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Feds drop charges against MIT professor over Chinese ties

Federal charges were dropped Thursday against a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor accused of lying about the fact that he was doing work for the Chinese government while receiving U.S. grants for nanotechnology research.

BOSTON (CN) — Federal charges were dropped Thursday against a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor accused of lying about the fact that he was doing work for the Chinese government while receiving U.S. grants for nanotechnology research.

“Our office has concluded that we can no longer meet our burden of proof at trial,” U.S. Attorney Rachael Rollins said in a statement.

Professor Gang Chen was arrested in January 2021 on charges that he omitted on his grant applications that he was acting as an "overseas expert" at the request of the Chinese consulate in New York.

"It is not illegal to collaborate with foreign researchers. It is illegal to lie about it," Massachusetts U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling told reporters at the time.

The arrest was part of the Justice Department’s “China Initiative,” an effort to crack down on Chinese computer spying and trade secret theft that has so far ensnared dozens of academics.

But the Justice Department has since been conducting an internal review of its prosecutions of university professors, which have had mixed results. In addition to the Chen case, last September a federal judge threw out charges that a University of Tennessee professor lied about his Chinese ties while applying for grants from NASA.

Chen and his research group allegedly received $29 million in foreign dollars at the same time that they received $19 million in U.S. grants. But the case was dropped after the Justice Department interviewed more government officials and additional information came to light.

“Today’s dismissal of the criminal charges against Gang Chen is a result of our continued investigation into this matter,” Rollins said. “Through that effort, we recently obtained additional information pertaining to the materiality of Professor Chen’s alleged omissions in the context of the grant review process at issue in this case.”

A statement released by Chen stated, “While I am relieved that my ordeal is over, I am mindful that this terribly misguided China Initiative continues to bring unwarranted fear to the academic community and other scientists still face charges.”

Chen, who got his Ph.D. at the University of California at Berkeley, "loves the United States,” his attorney, Rob Fisher, said in an email. "Since Gang moved to this country over 30 years ago, his life has been the epitome of the American dream.”

The China Initiative was begun under the Trump administration but has been continued under President Joe Biden, despite opposition from a large number of civil rights groups who claim that the initiative is unfairly targeting Asians. The program amounts to “racial, ethnic, and national origin profiling,” they claimed in a letter.

Not all the Justice Department’s targets are Asian, however. Harvard Professor Charles Lieber was charged a year ago with lying about his ties to China's Thousand Talents Plan, designed to lure people with knowledge of foreign technology and intellectual property to China.

On Jan. 10, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that Harvard did not have to advance funds to Lieber for his defense.

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