The Arrest of a Harvard Professor

Experts say the "academic espionage" case of Charles M. Lieber, the former chair of Harvard's Chemistry department, speaks volumes to souring U.S.-China relations.
By Camille G. Caldera
By Ethan Lee and Andy Z. Wang

Until the beginning of this year, Chemistry Department Chair Charles M. Lieber — who had been appointed a University Professor, Harvard’s highest faculty honor, in 2017 — was primarily known as a celebrated chemist and renowned nanoscientist.

Since late January, however, he has been thrust into a larger spotlight, awaiting trial after being federally charged with providing fraudulent statements to U.S. government officials in relation to undisclosed work with the Chinese government.

On January 28, Lieber was arrested on one count of lying to the U.S. Department of Defense and the National Institutes of Health about his involvement with the Wuhan University of Technology and the Thousand Talents Plan, a research recruitment program funded by the Chinese government.

In a press release, the U.S. Department of Justice described the TTP as a Chinese initiative that aims to “lure Chinese overseas talent and foreign experts to bring their knowledge and experience to China and reward individuals for stealing proprietary information.”

Charging documents accused Lieber of signing a five-year contract with WUT as a “strategic scientist” in November 2011 and a three-year contract with the TTP in June 2012. His responsibilities included publishing papers and organizing conferences in the name of WUT, accepting several WUT students as visiting scholars, and organizing a Harvard-WUT joint research laboratory in Wuhan. Lieber was offered up to $50,000 per month contingent on his work time in China, living expenses of around $158,000 over three years, and approximately $1.74 million in research funds for the joint laboratory.

The affidavit described Lieber’s primary charges as his false claim to the Department of Defense that he had never been recruited by the TTP, and a fraudulent interview with Harvard authorities, which led the University to misinform the NIH that Lieber had not been associated with WUT since 2012 and was never a member of the TTP.

U.S. Attorney Andrew E. Lelling said in an interview with Science magazine that his primary concern with Lieber’s case was the large payments involved in the contracts.

“It was the amount of money involved that drew our attention,” Lelling said. “That is a corrupting level of money.”

Marc L. Mukasey, Lieber’s trial counsel, refuted any claims of dishonesty against Lieber in an emailed statement to The Crimson.

“There is nothing corrupt about Charlie Lieber,” he wrote.

Lieber was released after accepting a $1 million bail agreement and surrendering his and his wife’s U.S. passports. Harvard placed him on paid administrative leave, and he has since been replaced as Chemistry department chair by interim co-chairs Theodore A. Betley and Daniel Kahne.

Lieber’s reputation has since become closely linked to his interactions with China, at times even leading to false conspiracy theories online suggesting that Lieber created and sold the novel coronavirus.

Mukasey wrote that such claims are baseless and “brainless.”

“Theories linking him to the coronavirus are 1,000% false,” Mukasey wrote. “That’s the brainless musing of morons on social media.”

Lieber, meanwhile, has maintained his innocence as he awaits trial. Mukasey wrote that he plans to prove Lieber is the victim in this case and not the perpetrator.

“Professor Lieber has dedicated his life to science and to his students. Not money, not fame, just his science and his students,” Mukasey wrote. “But he’s also a fighter — he always has been — so we’re not taking this lying down. We’re fighting back.”

“And when justice is done, Charlie’s good name will be restored and the scientific community again will be able to benefit from his intellect and passion,” he added.


At the heart of Lieber’s case is his involvement in the Thousand Talents Plan — and his subsequent failure to disclose TTP funding to Harvard and U.S. government officials.

Founded in 2008, the TTP offers funding to attract skilled academics and researchers to Chinese institutions.

“The Thousand Talent Program that was mentioned as part of the case at Harvard has been quite fabulous and popular,” said Maria Repnikova, the director of the Center for Global Information Studies at Georgia State University. “They are attracting these individuals with resources and creating an environment for them that might not be feasible to create in some of the Western universities.”

In the charging documents against Lieber, FBI agent Robert Plumb described the TTP as a program that “incentivizes” U.S. researchers to transmit knowledge gained in the U.S. to China.

“The Chinese Talent programs have rewarded individuals for stealing proprietary information and violating export controls,” Plumb wrote.

Several academics said such academic recruitment is typical within the field of higher education.

“Harvard is home to many of the leading scholars in the world,” said Michael A. Szonyi, the director of the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard. “And so if you were trying to build a world-class department or world-class laboratory, it only makes sense that you would try to recruit the skills and talents of people from Harvard.”

China studies professor William C. Kirby, who also chairs the Harvard China Fund, said attracting distinguished talent is a fundamental characteristic of higher education institutions.

“Recruitment and retention is what universities do. You do not want a faculty that nobody else wants. Otherwise you’ve got the wrong faculty,” Kirby said. “So if somebody is not trying to steal your faculty, you have the wrong faculty.”

