Lelling and Joseph R. Bonavolonta, the FBI special agent in charge of the bureau’s Boston office, briefed reporters on the case during a news conference Tuesday. Lellling declined to comment when asked whether the three defendants’ cases were connected in any way.
“Chinese economic espionage and theft is a real and daily occurrence that we must begin to confront,” Lelling said.
His words were echoed by Bonavolonta. “The Chinese government‘s goal … is to replace the United States as the world superpower and it’s breaking the law to get there,” Bonavolonta said, adding that China “wants what we have so they can gain the upper hand.”
Prosecutors said that Lieber since 2008 has led the Lieber Research Group at Harvard, which specializes in nanoscience and has collected more than $15 million in grant funding from the National Institutes of Health and Department of Defense. Grant recipients must disclose any significant foreign financial conflicts of interest, including funding from foreign governments, according to Lelling’s office.
Harvard was unaware that Lieber in 2011 became a so-called “Strategic Scientist” at Wuhan University of Technology (WUT) in China, and that he had a contract to participate in China’s Thousand Talents Plan.
Prosecutors described the plan as “one of the most prominent Chinese Talent 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.”
Such plans seek to “lure Chinese overseas talent and foreign experts to bring their knowledge and experience to China and reward individuals for stealing proprietary information,” Lelling’s office said.
Harvard University said Tuesday that Lieber has been placed on paid administrative leave.
“The charges brought by the U.S. government against Professor Lieber are extremely serious,” the university said in a statement. “Harvard is cooperating with federal authorities, including the National Institutes of Health, and is initiating its own review of the alleged misconduct.”
Prosecutors said Lieber’s contract with the Chinese university was lucrative.
“Under the terms of Lieber’s three-year Thousand Talents contract, WUT paid Lieber $50,000 USD per month, living expenses of up to 1,000,000 Chinese Yuan (approximately $158,000 USD at the time) and awarded him more than $1.5 million to establish a research lab at WUT,” Lelling’s office said. “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.”
He allegedly lied to the US government in 2018 and 2019, prosecutors said.
“On or about, April 24, 2018, during an interview with [Defense Department] investigators, Lieber stated that he was never asked to participate in the Thousand Talents Program, but he ‘wasn’t sure’ how China categorized him,” Lelling’s office said. “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 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.”
An affidavit filed in the case included an e-mail that Lieber allegedly sent to a research associate affiliated with the Lieber Research Group two days after the April 2018 interview with the Defense Department investigators.
“Can you also provide me with the link/info to [China Academy of Sciences] where I am listed as directing (?) that lab at Wuhan?” Lieber wrote. “I lost a lot of sleep worrying about all of these things last night and want to start taking steps to correct sooner than later. I will be careful about what I discuss with Harvard University, and none of this will be shared with government investigators at this time.”
The Thousand Talents Program has recently come under scrutiny, with critics saying it encourages economic espionage and theft of intellectual property, Bloomberg News reported in December.
A report from the Senate Homeland Security’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations alleged that the program encourages researchers in the United States to transmit their knowledge and research to China, which “unfairly uses the American research and expertise it obtains for its own economic and military gain.”
Ye, 29, faces one count each of visa fraud, making false statements, acting as an agent of a foreign government and conspiracy, Lelling’s office said.
“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 [Chinese Communist Party],” Lelling’s office said. It is further 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 completing numerous assignments from PLA officers such as conducting research, assessing U.S. military websites and sending U.S. documents and information to China.”
She also allegedly lied to federal agents on April 20 at 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,” Lelling’s office said. “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.”
In addition, Lelling’s office said, “a review of a WeChat conversation revealed that Ye and the other PLA official from NUDT were collaborating 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.”
Zheng, 30, was arrested Dec. 10 at Logan Airport.
He is accused of “attempting to smuggle 21 vials of biological research to China,” Lelling’s office said. “On Jan. 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. He has been detained since Dec. 30, 2019.”
Lieber, a native of Philadelphia, is described in a 2017 Harvard magazine item as “a pioneer in the creation of bio-compatible electronics” who has made “stunning advances.”
According to his lab’s website, he has been a “pioneer in nanoscience and nanotechnology.”
The website says he attended Franklin and Marshall College as an undergraduate, and studied for his doctorate at Stanford University, moving to the East Coast in 1987 to become an assistant professor at Columbia University. He moved to Harvard in 1991.
He shared in a $500,000 Welch Foundation award with another scientist in September. The foundation lauded him at the time for providing “seminal concepts central to the bottom-up paradigm of nanoscience” and being a “leader in the application of nanomaterials.”
Lieber’s bio on his lab website lists a long series of awards and memberships in prestigious societies. It also says he is co-editor of the journal Nano Letters as well as on the editorial and advisory boards of a number of other journals.
The site says he has published over 400 papers and is the principal inventor on more than 50 patents. He also founded a nanotechnology company, Nanosys Inc., in 2001, and a nanosensor company, Vista Therapeutics, in 2007.
This is a breaking news story that will be updated. Martin Finucane of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.