lieber also misled Harvard into making false statements to investigators from the National Institutes of Health about his involvement with the university in Wuhan and the Chinese program, prosecutors alleged. Harvard, which placed Lieber on paid administrative leave after his indictment in January 2020, did not comment on the verdict, spokesman Jason Newton said.
Lieber had secured millions of dollars in funding for Harvard, but the university left him “holding the bag” when he was charged, a defense attorney, Marc Mukasey, said in closing arguments, the Boston Globe reported. Harvard and Lieber had been engaged in a separate legal battle over the professor’s argument that the university was obligated to pay for his defense in the federal trial.
The Justice Department says China’s Thousand Talents program is an initiative designed to motivate experts in research and development to “transmit the knowledge and research they gain” in the United States to China. Participation in the program is not illegal; rather, Lieber’s charges centered on his false statements and concealment related to his involvement.
Mukasey said in an email regarding the conviction, “We respect the jury’s verdict and will keep fighting.” Mukasey had argued in court that federal prosecutors lacked evidence to support their charges and criticized their reliance on a “confused” interview between Lieber and federal investigators following his arrest, Reuters reported.
Lieber had said in the interview that he participated in the Chinese program not for the money, but for a chance at scientific recognition, according to the Globe. “Every scientist wants a Nobel Prize,” he said.
A sentencing date has yet to be set. The charges carry a combined prison time of up to 13 years, though it is unclear whether Lieber, who has cancer, will face a maximum sentence. Lieber has “a very advanced form of lymphoma,” Mukasey said in a status conference in March. “His body is self-destructing,” Mukasey said, adding that Lieber’s scans were “lighted up with cancer.”
In 2018, the Justice Department — then led by former attorney general Jeff Sessions under the Trump administration — launched what it called the “China Initiative” to target concerns of “economic espionage against the United States,” Sessions said at the time.
Tuesday’s conviction of Philadelphia-born Lieber was the first high-profile win for the initiative, following a series of dismissed cases.
Under the Biden administration, the effort has continued despite concerns by civil rights activists that it has amounted to racial profiling, amid a rise in anti-Asian hate crimes in the United States. Some in academia have argued that the initiative has fueled fear and had a chilling effect in research communities.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, declined at a news conference to speak specifically on the verdict, but said that China’s international exchange of academics is “essentially no different from the common practice of other countries, including the U.S.” Zhao added that “U.S. government institutions and politicians should not stigmatize this.”