In an emailed statement to The Crimson, Ross McKinney Jr., the Chief Scientific Officer of the Association of American Medical Colleges, wrote that Chinese-based faculty recruitment works similarly to U.S.-based faculty recruitment.

“China is trying to acquire talent, which is no different than Harvard trying to recruit from Yale,” McKinney wrote. “It’s not my impression their search is limited to U.S. universities. They’re happy to recruit talent from wherever good science is happening.”

The U.S. government, however, has accused the TTP of stealing proprietary information and knowledge from U.S. institutions. In July 2019, the U.S. Department of Energy barred all researchers from participating in the TTP. Subsequently, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security declared the program a threat to American interests.

Some familiar with the TTP were reluctant to label its practices as academic espionage.

Tim Byrnes, a physics professor at New York University Shanghai and a member of the TTP, said the program’s system of offering increased funding to top researchers is not dissimilar from other international grant programs.

“This type of system where adding top-ups and adding extra amounts of money, I would say, is not unheard of,” he said. “It’s not a completely China-only type of phenomenon.”

Szonyi, however, noted that disclosure is essential to academic collaboration. Typically, university personnel must report all funding sources for academic ventures outside of their home university; Harvard, for instance, requires faculty to disclose outside funding to the Office of the Vice Provost for Research.

“I think that it’s not right to call [the TTP] espionage. That is simply Chinese universities trying to engage with the leading scholars in the world,” Szonyi said. “To the extent that I’ve worried that that is a gray area, there are actually people at Harvard whose full time job is to receive and evaluate my disclosures.”

Kirby added that there is no coercive element to participation in the TTP.

“First of all, the last that I understood, there actually is freedom of movement in this country and people are free to choose where they would work,” he said. “So no one is being kidnapped, no one is being stolen. It’s the job of universities to find talent and then to try to bring the best of it to their own university.”

In light of international criticism of the TTP, the Chinese government stopped promoting the program in national media in September 2018.

Byrnes said Lieber’s nondisclosure of his interactions with the TTP may have been due to the increasing stigma against the program.

“In the case of Professor Lieber, probably what happened is that he received this thing before it had this kind of negative spin on it,” he said. “It became inconvenient at some point to have this connection, so he tried to cover it up so that he wouldn’t be penalized for other opportunities, like within the U.S., for example. And then that obviously backfired terribly for him.”

Charles M. Lieber, Harvard's Chemistry department chair, was recently charged by the federal government for allegedly failing to disclose funding from the Chinese government.
Charles M. Lieber, Harvard's Chemistry department chair, was recently charged by the federal government for allegedly failing to disclose funding from the Chinese government. By Camille G. Caldera

Byrnes added that he believes academia and international conflicts should become more separated in the future, so that researchers can focus on intellectual pursuits instead of politics.

“Researchers are not interested in politics or this kind of power struggle between countries – researchers just really want to do top level research and that’s true in the U.S. and China,” he said. “But I think it is a difficult time because, as I said, China’s just really emerged and how to deal with this is kind of a concern of many countries.”


Lieber’s arrest marks merely the latest incident in the long and complicated history of Harvard’s role in U.S.-China relations. Formal relationships between Harvard and China have existed since 1879, when the University hired its first Chinese language instructor.

Szonyi said the U.S.-China academic relationship has been characterized by two key aspects: deeper academic collaboration in the last few decades and an overall deterioration in the two countries’ relations in the last couple of years.

According to the Harvard International Office, Chinese nationals represented 22 percent of the international student population at Harvard in the 2019-2020 academic year. Nationwide, Chinese nationals comprise a third of the international student population, with over 360,000 students enrolled in U.S. universities.

Claude Barfield, a former consultant to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, said uneasy relationships with China reflect a larger trend beyond the politics of a given presidential administration.

“The U.S. and China were moving toward some type of contentious relationship, even before the Trump presidency,” Barfield said. “The Chinese had refused to change their market protectionism, huge subsidies given to the companies. They were causing problems all over the South China Sea, threatening the U.S. alliance.”

Others pointed to additional factors that have soured the U.S.-China relationship.

“You also have an American administration that appears to have the need for an adversary, even if some of them are our allies, in order to bolster itself domestically,” Kirby said. “It’s not just the Trump administration, but there’s a greater consensus in the political establishment — a fear of where China may be going.”

“There are also increasing concerns about sharing data, as well as collaborating in the area of science and technology, which relates to the case of the arrest at Harvard,” Repnikova added.

Dean of Science Christopher W. Stubbs said in an April interview that China’s growing economy and technological advancements may have also contributed to U.S. efforts to “outcompete” China.

“My personal view is if you look at the geostrategic balance, this country sees China as challenging its world supremacy, and China is investing more in science and technology than the U.S. is by some normalization metric,” he said.

Due to these concerns, the U.S. federal government has increasingly cracked down on cases deemed as “academic espionage.” The FBI has examined more than 1,000 cases of Chinese theft of U.S. technology, many of which have been connected with research on university campuses.

