Harvard University professor accused of lying about ties to Chinese government

BOSTON (WHDH) - The head of Harvard University’s chemistry and chemical biology department, along with a pair of Chinese nationals, have been charged with aiding the People’s Republic of China, authorities announced Tuesday.

Dr. Charles Lieber, 60, was arrested Tuesday morning and charged by criminal complaint with making a materially false, fictitious and fraudulent statement, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Zaosong Zheng, 30, who was arrested at Logan Airport on Dec. 10, 2019, was charged with attempting to smuggle 21 vials of biological research to China, in addition to making false, fictitious or fraudulent statements.

Yanqing Ye, 29, was charged in an indictment with visa fraud, making false statements, acting as an agent of a foreign government, and conspiracy.

Lieber, who has worked at Harvard University since 1991, became a “strategic scientist” at China’s Wuhan University of Technology in 2011 and was a contractual participant in China’s Thousand Talents Plan from about 2012 to 2017, according to court documents. He also served as the principal investigator of the Lieber Research Group at Harvard University, specializing in the area of nanoscience. The group is said to have received more than $15 million in grant funding from the National Institutes of Health and Department of Defense.

The Thousand Talents Plan is said to be one of the most prominent recruitment plans that are designed to attract, recruit, and cultivate high-level scientific talent in furtherance of China’s scientific development, economic prosperity, and national security. Prosecutors say the programs seek to lure overseas talent and foreign experts to bring their knowledge and experience to China and reward individuals for stealing proprietary information.

The Wuhan University of Technology allegedly paid Lieber $50,000 per month, living expenses of up to 1,000,000 Chinese Yuan, and awarded him more than $1.5 million to establish a research lab at WUT.

Court documents indicate Lieber was obligated to work for WUT “not less than nine months a year” by “declaring international cooperation projects, cultivating young teachers and Ph.D. students, organizing international conference[s], applying for patents and publishing articles in the name of” WUT.

In 2018 and 2019, Lieber allegedly lied about his involvement in the Thousand Talents Plan and affiliation with WUT. During one interview with investigators, prosecutors say that Lieber stated that he was never asked to participate in the program but he “wasn’t sure” how China categorized him.

In a statement, Harvard University said, “The charges brought by the U.S. government against Professor Lieber are extremely serious. Harvard is cooperating with federal authorities, including the National Institutes of Health, and is initiating its own review of the alleged misconduct.  Professor Lieber has been placed on indefinite administrative leave.”

Zheng, who conducted cancer research at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center from Sept. 4, 2018, to Dec. 9, 2019, allegedly stole 21 vials of biological research and attempted to smuggle them out of the United States aboard a flight destined for China. Federal officers at Logan Airport reportedly discovered the vials hidden in a sock.

Zheng allegedly lied to officers about where the vials came from before admitting that they were taken from the lab. Prosecutors say he later stated that he intended to bring the vials to China to use them to conduct research in his own laboratory and publish the results under his own name.

Ye, who is a lieutenant of the People’s Liberation Army and a member of the Chinese Communist Party, falsely identified herself as a “student” on her visa and lied about her ongoing military service

While studying at Boston University, Ye allegedly completed numerous assignments from People’s Liberation Army officers, such as conducting research, assessing U.S. military websites, and sending U.S. documents and information to China.

Prosecutors say Ye later admitted to being a member of the People’s Liberation Army and the Chinese Communist Party.

Lieber is due to appear in federal court in Boston on Tuesday afternoon.

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