Justice Department's Probe of Professors With Chinese Ties at Risk as Another Case Dropped

The case against Massachusetts Institute of Technology teacher Gang Chen was dropped Thursday, with the Department of Justice saying the case could no longer meet its burden of proof.

The case was one of 148 filed by the Justice Department as part of the China Initiative, a national security program put in place by the Trump White House to stem Chinese economic espionage, CNBC reported.

The department's decision to drop the case is seen as a setback to the federal initiative's goal of preventing Beijing from profiting off academic research at U.S. colleges and universities, according to the Associated Press.

A mechanical engineering professor at MIT, Chen was arrested and charged last year with concealing ties to China's government while collecting U.S. money to conduct nanotechnology research, the AP added. According to a person familiar with the case, it began to deteriorate when the government received new information from the Energy Department, where Chen had earlier applied for a grant.

Robert Fisher, Chen's defense attorney, made a statement on Thursday calling the case a "wayward prosecution" and thanking "many witnesses who came forward and told the government how badly they misunderstood the details surrounding scientific and academic collaboration," according to the AP.

The MIT Technology Review reported that the money connected to the allegations against Chen totaled $25 million and was intended to support a new collaborative research center at MIT rather than for Chen individually.

The dropping of Chen's case was recommended by prosecutors in Boston and is seen as a blow to the Justice Department's China Initiative, which was set up in 2018 to crack down on Chinese economic espionage and trade secret theft, the AP added. The department is now reviewing the future of the program.

Program critics say it has unfairly targeted researchers based on ethnicity, CNBC reported. Nearly 90 percent of those who have been charged are ethnically Chinese.

Chen, according to the MIT Technology Review, was one of the more prominent scientists charged under the Initiative.

Another professor, Feng "Franklin" Tao at the University of Kansas, is currently fighting a similar case. He was arrested on fraud charges and accused of failing to disclose affiliation with a Chinese university in August 2019, according to CNBC. His trial date is set for March, and he faces up to 20 years in prison.

Department of Justice Seal
The Department of Justice has dropped a case against a mechanical engineering professor at MIT who was arrested and charged last year with concealing ties to China's government while collecting U.S. money to conduct nanotechnology research. Above, the Justice Department seal is seen on a lectern during a Hate Crimes Subcommittee summit on June 29, 2017, in Washington, D.C. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The only China Initiative case so far successfully tried in front of a jury is that of the former chair of Harvard's Chemistry and Chemical Biology Department, Charlies Lieber, the MIT Technology Review reported.

Lieber was convicted in December of having ties to China's Thousand Talents Program and for failure to report income and making false statements to authorities regarding an affiliation with the Wuhan University of Technology, according to a report from the Lawfare Institute.

Critics of the China Initiative have called for the program to be renamed, saying the name "unnecessarily feeds into xenophobia," the Lawfare Institute report added.

"This proves that more and more people have realized that the so-called 'China Initiative' is essentially a tool for anti-China forces in the U.S. to abuse the concept of national security to contain and suppress China," China Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin was quoted by the Washington Examiner. "It not only deals a heavy blow to China-U.S. relations, but also worsens the racial discrimination in the U.S. and seriously hurts Asian groups in the U.S."