MIT professor Gang Chen was at his home in Cambridge on a Thursday morning when he was met by the police, there to arrest the engineer over claims that for years he had hid illicit ties to the People’s Republic of China.
Only a few hours later, U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling took to television alongside the FBI to outline his office’s allegations against Chen: that the scientist exploited the United States by using millions in federal grant money to benefit China’s government, that he accepted millions more in foreign funding, primarily from groups connected to the PRC, and that he concealed Chinese bank accounts worth around $25,000 from the Internal Revenue Service.
“To put this threat into perspective, we have now reached the point where the FBI is opening a new China-related counterintelligence case about every 10 hours,” FBI Boston Special Agent-in-Charge Joseph R. Bonavolonta said on TV. “And of the 5,000 active counterintelligence cases the FBI has, nearly half of them are related to China.”
In Bonavolonta’s words: “The Chinese Communist Government doesn’t play by the same rules of academic integrity and freedom that we do.”
In the end, Chen, who serves as the director of a MIT nano engineering laboratory, was charged on Jan. 14 with wire fraud for misleading the Department of Energy on a grant application, failing to file a report of a foreign bank account and making a false statement on his 2018 tax returns.
Standing next to Bonavolonta at the televised pressed conference in the hours after Chen was taken into custody, Lelling accused the MIT professor of remaining loyal to China, his birth country, all while living in the U.S. for decades.
“No, it is not illegal to collaborate with foreign researchers. It’s illegal to lie about it,” Lelling said at the press conference. “The allegations in the complaint imply that this was not just about greed, but about loyalty to China.”
The charges lodged against Chen, part of the Department of Justice’s “China Initiative” to crack down on security threats posed by the nation, weren’t met by silence, though. Instead: dubiousness among the MIT community and a back-and-forth between Chen’s lawyers and assistant U.S. attorneys over the validity of Lelling’s central assertion the professor was disloyal to the American government.
Since Chen’s arrest, more than 200 of his colleagues have penned an open letter to MIT President L. Rafael Reif to question Lelling’s 24-page complaint against the professor, saying it “vilifies what would be considered normal academic and research activities, including promoting MIT’s global mission.”
The faculty members also describe Chen as “a truly beloved teacher, scholar, scientist, mentor, colleague and world-leading academic” as well as “a loyal and devoted member of the MIT community.”
“His work has contributed significantly to American scientific welfare and economic growth, as well as to MIT’s worldwide scientific standing,” they wrote. “All his global work has been furthering MIT’s mission ‘to advance knowledge and educate students in science, technology, and other areas of scholarship that will best serve the nation and the world in the 21st century.’ “
On top of prosecutor’s allegations that Chen abused federal grant money and failed to disclose contracts, appointments and awards from groups associated with the PCR, authorities also claimed he recommended several students to participate in various Chinese talent programs while serving as both an overseas advisor and the chair of MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering.
He recommended several more students to receive the “Chinese Government Award for Outstanding Students Abroad” while working as an advisor to the China Scholarship Council, according to court records.
Chen’s coworkers argued it’s standard practice, though, to write recommendations for students so they can receive fellowships or other prestigious career-advancing opportunities. Prosecutors are portraying the professor’s actions “as some sort of collusion with outside forces in an effort to help them steal American technology,” when that’s not the case, his colleagues wrote
Authorities’ criminal complaint, the colleagues argue, “represents a deep misunderstanding of how research is conducted or funded at a place like MIT,” noting the document was filled with “allegations and innuendo” based on what are actually routine elements of academics’ professional lives.
“We recognize and respect that the United States government has an interest in keeping any country from stealing intellectual property. Many of the signatories to this letter are inventors of record on hundreds of patents. We recognize the importance of protecting the rights that patents confer,” the scientist’s colleagues wrote. “We strongly support efforts to oppose any such activities conducted by any foreign country. But we are baffled by many elements of the official complaint and the associated public statements against Professor Chen.”
The dozens of faculty members are not the only ones baffled by the criminal complaint filed against Chen and the public comments made by Lelling, who announced this week he tendered his resignation to Democratic President Joe Biden. The professor himself is pushing back hard against the criminal allegations.
Last week, Chen’s attorneys went so far as to file a motion in federal court in Boston seeking sanctions against Lelling, claiming the Trump-appointed U.S. attorney, in the waining hours of the Republican president’s administration, opted to pursue “ill-advised and unsubstantiated” charges against the MIT scientist.
