CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — It was President Donald Trump’s last full week in office, so Andrew Lelling, the federal prosecutor in Boston, knew he had limited time left in his job. But there was one more important arrest to announce, one that would burnish his record on a key initiative for Trump’s administration.
Police that morning had arrested Gang Chen, a professor of mechanical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, on suspicion of hiding affiliations with Chinese government institutions in order to secure $19 million in U.S. federal grants.
Chen’s prosecution was the latest in the Justice Department’s two-year-old China Initiative, which aims to root out research scientists passing sensitive technology to China.
At a news conference that morning, Lelling said he believed that Chen, 56, who became a naturalized U.S. citizen two decades ago, had remained loyal to the country of his birth.
“The allegations of the complaint imply that this was not just about greed, but about loyalty to China,” he said.
In the 10 days since Chen’s arrest, his colleagues have publicly protested, arguing that prosecutors have overreached, blurring the line between disclosure violations and more serious crimes, like espionage or intellectual property theft.
More than 160 members of the MIT faculty have signed a letter arguing that the Chinese affiliations Chen is accused of hiding were routine academic activities, such as reviewing grant proposals, and not ones that clearly required disclosure.
The university itself has challenged one of the prosecution’s assertions, saying that $19 million in Chinese funding cited in the criminal complaint was not granted to Chen individually, but was part of a well-publicized collaboration that Chen helped to broker between MIT and a Chinese research center.
Chen has pleaded not guilty and was released on $1 million bond. MIT is paying for his legal defense, something that has not occurred in similar cases, including that of a Harvard professor, Charles Lieber, who was charged last year with hiding his Chinese funding sources.
The Biden administration has signaled it will maintain a tough line on Chinese intellectual property theft, and scores of investigations are underway.
“To put this threat into perspective, we have now reached the point where the FBI is opening a new China-related counterintelligence investigation about every 10 hours,” said Joseph Bonavolonta, the FBI’s Boston special agent in charge.
But some scholars say the China Initiative — which so far has led to charges against about 10 U.S. academics and six visiting research scientists — should reconsider criminal prosecutions that are based solely on disclosure of foreign funding.
“There are many elements of this criminal complaint that appear to be genuinely troubling,” said Elsa Kania, an adjunct senior fellow in the technology and national security program at the Center for a New American Security, of the Chen case. “These charges, absent other evidence, don’t appear to justify such a drastic response.”
The Wall Street Journal last week reported that Justice Department officials are considering the introduction of an amnesty program that would allow academics in the United States to disclose past foreign funding without risking a criminal investigation. High-level officials have circulated a draft proposal along these lines, the newspaper reported.
An eye-popping charge
The case presented against Chen on Jan. 14 was eye-popping, in part because of the sums involved.
Prosecutors said Chen, who is known for his work on nanoscale heat-conduction physics, had received $19 million in U.S. grants since 2013, while simultaneously receiving $29 million in foreign funding, including $19 million from a research university funded by the Chinese government.
“The real victims in these cases are you, the taxpayers,” Bonavolonta said at the news conference. “We believe he knowingly and willingly defrauded at least $19 million in federal grants by exploiting our systems to enhance China’s research in nanotechnology, in applying for scarce federal grants.”
Though receiving grant money from China is legal, failing to disclose Chinese affiliations to the U.S. government can lead to charges of wire fraud or false statements.
The charges detailed in an indictment filed five days later were more limited.
There were two counts of wire fraud related to disclosure. In 2017, prosecutors said, when applying for a $2.7 million grant from the Energy Department, Chen had failed to disclose five affiliations — he served as a “review expert” for China’s National Science Foundation and a “fourth overseas expert consultant” to the Chinese government, for instance. Then, in a progress report in 2019, he failed to list those and three new Chinese affiliations, including one that pledged to pay him $355,715, the indictment says.
A third and fourth charge were more straightforward: Chen had failed in 2018 tax filings, the indictment says, to declare a Chinese bank account containing more than $10,000, as required by law.
Lelling acknowledged that Chen was not accused of passing any sensitive information to China.
“It’s about fraud and about the tax charges,” he said. “The complaint affidavit does not go into whether or not sensitive information was, in fact, conveyed from Professor Chen to China. I can say more broadly that the strategy the Chinese use is to foster these research collaborations by lavishly funding the work of foreign scientists.”
In an interview last year, Lelling, who serves on the Justice Department’s China Initiative steering committee, said he hoped that high-profile prosecutions would have a pervasive effect in academia, pressing researchers to comply with disclosure laws.
“Having a chilling effect on international collaboration is not the goal, so that is a downside,” he said. “The upside is, now this is out there. Now the academic community knows that the federal government is serious about enforcement in this area.”
‘He is very good at getting money’
Zhigang Suo, a colleague and friend of Chen, said it had been clear for almost a year that federal investigators were preparing a case against him.
Last year, upon returning to Boston after a trip to China, Chen was questioned by immigration officials, who seized his laptop and phone, said Suo, a professor of engineering and applied science at Harvard.
What made Chen vulnerable, Suo said, is that raising money, including from China, was a major element of his job at MIT, especially between 2013 and 2018, when he served as the director of the university’s Department of Mechanical Engineering.
“He is an exceptionally distinguished researcher,” Suo said. “He was very good with getting money.”
During that period, Chen became the public face of MIT’s collaboration with SUSTech, a research center founded by the local government in Shenzhen. The deal, Suo said, accomplished two things at once: It allowed the Chinese to advance their research in nanotechnology, and also provided MIT with money for its own researchers.
“Of course, the intention is to help the Chinese, but the ultimate goal is to get money for MIT,” he said. “In this case, MIT knew. They signed off on this big deal. The president signed off on this big deal.”
Rafael Reif, president of MIT, released a statement last week noting that the $19 million in funds provided by the collaboration with SUSTech were not provided to Chen individually, but to MIT.
“While Professor Chen is its inaugural MIT faculty director, this is not an individual collaboration; it is a departmental one, supported by the institute,” the statement said.
The $19 million in Chinese funding related to the SUSTech project, though highlighted in the criminal complaint, was not mentioned in the criminal indictment that was filed five days later.
If academics have protested more vigorously on Chen’s behalf than in previous cases, it is because the activities Chen is accused of hiding struck his colleagues as ordinary ones, said Yasheng Huang, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management.
“These are the things we academics do every single day — writing letters of recommendation, raising money to support research,” Huang said.
He said researchers found themselves trapped by a policy shift on the part of the U.S. government, which in past years encouraged collaboration with Chinese institutions without aggressively scrutinizing potential conflicts.
“The policy has changed,” he said. “Previously, the things you were doing were OK. Now they are not OK. I think there are legitimate national security concerns, but to criminalize normal academic conduct is not a way to solve national security problems.”
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