Even while being bombarded from all sides for months with urgent news about COVID-19 and now with non-stop reports of civil unrest, it is wise to remember that we are under attack from other quarters as well. Our nation’s adversaries are always looking for opportunities to exploit perceived vulnerabilities. China’s threat to U.S. intellectual property, while not new, is ongoing and increasing.
On June 5, the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division and Boston Field Office prepared an Academic Engagement Report (AER) to warn the Education Facilities Subsector regarding the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) information collection activities against U.S. entities for U.S. intellectual property. The Education Facilities Subsector covers pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade schools, higher education institutions, and business and trade schools. The subsector includes facilities that are owned by both government and private sector entities.
The FBI alleges that the PRC has exploited the student exchange program to send its military officials to the United States as students studying abroad. The United States is known for intellectual freedom and welcomes collaboration among researchers and educators from around the globe. The FBI urges U.S. universities and other academic institutions to remain vigilant and be aware of the ulterior motives of foreign adversaries while ensuring a continual exchange of ideas in an open and transparent environment.
The June 5 AER points to January 8, 2020 charges filed against the Chair of Harvard University’s Chemistry and Chemical Biology Department and two Chinese nationals. The FBI charged these individuals in connection with aiding the People’s Republic of China.
Dr. Charles Lieber, 60, Chair of the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Harvard University, was arrested and charged by criminal complaint with one count of making a materially false, fictitious, and fraudulent statement.
Yanqing Ye, 29, a Chinese national, was charged in an indictment with one count each of visa fraud, making false statements, acting as an agent of a foreign government and conspiracy. At the time of the charges, Ye was in China.
Zaosong Zheng, 30, a Chinese national, was arrested on December 10, 2019, at Boston’s Logan International Airport and charged by criminal complaint with attempting to smuggle 21 vials of biological research to China. On January 21, 2020, Zheng was indicted on one count of smuggling goods from the United States and one count of making false, fictitious, or fraudulent statements.
According to The United States Department of Justice Office of Public Affairs, court documents show that since 2008 Dr. Lieber, who has served as the Principal Investigator of the Lieber Research Group at Harvard University, has received more than $15,000,000 in grant funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Department of Defense (DOD). The Lieber Research Group specialized in the area of nanoscience. These grants require the disclosure of significant foreign financial conflicts of interest, including financial support from foreign governments or foreign entities.
Without Hardvard University’s knowledge, beginning in 2011, Lieber became a “Strategic Scientist” at Wuhan University of Technology (WUT) in China and was a participant in China’s Thousand Talents Plan from about 2012 to 2017. China’s Thousand Talents Plan is one of the most prominent Chinese Talent recruit plans. It is designed to attract, recruit, and cultivate high-level scientific talent in furtherance of China’s scientific development, economic prosperity, and national security. China’s talent programs seek to lure Chinese overseas talent and foreign experts to bring their knowledge and experience to China and reward individuals for stealing proprietary information.
Under the terms of Lieber’s three-year Thousand Talents contract, WUT paid Lieber $50,000 per month, living expenses of up to 1,000,000 Chinese Yuan (approximately $158,000 at the time), and awarded him more than $1.5 million to establish a research lab at WUT. In return, 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.
The complaint alleges that in 2018 and 2019, Lieber lied about his involvement in the Thousand Talents Plan and affiliation with WUT. On or about April 24, 2018, during an interview with investigators, Lieber stated that he was never asked to participate in the Thousand Talents Program, but he “wasn’t sure” how China categorized him. In November 2018, NIH inquired of Harvard whether Lieber had failed to disclose his then-suspected relationship with WUT and China’s Thousand Talents Plan. Lieber caused Harvard to falsely tell NIH that Lieber “had no formal association with WUT” after 2012, that “WUT continued to exaggerate” his involvement with WUT in subsequent years falsely, and that Lieber “is not and has never been a participant in” China’s Thousand Talents Plan.
