Harvard professor spared jail for China non-disclosures

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.

Different treatment?

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.

Lieber supervised WUT students both in China and at his Harvard lab. He also reviewed, commented on, and contributed to various WUT-related articles and studies, including by listing WUT (not Harvard) as his primary affiliation, and travelled to China to attend various WUT-related events.

When confronted about the lab by Harvard’s dean of science, Lieber feigned ignorance, telling the dean that WUT had used Harvard’s name without his knowledge or consent, and even went out of his way to assure the dean in a follow-up email that his relationship with WUT was merely for “mutual scientific collaboration”, according to court documents.

For its part, WUT sought to promote Chinese interests through a close association with a preeminent scientist from a world-class institution, court documents said.

Repeated denials

Prosecutors said Lieber knowingly hid his involvement in China’s Thousand Talents Programme at a time when he was principal investigator of a research team in the US that received more than US$15 million in federal grants from agencies, including the US Department of Defense (DoD) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) between 2008 and 2019.

During the trial, prosecutors asserted that Lieber had lied to, or misled, the DoD and the NIH about his links with the Chinese programme and denied his involvement during questioning from US authorities, including NIH.

“Lieber purposely – and repeatedly – lied to government agents about his ties to WUT and TTP in response to direct, unambiguous questions; and he purposely concealed from tax authorities the hundreds of thousands of dollars paid to him by WUT,” prosecutors said.

NIH grants are highly competitive. A NIH representative was quoted in court documents as saying that “because of Dr Lieber’s false representations, other scientists who did act with integrity were denied the opportunity to conduct high-quality science supported by NIH”.

By lying to his two primary funding sources, Lieber showed a disregard for the students, staff members and administrators who worked under him, many of whom were left scrambling to find work or complete degree programmes after Lieber’s funding was revoked, documents said.

Prosecutors maintained in documents made public a few days before the sentencing that although involvement in the Chinese talent programme was not illegal, Lieber’s “chronic lies” to investigators warranted prison time.

Lieber, who was placed on paid “administrative leave” by Harvard University after his 2020 arrest, was said to have “retired” from the university in early February this year.

“That’s the equivalent of resignation,” William Kirby, professor of Chinese Studies at Harvard University, told University World News, noting that Lieber held the highest rank of professor.

“If you retire, it normally means you retire at the end of a teaching term,” he said, which was not the case with Lieber.

Kirby declined to comment on the sentencing and Lieber’s dealings with the US tax authorities but noted broader issues raised by the case. “Lieber was originally detained in a rather dramatic way and accused of being part of the so-called Thousand Talents Programme, as if that were a crime,” he said.

“When I was dean in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard, you could say I had a Thousand Talents Programme, too. I would try to secure wonderful talent from other great universities to Harvard. So the initial hype around this case was really quite extraordinary and based on a series of misconceptions [about attracting talent],” Kirby said.

He added: “But that has apparently nothing to do with the crime for which he has now been sentenced.”

Was Lieber’s sentence ‘too lenient’?

As of September 2022, the National Association of Scholars in the US had counted 51 cases of ‘illegal’ ties to China in American higher education and government research which it lists in its database. Only two of them were non-Asian or Asian-American.

David Zweig, professor emeritus at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, who has extensively researched the Thousand Talents Programme and the China Initiative for a forthcoming book, said there was a clear difference in the way Lieber has been treated under the China Initiative compared to Chinese or Asian-American scientists.

Non-disclosure of Chinese funding, which might have been an oversight or even unethical, was turned into a criminal offence under the China Initiative, he said, meeting a level of unethical activity that might warrant losing one’s job.

“I don't think people will have sympathy for [Lieber] given the fact that he was making US$50,000 a month. Given that amount of money, the fine he ends up with is ludicrous. When any of the Chinese were investigated [under the China Initiative] or charged, they were not making that kind of money,” Zweig told University World News.

“It's one thing to go to China and give a talk and get US$10,000 from the Chinese – the Chinese will pay people for talks – and not report it as some of these Chinese researchers were accused of doing, but it's peanuts. Compared to what the [Department of] Justice’s China Initiative has done to ethnic Chinese, this is just a slap on the wrist for Lieber.”

Zweig pointed to the case of Simon Ang, a Malaysian-born US citizen and professor at the University of Arkansas who was arrested in May 2020 and charged with failing to declare close ties with the Chinese government and Chinese companies when required to do so by NASA.

He was sentenced to a year in prison in June 2022 followed by a year of supervised release and a fine of US$5,500 after pleading guilty to lying to the FBI about patents filed in China listing him as a co-inventor.

Ang received a jail term for failing to disclose his ties to China and Chinese companies to government funding agencies and his university, although his alleged crimes included no IP theft or illicit transfer of technology and he made no money out of it, according to Zweig.

Although 300 US-government funded researchers and more than 600 US corporate personnel had accepted TTP money, many of these individuals failed to disclose it to their employer, “which for US government employees is illegal and for corporate personnel likely represents a conflict of interest that violates their employee agreement,” he noted.

Serving as an example

Arizona University’s Lee said the sentence of house arrest over the prosecution’s recommendation of three months’ jail time was fair. “Dr Lieber already paid a huge cost in his damaged professional reputation. And the government succeeded in signalling to other scientists the devastating consequences of concealing any collaboration with China.”

She added: “We have observed other China Initiative cases being dismissed or charges similarly reduced. It remains unknown as to whether the Lieber case would have been brought to trial if the timing was different, pre or post the China Initiative. In many ways he was made an example of, to the broader scientific community, about undisclosed ties with China.”

Lieber’s lawyers sought to avoid a custodial sentence, citing Lieber’s battle with advanced cancer. He is currently in remission, according to a doctor’s report included in court papers. Lawyers argued that the prosecution’s request for a US$150,000 fine was “draconian” and suggested Lieber had been punished enough through the financial consequences of his conviction, including losing his job at Harvard.

“Professor Lieber is profoundly remorseful for the facts and circumstances that have brought him before this court,” his lawyers said, adding: “He no longer works at Harvard. Travel to China – which amounted, in total, to no more than a couple of weeks – has shattered his entire life. His reputation has been ruined. At 64 years old, Professor Lieber prays to be able to live out whatever time he has left at home.”