In late January 2020, as the Wuhan novel coronavirus began to gain international notoriety, the U.S. Department of Justice revealed that three individuals were caught trying to smuggle biological research materials abroad. They have been charged with helping the People's Republic of China.
A Justice Department bulletin dated January 28 announced that 60-year-old Dr. Charles Lieber, the Chair of Harvard University's Chemistry and Chemical Biology Department, and two Chinese nationals posing as students had been charged with multiple crimes.
Lieber had been arrested that morning and appeared later that day in federal court in Boston, Massachusetts, facing one count of making a materially false, fictitious and fraudulent statement.
Zaosong Zheng, 30, a Chinese national, was arrested on Dec. 10, 2019, at Logan International Airport in Boston, Massachusetts. He was charged with attempting to smuggle 21 vials of biological research to China. In detention since Dec. 30, 2019, on Jan. 21, 2020, Zheng was indicted on one count of smuggling goods from the U.S. and one count of making false, fictitious or fraudulent statements.
Yanqing Ye, 29, a Chinese national, was charged on January 28 with one count each of visa fraud, making false statements, acting as an agent of a foreign government, and conspiracy. Ye is currently in China, beyond the grasp of the U.S. justice system.
Court documents allege that Lieber, former Principal Investigator of the Lieber Research Group at Harvard University that specializes in nanoscience, received more than $15 million in grant funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Department of Defense (DOD), beginning in 2008. A condition of the federal research grants is the disclosure of "significant foreign financial conflicts of interest, including financial support from foreign governments or foreign entities."
In 2011, Lieber failed to inform his employer, Harvard University, that he had become a "Strategic Scientist" at Wuhan University of Technology (WUT) in China. The American was also under contract with the Chinese Thousand Talents Plan from approximately 2012 to 2017. According to the DoJ:
"China's Thousand Talents Plan is one of the most prominent Chinese Talent recruit 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. These 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."
WUT compensated Lieber $50,000 a month, living expenses up to about $158,000 (1 million Chinese Yuan), and more than $1.5 million to set up a research laboratory at WUT - China's COVID-19 epicenter. In exchange, the Harvard professor had 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" the technology university at Wuhan.
Sometime around April 24, 2018, during an interview with Justice Department investigators, Lieber denied that he was asked to join the Thousand Talents Program - but he "wasn't sure" how China classified him.
In November 2018, NIH asked Harvard if Lieber had disclosed his then-suspected relationship with WUT and China's Thousand Talents Plan? Harvard believed Lieber's lie and falsely told NIH that their employee "had no formal association with WUT" after 2012, that "WUT continued to falsely exaggerate" his involvement with WUT in subsequent years, and that Lieber "is not and has never been a participant in" China’s Thousand Talents Plan.
Ye holds the rank of Lieutenant in the People's Liberation Army (PLA), the armed forces of the People's Republic of China, and is a member of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Allegedly, Ye lied on her J-1 visa application, saying she was a student. She also denied her active engagement in military service at the National University of Defense Technology (NUDT), a top military academy directed by the CCP.
While a student at the Boston University (BU) Department of Physics, Chemistry and Biomedical Engineering from October 2017 to April 2019, PLA Lieutenant Ye continued to work and completed "numerous assignments from PLA officers such as conducting research, assessing U.S. military websites and sending U.S. documents and information to China."
On April 20, 2019, Ye told federal officers at Logan International Airport that she had nominal contact with two National University of Defense Technology (NUDT) professors, both high-ranking PLA officers. But a search of Ye's electronic devices proved this was a lie. A professor at NUDT, a PLA Colonel, had commanded her to access U.S. military secrets. In a WeChat conversation, the two conspirators plotted to work together on a research paper "about a risk assessment model designed to decipher data for military applications."
In August 2018, Zheng entered the U.S. on a J-1 visa and performed research on cancer cells at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston from September 4, 2018, to December 9, 2019. Allegedly, on December 9, 2019, Zheng stole 21 vials of biological research and tried to smuggle them out of the country on a flight bound for China.
Federal officers at Logan Airport found the vials - which were not properly packaged - hidden in a sock inside one of Zheng's bags. At first, Zheng lied about the contents of his luggage but later admitted that he had stolen the vials from a Beth Israel lab. Zheng stated he planned to import the vials into China for use in his laboratory research, publishing the results under his name.
If found guilty and convicted, the charge of making false, fictitious and fraudulent statements can be punished with up to five years in prison, three years of supervised release and a fine of $250,000.
The maximum penalty for the charge of visa fraud is 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 carries a possible sentence of up to 10 years in prison, three years of supervised release and a fine of $250,000.
The charge of conspiracy is punishable for 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 carries a sentence of up to 10 years in prison, three years of supervised release and a fine of $250,000.
The three cases are part of DoJ's China Initiative that gives top priority to countering Chinese national security threats and strengthening President Trump's national security program.