Earlier this year, Harvard University chemist Charles Lieber appeared in a Massachusetts courtroom shackled and wearing an orange jumpsuit. Charged with fraud over his collaborations with China, Lieber was told by a federal judge that he was considered a “serious flight risk” and was ordered to pay a $1 million bail bond to secure his release. The image of a prominent chemist incarcerated over felony charges sent a shock wave through the science community.
After years of funding agencies and universities encouraging collaborations with China, the crackdown on scientists who do collaborate seems sudden—and scary.
But it’s not new, not only for scientists like Lieber with collaborators in China, but also for scientists of Chinese origin working in the US. Since the 1950s, Asian American scientists have faced suspicions or even charges of spying for China. Some cases involved real espionage or fraud, but in many others, charges were later downgraded or dismissed.
“The tension over science is reflective of broader tensions between China and the US,” says Mara Hvistendahl, author of the new book The Scientist and the Spy, which details the US Federal Bureau of Investigation’s extreme efforts to catch a scientist accused of passing agricultural trade secrets to China. “At moments when the two countries are at odds, science and technology become flash points.”
This is clearly one of those moments. The Donald J. Trump administration laid out its plans for trade sanctions against China in 2016, and tensions have only escalated since. For scientists, the turning point might have been the US Department of Justice’s 2018 announcement of the China Initiative, a program aimed at curbing espionage efforts, including in academia.
That initiative led to the Lieber indictment. The Chinese government is “enticing US researchers to collaborate with the Chinese as a way of initiating the transfer of US technology to China,” says Andrew Lelling, the US attorney for the District of Massachusetts, who is prosecuting Lieber. “If you are collaborating with any Chinese entity, whether it’s a university or a business, you are giving that technology to the Chinese government.”
While the China Initiative targets espionage, actual charges against academics have been primarily for grant fraud. That is true for Lieber, who is charged with lying to federal agencies about money he received as part of China’s Thousand Talents program. It’s also true for Feng “Franklin” Tao, a University of Kansas chemist first charged in August 2019 with wire fraud and program fraud. Both cases are ongoing.
Scrutiny of Chinese collaborations likely won’t end anytime soon. FBI agents have been surprising scientists in their university labs, at their homes, or even at the airport as they head out for meetings. The National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and other agencies have started strictly enforcing reporting requirements for international funding and collaborations.
Going forward, scientists should expect to answer questions about their work, whether it be in the US or in China. “You don’t have to be Chinese. Anybody who collaborates with Chinese colleagues could become a target of the FBI,” says Temple University physics professor Xiaoxing Xi. “Once you become a target, everything you’re doing—your life—will be under the microscope.”
In 2015, FBI agents barged into Xi’s house and arrested him in front of his family. “I had no idea this was coming,” he says.
Xi was charged with sharing proprietary information with China. But the FBI overreached. Charges against Xi were dropped after several scientists submitted statements that the information he shared was public. He is now suing the FBI, saying it falsified evidence. “I would never have imagined that the government would charge somebody with no truth in their evidence. I just simply couldn’t imagine that,” Xi says.
The FBI’s focus on academic science is misplaced, Xi says. Journals require that scientists report sufficient details so work can be reproduced, and patent offices require similar detail to demonstrate that technology is unique. “They don’t have to steal. They can read your paper,” he says.
The FBI, Xi says, has “absolutely no understanding about how science is done, and they have absolutely no understanding what has made America a leader in the world in science and technology”—open international collaboration.
Chinese students have been part of that exchange since well before the Chinese communist revolution in 1949, says science historian Zuoyue Wang, a professor at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. When President Richard Nixon reopened diplomatic relations with China in 1972, scientists were among the first Americans to reach out to their Chinese counterparts.
Since then, Chinese students have come to the US in growing numbers to train as scientists. Some went back, but many stayed and became part of the US scientific establishment. “When US and China collaborations started, China was at such a low level scientifically and technologically that there was no concern that China would be a big competitor to the US,” Wang says.
But that doesn’t mean everything went smoothly, says Frank Wu, a legal historian at the University of California Hastings College of the Law. “It doesn’t matter how many generations you’ve been here or your family has been here. You’re still looked at as, ‘Oh, you’re really from somewhere else; you’re really loyal to some other nation,” he says.
Starting in the 1950s, Chinese scientists became targets of US scrutiny. Author Hvistendahl has uncovered FBI documents showing that during the Cold War, the FBI had a program dedicated to surveilling Chinese American scientists, including those who were US citizens.
In the 1980s, politicians and some national security experts put intense pressures on the government to restrict international collaborations, including those with China, Wang says. But the administration of President Ronald Reagan eventually adopted regulations promoting international collaboration.
Accusations against scientists of Chinese origin resurfaced in the late 1990s. In 1999, Los Alamos National Laboratory physicist Wen Ho Lee was charged with sending US nuclear secrets to China and held in solitary confinement for 9 months. The charges were later reduced to a single count of downloading classified information, and the federal judge overseeing his case apologized to Lee for the treatment he received. The US government also paid Lee $895,000 to settle a lawsuit claiming that leaks about the case violated his privacy.
In recent decades, as China’s scientific knowledge and spending have grown, many US universities and agencies encouraged collaboration to facilitate access to the research there and promote global scientific advancement. US scientists of Chinese descent were often asked to make those connections because of their language skills and cultural affiliation, Wang says. Scientists of both Western and Chinese origin saw inclusion in China’s Thousand Talents program as a badge of honor just a few years ago. Now the FBI is suspicious of anyone involved in the Chinese government program to connect Chinese scientists with top researchers in Western countries.