After being charged by the federal government for alleged failures to disclose funding in late January, Charles M. Lieber had a bail hearing at the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse.
After being charged by the federal government for alleged failures to disclose funding in late January, Charles M. Lieber had a bail hearing at the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse. By Caleb D. Schwartz

In a March seminar on academic security, FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich said the threat of Chinese academic espionage is one of the nation’s largest security challenges.

“In my 25 years with the FBI, we have faced a lot of challenging threats,” he said. “One that stands out right now as the greatest long-term threat to our nation’s information and ideas and to our economic vitality and leadership is the threat from the Chinese government.”

Lieber’s arrest was just one of many the FBI made in the first half of 2020. On the day of his arraignment, the FBI also announced investigations into two other cases in the Boston area.

Barfield characterized Lieber’s arrest as propagated by the larger context of FBI investigations into U.S.-China relations.

“I think Lieber just got caught in the larger decision that the United States would try to reduce universities’ Chinese relationship here in the United States,” he said. “The worry was that — and is that — you’ve got Chinese researchers who are not really independent.”

Szonyi cautioned that current allegations of widespread academic espionage may be overstated.

“I am absolutely confident that the vast majority of collaborations are academic in nature and should not be characterized as espionage, but rather as knowledge sharing and actually doing what it is that academics do,” he said.

However, Szonyi said there are many gray areas that could constitute espionage. The predominant belief is that scholars should benefit financially when a technology or idea they developed has “practical business implications.”

“That’s relatively straightforward if the idea or the application or the technology is monetized in the United States, but what if it’s monetized in China?” Szonyi said. “From that scholar’s perspective, what the scholar is doing is exactly the same.”


Since Lieber’s arrest, several Harvard administrators have said they support the University’s policies for funding and research disclosure, despite the procedures’ limitations.

Stubbs said in April that the charges against Lieber did not trigger any changes in the current internal review processes. Harvard announced two new research oversight committees last November: one to review sensitive research projects and the other to examine whether Faculty of Arts and Sciences policies comply with federal funding agency guidelines.

University President Lawrence S. Bacow said in a March interview with The Crimson that Harvard is unable to investigate faculty members’ “outside engagements” and instead relies on their “honesty and good faith” to follow appropriate University procedures.

Chemistry professors Theodore A. Betley and Daniel Kahne currently serve as interim co-chairs of the Chemistry department, located in the Edward Mallinckrodt Chemical Laboratory.
Chemistry professors Theodore A. Betley and Daniel Kahne currently serve as interim co-chairs of the Chemistry department, located in the Edward Mallinckrodt Chemical Laboratory. By Ryan N. Gajarawala

“I think one of the things that we’re struggling with is instances of non-disclosure and how do we take steps to try to identify those instances, given that we’re not a law enforcement agency and we’re not an intelligence agency,” Stubbs said. “We’re working hard to step up and play our role in this evolving landscape of vigilance.”

Lynn Pasquerella — the president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, which represents nearly 1,400 U.S. institutions of higher education — said any oversight must take into account systemic issues of race.

In August 2019, the AAC&U signed onto a statement urging the federal government to protect the due process and privacy of Chinese students in the face of increased efforts to combat academic espionage.

“We’ve seen an increase in anti-Asian hate crimes and bias incidents, and so this provides a backdrop for looking at policies — that even if they are not intended to target or discriminate against individuals from China — have that impact as a fact,” Pasquerella said.

The impact of increased scrutiny into Chinese ties could serve as a deterrent for academic exchange, according to Repnikova.

“At the very least, this creates a lot of anxiety amongst individuals from China — scholars or scientists who are working at American universities — about the extent of the stability of their position, but also the extent of their freedom,” she said.

Kirby said international collaboration is crucial to advancing the “next generations of research.”

“If there are artificial limits on the kind of individuals who can come here, this sets us back, particularly in science and technology. How that is to American advantage is, for me, impossible to imagine,” he said.

Harvard administrators have also emphasized the importance of ongoing collaborations with Chinese and other foreign universities.

Bacow said in March that working with other institutions is crucial to fulfilling Harvard’s goals.

“It’s important that we engage with faculty and scholars in different parts of the world,” he said. “This is, in fact, how we succeed in addressing some of the greatest challenges that we confront.”

Stubbs said in February that “unwritten norms and expectations of conduct” are significant factors in ensuring prosperous relationships between Harvard and other universities.

“We’re wrestling to come to an understanding of how to strike a balance between supporting free and open research in scholarship with some underlying expectation of good conduct in the face of some instances that seem to not conform to those expectations,” he said.

Pasquerella echoed Stubbs’ sentiments, noting that collaboration between people of diverse backgrounds is crucial to addressing global challenges.

“I always come back to the need for global collaboration and addressing the problems for the future, as opposed to nationalistic tendencies that are focused on protecting America-first ideologies,” she said.

—Staff writer Ethan Lee can be reached at

—Staff Writer Andy Z. Wang can be reached at

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