According to the indictment, Ye is a Lieutenant of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the armed forces of the People’s Republic of China, and a member of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). On her J-1 visa application, Ye falsely identified herself as a “student” and lied about her ongoing military service at the National University of Defense Technology (NUDT), a top military academy directed by the CCP.
It is alleged that while studying at Boston University’s (BU) Department of Physics, Chemistry, and Biomedical Engineering from October 2017 to April 2019, Ye continued to work as a PLA Lieutenant. She completed numerous assignments from PLA officers, such as conducting research, assessing U.S. military websites, and sending U.S. documents and information to China.
To obtain a student visa, Ye made false statements on her visa application by failing to disclose her active military service at the PLA-affiliated National University of Defense Technology (NUDT). The Chinese Scholarship Council, an affiliate of the PRC Ministry of Education, sponsored Ye’s studies in the Department of Physics, Chemistry, and Biomedical Engineering. During her studies, Ye continued to remain in contact with PLA officers in China. She continued to fulfill her army duties by conducting research on machine learning and data mining, accessing U.S. military websites that are inaccessible from China, and sending U.S. military research documents back to the PRC. Ye also compiled information on two U.S. scientists with expertise in robotics and computer science at the direction of the PLA. She provided PLA officers with university account log-in credentials.
According to court documents, on April 20, 2019, federal officers interviewed Ye at Boston’s Logan International Airport. During the interview, it is alleged that Ye falsely claimed that she had minimal contact with two NUDT professors who were high-ranking PLA officers. However, a search of Ye’s electronic devices demonstrated that at the direction of one NUDT professor, who was a PLA Colonel, Ye had accessed U.S. military websites, researched U.S. military projects, and compiled information for the PLA on two U.S. scientists with expertise in robotics and computer science.
Furthermore, a WeChat conversation review revealed that Ye and the other PLA officials from NUDT collaborated on a research paper about a risk assessment model designed to decipher data for military applications. During the interview, Ye admitted that she held the rank of Lieutenant in the PLA and admitted she was a member of the CCP.
In August 2018, Zheng entered the United States on a J-1 visa and conducted cancer-cell research at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston from September 4, 2018, to December 9, 2019. It is alleged that on December 9, 2019, Zheng 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 discovered the vials hidden in a sock inside one of Zheng’s bags, and not properly packaged.
It is alleged that initially, Zheng lied to officers about the contents of his luggage, but later admitted he had stolen the vials from a lab at Beth Israel. Zheng 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.
The charge of making false, fictitious, and fraudulent statements provides for a sentence of up to five years in prison, three years of supervised release and a fine of $250,000. The charge of visa fraud provides for a sentence of up to 10 years in prison, three years of supervised release, and a fine of $250,000. The charge of acting as an agent of a foreign government can carry a sentence of up to 10 years in prison, three years of supervised release and a fine of $250,000. The charge of conspiracy provides for a sentence of up to five years in prison, three years of supervised release and a fine of $250,000. The charge of smuggling goods from the United States provides for a sentence of up to 10 years in prison, three years of supervised release and a fine of $250,000. Sentences are imposed by a federal district court judge based upon the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors.
The FBI maintains that this case is part of the PRC’s increased efforts to take advantage of universities’ openness to strengthen the PRC’s military. Academic institutions can take steps—such as monitoring network activity for abuse and obtaining threat briefings from the FBI—to help minimize the risk to our national security from foreign adversaries.
The FBI asks the Education Facilities Subsector that if they become aware of any misuse of institutional resources that may violate U.S. laws, please contact the local FBI Private Sector Coordinator at the nearest FBI Field Office: https://www.fbi.gov/contact-us/field-offices.
Steven Bowcut is an award-winning journalist covering cyber and physical security. He is an editor and writer for Brilliance Security Magazine as well as other security and non-security online publications. Follow and connect with Steve on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn.