In one of the most high-profile cases under the United States Justice Department’s now abandoned China Initiative targeting US academic ties to China, Charles Lieber, a former Harvard chemistry professor and nano scientist, has been spared a jail term in a sentencing judgement delivered this week.
Lieber, 64, was convicted by a jury in December 2021 of lying to US federal investigators about his undeclared connection to China’s ‘Thousand Talents’ science recruitment programme, and for failing to declare and pay taxes on payments from a Chinese university amounting to more than US$1.5 million for setting up a ‘shadow laboratory’ to duplicate research he was conducting in the US.
Lieber also concealed his income from the Chinese programme on his US tax returns, including US$50,000 a month for 12 months from the Wuhan University of Technology (WUT), China, some of which was paid to him in US$100 bills in brown paper packaging, according to prosecutors.
In exchange, prosecutors said, Lieber agreed to publish articles, organise international conferences, and apply for patents on behalf of the Chinese university.
Lieber was sentenced on 26 April to half a year of supervised house arrest and ordered to pay a US$50,000 fine.
He was also ordered to pay US$33,600 in restitution to the US Internal Revenue Service, an estimate of the federal taxes due for his unreported income from China for 2013 and 2014.
Some US academics view the sentence as lenient compared to judgements against Chinese and Chinese Americans prosecuted under the controversial China Initiative, which has been criticised for racial profiling of Chinese and Asian-American scientists. They suggest Lieber was treated differently because he had no Chinese antecedents, although the case was an important warning to universities about disclosures.
Other academics said the sentence was not inappropriate, despite the prosecution pushing for 90 days in prison and a US$150,000 fine, in part because the discredited Trump-era China Initiative that led to his arrest was shelved by the Joe Biden administration in February last year due to its ‘excesses’ in targeting Asian-Americans in particular.
“Now that the China Initiative has ended, the sentencing may reflect a less aggressive judicial approach in the future,” said Jenny J Lee, professor of education at the University of Arizona and co-author of a report on racial profiling among scientists of Chinese descent.
“Nevertheless, I do not anticipate that the Asian-American academic community will let down their guard. Charles Lieber is not Asian, nor does he represent the many Asian scientists whose careers were also devastated [by the China Initiative],” Lee told University World News after the sentencing.
Lieber’s deal with China
Lieber, who was chair of Harvard’s Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at the time of his dramatic arrest at the Harvard campus in January 2020, was charged with lying to government authorities about his involvement with China’s Wuhan University of Technology (WUT) and the Thousand Talents Programme (TTP), which is designed to recruit top scientists from abroad.
According to court documents, the contract obligated Lieber to conduct joint research, publish papers acknowledging WUT, organise conferences, and host WUT students in his lab at Harvard, all under the “regular supervision and review” of WUT.
The purpose of these obligations, according to his contract, was to “face the needs of the [Chinese] national strategy” and make WUT “an important influencing base of scientific research, talents cultivation, and international collaboration”, court documents note.
Lieber satisfied many of his contractual obligations to WUT without Harvard’s knowledge or permission.
Without consulting anyone at Harvard, he committed Harvard to a formal academic exchange programme with WUT, enabling WUT students to travel to Harvard to work in Lieber’s lab, including on US government-funded projects.