US govt. imposes 'political persecution' on scientists in the name of 'China Initiative'
Harvard professor's 'pocket crime' shows return of McCarthyism: expert
Published: Dec 22, 2021 11:14 PM
A student walks on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge of Massachusetts, the United States, on July 14, 2020. (Photo: Xinhua)

A student walks on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge of Massachusetts, the United States, on July 14, 2020. (Photo: Xinhua)

The US government has persecuted scientists who have cooperated or conducted exchanges with China in the name of the "China Initiative" since the term of former President Donald Trump, with a Harvard University professor being the latest to be convicted on Wednesday for "making false statements to authorities," but not "espionage or theft of intellectual property."

Washington is weakening its own soft power and hard power by spreading fear and a sinophobic atmosphere in the field of science and academic research, and now the situation is even worse than the Cold War era of McCarthyism, said experts.  

Reuters reported on Wednesday that a federal court in Boston found Charles Lieber, a renowned nanoscientist and former chairman of Harvard's chemistry department, guilty of "making false statements to authorities, filing false tax returns and failing to report a Chinese bank account."

Prosecutors alleged that Lieber, in his quest for a Nobel Prize, in 2011 agreed to become a "strategic scientist" at Wuhan University of Technology in China, and through it participated in a Chinese recruitment drive called the "Thousand Talents Program."

Prosecutors said China uses that program to recruit foreign researchers to share their knowledge with the country. But participation is not a crime, and prosecutors contend Lieber, 62, "lied to authorities inquiring about his involvement," Reuters reported.

Lieber was charged in January 2020 as part of the US Department of Justice's "China Initiative," which was launched during the Trump administration in 2018 "to counter suspected Chinese economic espionage and research theft" amid sinophobic sentiment hyped by conservative US politicians in the US, and the Biden administration has continued the initiative, though the Justice Department has said it is reviewing its approach.

Lü Xiang, a research fellow on US studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, told the Global Times on Wednesday that "lying to authorities" is a typical "pocket crime" in the US, because it's easy for US law-enforcement agencies to use suspects' unintentional mistakes to trump up charges, especially those who have no experience in handling legal matters.

According to the Science on December 2, Lieber was never charged with espionage or theft of intellectual property—two of the concerns driving the "China Initiative." Instead, when Lieber's trial began on December 14 at a Boston federal courtroom, prosecutors will try to persuade a jury that Lieber lied to federal funding agencies about "his affiliation with one Chinese university and failed to report his income to federal tax and banking authorities."

Critics said the government shouldn't be seeking criminal felony convictions against scientists who may have done nothing more than fail to properly document all their sources of research support—errors that might typically draw only civil or administrative penalties, said the Science report.

"Lacking evidence of more serious wrongdoing, [Lieber] has become the target of a tragically misguided government campaign [that has] criminalized them," wrote some 40 of Lieber's colleagues, including seven Nobel laureates, in a March letter asking the government to dismiss the case and end the initiative, Science reported.

Critics also contend the initiative harms academic research, racially profiles Chinese researchers and terrorizes some scientists. A Tennessee professor was acquitted by a judge this year following a mistrial, and prosecutors dropped charges against six other researchers, according to Reuters.

Lü said this case just proved that the environment for scientific and academic research in the US is worsening and being politicized by the US government and politicians, and "the situation is even worse than the era of McCarthyism during the Cold War" because using "pocket crimes" to charge scientists is different from ideological charges. 

The US sent a message to scientists - "Don't cooperate or have any contact with China, even if the cooperation is legal and open; otherwise, you will be investigated one day, and you are very likely to be charged, even if you're not a spy, or have never done anything to harm US interests," Lü noted.

"And if you're Chinese, then good luck. You are probably the most wanted target of US authorities," he said.

Lieber is one of 23 US academics, most of them of Chinese descent, targeted under the initiative. (Federal investigators have also pursued dozens of scientists working in the industry.) And the government's track record in those cases is mixed, Science reported.

In the past two years, eight scientists received prison sentences of up to 37 months after choosing to avoid a trial by pleading guilty to various charges, mostly involving failure to disclose financial ties to Chinese institutions, Science reported. 

"This will surely make more scientists in America, especially Chinese scientists, consider leaving the country. They might go to China or other countries. This might have nothing to do with politics or patriotism, as they just want a peaceful and normal environment for their research, for science," said a top Chinese scientist, who used to live and work in Europe and has returned to China.

"As a scientist, I felt angry about what happened to Lieber and the acts of political persecution of the US government," he said, noting that most scientists are very "simple-minded" in handling this kind of situation, so they are susceptible to political persecution. Scientists should be careful and learn to prevent such risks.  

Lü said, "Politically persecuting scientists will weaken the soft power and hard power of the US in the long term, and this will only harm the US."