Harvard Scientist Faces Trial for Alleged Spying for China

December 13, 2021 by Tom Ramstack
Harvard Scientist Faces Trial for Alleged Spying for China
The John Harvard statue is pictured in the yard outside of University Hall. (Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer)

WASHINGTON — A well-known Harvard University nanotechnology professor is scheduled for trial Tuesday in Boston, Massachusetts, in a case that also tests the Justice Department’s initiative to crack down on spying for China. 

Charles Lieber claims he was merely collaborating as a scholar with scientists at Wuhan University of Technology when he was arrested two years ago.

The Defense Department and the National Institutes of Health say Lieber lied about how much American technology he was divulging to the Chinese while raking in millions of dollars.

The Justice Department’s China Initiative is supposed to put a dent in the amount of U.S. intellectual property stolen by the Chinese. Lieber’s supporters say an unintended consequence is an attack on academic research.


Lieber is one of more than two dozen academics who the Justice Department has prosecuted for economic espionage, including a different nanotechnology professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Typically, they are invited to participate by the Chinese government in its Thousand Talents Program. China describes the program as an effort to recognize and attract leading international experts in scientific research, innovation and entrepreneurship.

It grants visiting professors the title of “Thousand Talents Plan Distinguished Professor” and offers benefits such as high pay and visa privileges. They also are eligible for large government grants.

In Lieber’s case, the Justice Department says his combined U.S. and Chinese compensation was around $15 million. Nanotechnology refers to the use of molecular matter on a microscopic level for industrial and, increasingly, military purposes. 


Both the U.S. and Canadian governments have warned that China uses the Thousand Talents scientists to gain access to new technology for economic and military advantage.

Lieber, the former chairman of Harvard’s chemistry department, is charged with making false statements to U.S. government officials and four tax-related felonies for allegedly failing to report income.

The first China Initiative prosecution to reach trial was against University of Tennessee nanomanufacturing professor Anming Hu. The trial ended last summer when the judge dismissed the charges, saying no rational jury could convict Hu on the Justice Department’s evidence.

The China Initiative was started in 2018 under what the Trump administration called a program to reduce “trade secret theft, hacking and economic espionage.” 

Since then, academics from Yale University, Stanford University and elsewhere have signed petitions they submitted to the Justice Department asking for an end to the China Initiative. They said it inhibits the exchange of academic expertise internationally.

The dismissal of charges against Hu, along with the political pressure from the academic community, are expected to turn Lieber’s trial into a referendum on the China Initiative as much as a determination of his guilt or innocence, according to legal experts.


The case is U.S. v. Lieber in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts.

Tom can be reached at [email protected]

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