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Last week, University Professor Charles M. Lieber was charged in federal court for “making materially false, fictitious and fraudulent statements” to U.S. government agencies. The lawsuit filed by the federal government claims that Lieber, who has since been placed on “indefinite” paid administrative leave, signed contracts beginning in 2011 to participate in China’s Thousand Talents Plan for personal financial gain.
But the issue at stake is larger than a professor hiding funding or personally receiving illegal payments for research — the TTP isn’t any old foreign entity. Established in 2008 by the Chinese government to bring in scientists from around the world, it has been deemed by the U.S. government to be a danger to national security. It’s not an isolated incident either. The Chinese government has been conducting a broader program of academic espionage against the U.S. and its research institutions. This espionage has most notably included attempts to insert Chinese scholars into research programs dealing with sensitive information.
Supplying sensitive information in this context is an especially grave offense given the Chinese government’s past record as an unethical actor. It’s not just intellectual property theft; the Chinese government has displayed political and military recklessness in the South China Sea and has gone so far as to perpetrate the internment and “re-education” of the Uighur ethnic group.
Lieber’s alleged acts run contrary to the spirit of our University and warrant clear denunciation — something Harvard has not explicitly or publicly offered. He not only undermines his own academic and civic integrity, but draws into question that of the University and scientific research more broadly. But given this broader context, Lieber’s case must be the beginning of a broader process of reflection.
Harvard must seek to carefully balance its first principles of open cultural exchange and the pursuit of knowledge, while also making sure that it has adequately safeguarded against similar cases. To that end and in response to the FBI and NIH launching national investigations into academic espionage this past year, Harvard has established two new oversight committees dedicated to reviewing sensitive research projects. But we ask still more. Harvard must not only address the actions and susceptibilities of its affiliates but its own institutional ties to a regime whose abuses go far beyond intellectual property theft. As we have previously opined, in cases where Harvard holds financial ties to ethically dubious regimes, the University must seriously consider the extent to which it serves to legitimize these actors and their abuses.
Yet still more broadly, we must ask what systemic factors have allowed the Chinese government to take advantage of American research institutions. After all, as of November, more than 70 research institutions were investigating potential cases of academic espionage, almost all of which involved Chinese researchers and scholars. It would seem that the increasing presence of
Chinese researchers and funding at U.S. institutions is partially being driven by the insufficient number of American-born scientists the U.S. produces. Perhaps one silver lining of the Lieber case will be increased consciousness about our own national deficiencies in this field.
While Harvard must condemn and combat China’s academic espionage, it is critical that the rhetoric denouncing the Chinese state and its actions does not devolve into blanket criticism or stereotyping of Chinese people. Chinese citizens are neither personally responsible for their government’s actions, nor do these individuals necessarily support them. Any totalizing Cold War rhetoric that attempts to erase this distinction would be not only morally reprehensible, but would also undermine the open pursuit of knowledge and innovation Harvard is supposed to champion. We must make a conscious effort to combat rhetoric and attitudes that generalize along racial or ethnic lines and which impede vital intellectual exchange.
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.
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