Prosecutors recommend dropping Chinese ties case against MIT scientist – Community News
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Prosecutors recommend dropping Chinese ties case against MIT scientist

WASHINGTON — Federal prosecutors have recommended that the Justice Department drop the criminal charges against a Massachusetts Institute of Technology mechanical engineering professor accused of concealing his ties to China, according to people familiar with the case, as the government Biden assesses an effort to counter Chinese influence at US universities.

Gang Chen was arrested last January on charges of hiding positions he held in China in a grant application he filed with the US Department of Energy in 2017. Justice Department officials have decided to drop charges against Chen, based in part on new information from an Energy Department official, the people said.

The official told prosecutors in recent weeks that the agency did not believe Mr Chen was under an obligation to make the reports public at the time, and did not believe the department would have withheld the grant if they had known about it, people said. . . Meanwhile, the Energy Department has started asking researchers for more information about their foreign connections.

Government investigators pursued Mr. Chen on suspicion that he had forged a partnership between MIT and a university in Shenzhen on behalf of China, though the partnership had the backing of MIT, The Wall Street Journal reported in December. Some of the posts that accused Mr. Chen of hiding were either connected to his affiliates through MIT or to things he wasn’t being paid for.

Prosecutors could ask the court to drop the charges in the coming weeks, but the decision has not yet been finalized and timing could still slip, the people said. On Tuesday, prosecutors and Mr Chen’s lawyers asked for the postponement of a status conference scheduled for this week as the parties discussed legal issues related to the case.

A lawyer for Mr Chen, Rob Fisher, said on Friday: “Professor Chen was arrested a year ago today. It’s been a long road, but we’re still fighting to clear his name and get him back to his research and teaching at MIT.”

The US wants to counter China’s influence around the world by providing everything from infrastructure to vaccines and green energy. WSJ’s Stu Woo explains how the plan, called Build Back Better World, aims to compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Photo Composite: Daniel Orton

Mr Chen was one of about two dozen academics charged since 2019 for allegedly lying about their connections, in high profile cases brought by the Justice Ministry to allay suspicions that the Chinese government was exploiting academic ties to engage in related to technological espionage.

Some cases were successful for the US government. For example, a jury in December convicted Harvard University chemistry professor Charles Lieber of lying to Defense Department researchers and others about his participation in the Chinese government’s One Thousand Talents program aimed at courting foreign experts.

But another case, the first to go to trial, ended in an acquittal in September and prosecutors have dropped several others.

A former Kansas federal prosecutor involved in the first such case filed in 2019 said the purpose of the cases was to disrupt what U.S. officials viewed as Chinese intelligence operations. “We debated whether to continue investigating and proving the national security charges or the fraud charges. Our response was to sue now to suspend the operation,” said Tony Mattivi, who is now running for the Republican nomination to become Kansas Attorney General.

According to academic critics, the Justice Department has sometimes raised suspicions about contacts between American researchers and Chinese government officials who view the universities as ordinary academic collaboration.

Attorney General Merrick Garland said in October that he would task the Justice Department’s Assistant Attorney General for National Security, Matt Olsen, with reviewing the ministry’s approach to countering threats from the Chinese government. The Justice Department is expected to provide more information about the results of that investigation in the coming weeks, a spokesperson said.

In a January 2021 indictment, prosecutors accused Mr. Chen of wire transfer fraud, false statements and failure to report a foreign bank account. They alleged that in 2017, when Mr Chen applied for a research grant from the Department of Energy, not an advisory position in the Chinese government, an advisory board at Shenzhen University, a role as an “overseas strategic scientist” in a company associated with the city government of Beijing and serves as an assessment expert for the National Science Foundation of China and as an advisor to the Chinese Scholarship Council.

After the charges were filed, dozens of Mr. Chen said several of those functions, where project proposals were assessed and students were recommended for scholarships, were activities that most of the academics engaged in, including for China and other foreign governments. They also noted that rather limited information had been requested in the grant application forms in connection with foreign contacts.

write to Aruna Viswanatha at [email protected]

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