Case Dismissed Against Professor Charged With Spying for China
BOSTON — Federal prosecutors on Thursday dropped charges against a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor accused of spying for China in another blow to a Trump administration effort to protect U.S. intellectual property.
Gang Chen, who was born in China but is a naturalized American, was being prosecuted under the Trump administration’s China Initiative.
Defeat of the high-profile prosecution of the MIT professor, following recent dismissals of other cases against academics, is throwing the future of the China Initiative into question.
Among the criticisms is that it is a witch hunt that unfairly targets Asian Americans at a time they already are suffering a backlash because of the COVID-19 pandemic first reported in Wuhan, China.
Chen was accused last year of failing to disclose his affiliations with the Chinese government when he applied for research grants to the U.S. Department of Energy. His specialty as a professor is nanotechnology, which is a key technology in the international competition to develop artificial intelligence.
Prosecutors said he hid his contracts with Chinese government entities, including one as an “overseas expert” to develop technology that would give China a competitive edge in trade with the United States. Some of the technology could allegedly have been used by the Chinese military.
Prosecutors said that since 2013 Chen received about $29 million from the Chinese for his research projects, including $19 million from China’s Southern University of Science and Technology.
At the same time, Chen received more than $19 million in U.S. government grants awarded to fund his research at MIT. He allegedly transferred some results from his MIT projects to the Chinese.
Prosecutors decided to drop their case against the professor when they recently received new information from the Energy Department indicating Chen lacked the intent for the crimes he was accused of committing.
MIT officials who spoke out to defend Chen said his collaboration with the Southern University of Science and Technology was between departments of the two universities. The Chinese grant money went to a group of researchers that merely included Chen, they said.
The official notice of dismissal filed in federal court in Boston and signed by U.S. Attorney Rachael Rollins said, “As a result of our continued investigation, the government obtained additional information bearing on the materiality of the defendant’s alleged omissions. Having assessed the evidence as a whole in light of that information, the government can no longer meet its burden of proof at trial. Dismissal of the indictment is therefore in the interests of justice.”
Chen’s attorney, Robert Fisher, said the professor wanted to return to his work now that he was cleared of wrongdoing.
“Our defense was this: Gang did not commit any of the offenses he was charged with,” Fisher said in a statement. “Full stop. He was never in a talent program. He was never an overseas scientist for Beijing. He disclosed everything he was supposed to disclose and he never lied to the government or anyone else.”
The talent program Fisher mentioned is an apparent reference to China’s Thousand Talents program that sought to bring in foreign scientists for academic and research projects.
One of them was Harvard University chemistry professor Charles Lieber, who was convicted in December of lying about his participation in the Thousand Talents program.
Prosecutors said the Wuhan University of Technology paid Lieber as much as $50,000 per month, living expenses as high as $150,000 and awarded him more than $1.5 million to establish a research lab at the university.
More than a third of the China Initiative prosecutions against college professors have been dismissed, according to Asian Pacific American Justice, a watchdog group against the racial profiling of Asians.
Another highly publicized dismissal was in September in the case of Anming Hu, a University of Tennessee professor accused of concealing his relationship with a Chinese university while he received NASA research grants.
Rollins, the U.S. attorney, recently declined to defend the China Initiative in response to media inquiries. She would say only that the future of the program depends on decisions by top Justice Department officials.
The Justice Department described the China Initiative as a “sweeping effort” to defend against Chinese espionage into American businesses and research when the program started in November 2018. It was supposed to eliminate spies and to stop the transfer of proprietary trade information and technology to China.
A Justice Department statement said, “the Initiative focuses on protecting our critical infrastructure against external threats through foreign direct investment and supply chain compromises, as well as combatting covert efforts to influence the American public and policymakers without proper transparency.”
The case is U.S. v. Chen, case number 1:21-cr-10018, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts.
Tom can be reached at [email protected]