Government Investigations Continue To Uncover Chinese-backed Academic Espionage

Gene Naumovsky

A wave of government investigations point to large networks of undetected academic espionage.

Now nicknamed “Lurking Giants,” a network of federal investigations on academic espionage is sweeping college campuses, according to Newsweek. Last month Charles Lieber, Chair of Harvard University’s Chemistry and Chemical Biology Department, was arrested for trading U.S. research secrets with Chinese government organizations. Lieber violated both Harvard’s and the U.S. Department of Defense’s contracts by working with China. Receiving a $50,000 monthly stipend and $158,000 travel budget from the Chinese, Lieber traveled to his shadow lab at the Wuhan University of Technology. Lieber now faces up to 5 years in prison, as well as a $1 million bail package. On the same day, Yanqing Ye, a Boston University grad student was charged with visa fraud. Federal prosecutors uncovered Ye’s role as a top lieutenant in China’s People Liberation Army. Ye is believed to have fled to China and is under suspicion of supplying the PLA with U.S. military secrets.
The Higher Education Act states that academic institutions must report any foreign gifts over $250,000; yet, it has been proved that ten schools, including Cornell, Yale, and MIT, recently accepted more than $3.6 billion in foreign donations. The schools have now filed the appropriate paperwork, but the Department of Education is continuing investigations into Harvard and Yale’s use of funds.
Dubbed the “China Initiative,” the Department of Justice’s task force of U.S. Attorneys aims to find “foreign agents seeking to influence the American public and policymakers.” Many universities and colleges have already begun assembling legal teams to handle a looming crackdown on academic corruption and treason.
However, as investigators push deeper into these cases, some have raised concerns over the future treatment of Chinese academics in the US, as well as academics who communicate responsibly with China. Brian Kelly, a partner at Nixon Peabody in Boston, said: “Scientists who interact with China, especially in the Boston area and the academic world, are justifiably anxious as to where these ongoing probes will lead.”
Democratic Reps. Jamie Raskin of Maryland and California Congresswoman Judy Chu questioned FBI tactics in a letter to the agency. The officials wrote, “certainly there are authentic and legitimate cases of espionage that should be investigated,’ but they pointed to cases where Chinese researchers were arrested only to have the cases against them dropped."
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