In doing so, the prosecutor “attempted to make this case appear to be something it is not,” the professor’s lawyers argue.
“The complaint itself and Lelling’s statements at a press conference that same day, as well as his office’s accompanying press release, are wildly misleading to both the general public and to future jurors,” Chen’s attorneys summed up in their motion.
The attorney go on to claim Lelling’s complaint against Chen in no way alleges he betrayed the U.S. Instead, the document only accuse him of making errors on federal forms, according to the lawyers.
“Lelling’s speculation about whether Professor Chen is loyal to the United States – where he has spent his entire adult life – is grossly insulting and certainly speaks to Professor Chen’s ‘character and reputation’ in violation of the local rules,” the defendant’s attorneys wrote.
The FBI said its investigation found Chen worked with the Chinese government in various capacities dating back to 2012, all at the expense of the United States. The man’s research at MIT has been funded by nearly $19 million in grants from a slew of U.S. agencies. The funds, authorities alleged, were used to enhance China’s research in nanotechnology.
The bureau also claimed Chen accepted roughly $29 million in foreign funding, mainly from entities tied to the Chinese government, and received at least $355,000 for his services and expertise, money he never disclosed to MIT or the federal government, according to Lelling’s office.
According to court records, Chen is accused of entering into at least four contracts with various entities within or closely affiliated with the PRC, allowing him to receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in direct payments and millions of dollars in funding for his research from the Chinese government in exchange for performing various tasks.
Court records lay out one of Chen’s contracts where he allegedly served as a review expert for the National Natural Science Foundation of China since as early as November 2015. Federal authorities believe the NNSFC is a Chinese governmental agency that operates like the National Science Foundation in the U.S. in that it seeks to advance technological innovation by funding scientific research and other projects for the PRC.
“Based on my review of documents obtained during this investigation, I believe that Chen played a critical role as a NNSFC ‘review expert’ and participated in project reviews, reviewed research results, and provided his assessment to NNSFC,” the federal agent assigned to Chen’s case wrote in the complaint. “Furthermore, according to emails that I have reviewed, NNSFC requested Chen’s bank account information at various times between November 2015 and January 2020. I believe, therefore, that Chen was compensated for his work for NNSFC.”
Authorities noted in their complaint the $29 million in foreign funding Chen accepted included $19 million from the PRC’s Southern University of Science and Technology, a public research school funded by the Chinese government. The funds, Chen’s backers argue, may be less illicit than they seem, though.
“Our understanding is that Professor Chen did not receive $29 million. MIT was the recipient of this money, which benefited the institute, the research programs of many of its faculty and its students,” Chen’s colleagues wrote in their letter. “Singling him and his research group out as the ‘sole’ recipient is simply wrong. The partnership with SUSTech was approved and overseen by MIT at the highest levels.”
In the motion filed by Chen’s lawyers seeking to sanction Lelling, they also bring up points brought up by MIT’s president, that the institute’s agreement with SUSTech provides $25 million to be paid to the Cambridge school over five years.
Of that sum, $19 million is for “collaborative research and educational activities,” while $6 million is designated as a gift to support MIT building renovation projects and an endowed graduate fellowship, according to Reif.
“In other words, these funds are about advancing the work of a group of colleagues, and the research and educational mission of MIT,” wrote Reif, noting the school community has been “deeply concerned” for Gang and his family.
Chen’s attorneys argue Lelling’s statement and allegations are “wildly inaccurate,” because, as mentioned by the president of MIT, millions of dollars in foreign funding went to MIT, not Chen. They further allege the U.S. attorney appears to have violated Massachusetts state law regarding truthfulness in statements to others.
This week, assistant U.S. attorneys pushed back against the lawyers’ motion for sanctions against Lelling, saying the prosecutor’s statements after Chen’s arrest were “truthful and accurate, not false or misleading,” as his defense stated.
The U.S. attorneys also argue the motion “is little more than an attempt to publicly comment on evidence in the case, criticize the prosecution and score points in the court of public opinion.”
“As a motion for sanctions, it fails and should be denied summarily,” the prosecutors wrote Thursday in their 10-page opposition to the motion for sanctions.
The prosecutors go on to say the allegations in the criminal complaint set out extensive evidence of Chen’s motive to commit the crimes with an apparent desire to assist the PRC in matters of science and technology. They also argue neither Lelling’s press conference nor press release violated state rules.
“Rather, both accurately characterized, or quoted verbatim, the allegations against the defendant in the complaint,” the attorneys said.