“This conduct was encouraged until recently. Then it became tolerated, then became frowned upon, and now it’s criminal,” Wu says. “It’s hard to imagine such a dramatic change, but it correlates to the deterioration of US-China relations.”
In recent years, as the Trump administration pushed forward with a trade war with China, the FBI has increasingly raised concerns about research security.
When China has achieved technological advances, “there’s been a tendency to assume that they’re products of theft, particularly by immigrant scientists,” Hvistendahl says. “It’s pretty complicated because the Chinese government does target ethnic Chinese researchers, but there are many people who don’t have any interest in giving up secrets.”
Announced with fanfare by Attorney General Jeff Sessions in 2018, the US Department of Justice’s China Initiative was designed to target economic espionage. The initial focus was on protecting intellectual property, which led to many charges of corporate espionage and theft of industrial intellectual property.
But now the scope has expanded to include universities and academic scientists. For academics, that primarily means prosecuting people who have lied about their contacts with China, US Attorney Lelling says. “The concern there is transparency. If you’re collaborating with the Chinese, that can be perfectly legal. But you can’t lie about it.”
Several federal science agencies have tried to say the crackdown isn’t about any particular country. Lelling, however, says it is a “China-specific problem” but that calling it racism is “ridiculous.”
“We happen to be locked in a rivalry with a nation-state that is composed almost 100% of Han Chinese. So, unfortunately, a disproportional number of your targets are going to be Han Chinese. If we were locked in a global rivalry with France, a disproportional number would be from France,” he says. “We’re not looking for people based on their ethnicity; we’re looking for the conduct.”
Temple University’s Xi was one of those caught up in that initial push into academia, and the Department of Justice has pursued several other cases as well.
“There are real cases of people at universities and in the private sector who have behaved badly and broken American laws,” Wu, the legal historian, says. “Those individuals should be investigated, prosecuted, and punished. But there seem to be an awful lot of false positives. They haven’t done anything wrong.”
Lelling acknowledges that sometimes prosecutors get it wrong. “The error rate for this initiative is no worse than the error rate for any other aggressive law enforcement,” he says.
Over time, Lelling says, the number of erroneous charges will go down as FBI agents and prosecutors learn more about how science works, in part by increasing cooperation with universities. “The investigators involved have to build their own expertise in the underlying activity. And I think you see that here,” he says.
At a meeting hosted by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities last month, several vice presidents for research confirmed their relationships with law enforcement are improving.
Mark McLellan from the University of North Texas had been on the job 100 days by the time of the meeting, and he had already had two meetings with the FBI and one with the local Department of Justice office, he said. His goal is to make sure law enforcement officials feel comfortable reaching out to universities if someone there is under suspicion.
At the same time, McLellan wants to make sure law enforcement understands the university’s mission. The University of North Texas is a “research institution that wants to be global, that wants to be welcoming and engaged, but also in compliance.”
With frequent news of researchers losing their jobs or being prosecuted over ties with China, scientists are scared. And legal experts say that deficiencies in reporting relationships with Chinese institutions exist.
“I do think it’s a real problem. I don’t think it’s isolated. I think that things will get worse before they get better,” says Valerie Bonham, a lawyer with the firm Ropes & Gray and a former senior adviser at the US National Institutes of Health.
Bonham has been speaking at universities around the country, advising scientists about how to work in the current environment. Scientists should be looking carefully at their ongoing relationships, especially with China, she says. They should make sure that when they enter into a collaboration, they’re comfortable disclosing the terms to their universities, funding agencies, or law enforcement. “If folks do that, then they don’t have a reporting problem,” she says.
Prosecutor Lelling agrees. Lieber is charged with lying to federal investigators about his affiliation with the Thousand Talents program and funding he received from Wuhan University of Technology. He’s not charged with selling trade secrets or spying for the Chinese government. “That distinction is important,” Lelling says.
Not all scientists collaborating with foreign colleagues or working in China need to worry. At Tianjin University, Jay Siegel, dean of pharmaceutical science and technology, says his school has worked hard to be sure its many foreign collaborators—including those who are part of the Thousand Talents program—follow strict reporting rules.
“We have a very clear reporting structure and a series of memoranda of understanding with the universities where our experts come from,” Siegel says.
If a scientist didn’t disclose something in the past, the best course is to disclose it to the university as soon as possible, Bonham says. It will be easier to do that now, in this first phase of investigations. There’s been so much publicity about the crackdown that “moving forward, it will become harder to defend the claim that someone just didn’t know” about the rules, she says.
Dozens of Chinese Americans and others have reached out to Wu in recent months. His advice? “If you’ve had any contact with the Chinese talent program, be afraid, be very afraid,” he says. “Find yourself a good lawyer.”
Many scientists may think they haven’t done anything wrong or that the focus on China will just blow over. But Wu doesn’t see that happening anytime soon. If someone has run afoul of the rules, “it’s not the end of the world,” he says. “But if you don’t deal with it, it will just get worse.”
Additional reporting by Bethany Halford
This story was revised on March 18, 2021, to change the photo at the top of the story to one of Xiaoxing Xi rather than Charles Lieber. Also, language was added to clarify that Lieber was charged for lying about his collaborations in China rather than his national origin.