All charges against China Initiative defendant Gang Chen have been dismissed

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The US Justice Department has filed a motion to dismiss all charges against MIT mechanical engineering professor and nanotechnologist Gang Chen, nearly one year to the day after he was indicted on charges relating to his alleged failure to disclose relationships and funding from Chinese entities. From the start, Chen had maintained his innocence, while MIT had indicated that Chen was working to establish a research collaboration on behalf of the institution and that the funding in question was actually for the university rather than Chen personally. MIT also paid for his defense. (MIT Technology Review is funded by the university but remains editorially independent.) “Today’s dismissal of the criminal charges against Gang Chen is a result of our continued investigation,” US Attorney for the District of Massachusetts Rachael Rollins said in a statement after the filing. “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. After a careful assessment of this new information in the context of all the evidence, our office has concluded that we can no longer meet our burden of proof at trial.” “The government finally acknowledged what we said all along: Professor Gang Chen is an innocent man,” Robert Fisher, Chen’s defense attorney, said in a statement. “Our defense was never based on any legal technicalities. Gang did not commit any of the offenses he was charged with. Full stop. He was never in a talent program. He was never an overseas scientist for Beijing. He disclosed everything that he was supposed to disclose and never lied to the government or anyone else.” To support MIT Technology Review’s journalism, please consider becoming a subscriber. The China Initiative Chen was one of the most high-profile scientists charged under the China Initiative, a Justice Department program launched under the Trump administration to counter economic espionage and national security threats from the People’s Republic of China.
Despite its stated purpose, an investigation by MIT Technology Review found that the initiative has increasingly focused on prosecuting academics for research integrity issues—hiding ties or funding from Chinese entities on grant or visa forms—rather than industrial spies stealing trade secrets. Only 19 of 77 cases (25%) identified by MIT Technology Review alleged violations of the Economic Espionage Act, while 23 cases (30%) alleged grant or visa fraud by academics. Our reporting has also found that the initiative has disproportionately affected scientists of Chinese heritage, who make up 130 (88%) of the 148 individuals charged under the initiative.
Chen’s is the eighth research integrity case to be dismissed before trial. Last month, Harvard professor Charles Lieber was found guilty on six charges of false statements and tax fraud, while the trial of University of Tennessee–Knoxville professor Anming Hu, the first research integrity case to go before a jury, ended first in a mistrial and then a full acquittal. Research Integrity cases from MIT Technology Review’s China Initiative Database A catalyzing case Chen’s indictment raised awareness of, and opposition to, the initiative because of both his prominence in his field and the seemingly routine activities for which he was being prosecuted, including collaborating with a Chinese university at the behest of his home institution. “We are all Gang Chen,” a group of MIT faculty wrote at the time, expressing both their support for their colleague and their concerns about how their own activities could draw government scrutiny. “The end of the criminal case is tremendous news for Professor Chen, and his defense team deserves accolades for their work,” says Margaret Lewis, a law professor at Seton Hall University who has written about the China Initiative. “But let’s not forget that he was first questioned at the airport two years ago and indicted one year ago. The human cost is intense even when charges are dropped.” She adds: “I am hopeful that the Justice Department will soon move beyond announcements regarding the review of individual cases to a broader statement ending the China Initiative.” “Rebranding the China Initiative will not be enough,” says Patrick Toomey, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project, which has represented two prominent researchers erroneously charged before the China Initiative was announced in 2018. “The Justice Department must fundamentally reform its policies that enable racial profiling in the name of national security.” It is not just academics and civil rights groups that are speaking out. Over the past year, criticism of the initiative has ramped up from all sides. Ninety members of Congress have requested that Attorney General Merrick Garland investigate concerns about racial profiling, and former DOJ officials have advocated for a change in direction as well. John Demers, the former head of the Justice Department division that oversees the initiative, reportedly favored a proposal for amnesty programs that would allow researchers to disclose previously undisclosed ties with no fear of prosecution. Meanwhile, in response to MIT Technology Review’s reporting, Andrew Lelling, the former US District Attorney for Massachusetts who brought charges against Chen, argued that the part of the program targeting academics should be shut down. Six more research integrity cases remain pending, with four scheduled to go to trial this spring. Some kind of announcement may be coming soon: DOJ spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle told MIT Technology Review in an email last week that the Justice Department is “reviewing our approach to countering threats posed by the PRC government“ and anticipates “completing the review and providing additional information in the coming weeks.“ Additional reporting by Jess Aloe. This story has been updated with a statement from Rachael Rollins, the US Attorney for the District of Massachusetts.

In a further blow to the China Initiative, prosecutors move to dismiss a high profile case

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On Friday, federal prosecutors recommended that the US Department of Justice dismiss all three charges against MIT nanotechnology professor Gang Chen, ending a two-year ordeal stemming from accusations that he hid funding from Chinese entities on grant disclosure forms.  Chen had pleaded not guilty to all charges, while his employer had indicated that the funding in question was for the university, rather than Chen personally. MIT is paying his legal fees. The university declined to comment on a pending court case. (MIT Technology Review is funded by MIT, but is editorially independent.)  Chen was one of the most prominent scientists charged under the China Initiative, a federal effort launched in 2018 to counter economic espionage and national security threats from the People’s Republic of China. Despite these aims, an investigation by MIT Technology Review found that the China Initiative has increasingly focused on “research integrity” violations, like Chen’s, rather than on trade secret theft.  The motion to dismiss has yet to be filed, and final approval for dismissal rests with the judge. If approved, Chen’s would be the eighth research integrity case to be dismissed before trial, according to MIT Technology Review’s database of cases. An additional research integrity case, that of University of Knoxville nanotechnologist Anming Hu, ended first in a mistrial and then a full acquittal. The only China Initiative research integrity case that has been successfully tried in front of a jury is that of Charles Lieber, who was found guilty of six charges of false statements and tax fraud last month. (See all research integrity cases here.) Research integrity cases center around students and academics that have been accused of failing to fully disclose relationships with Chinese entities, primarily on grant or visa forms. Public accusation Chen’s problems began in January 2020, as he was returning to the United States from a university-backed trip to China with other MIT faculty and students. Detained and questioned at Boston Logan International Airport, he was released after his phone and computer were confiscated.  A year later, Chen was arrested on suspicions of federal grant fraud and publicly accused of disloyalty to the US—a charge typically leveled in espionage cases, not grant fraud, as Chen’s defense team pointed out in its attempt to formally sanction the US Attorney’s Office for the statement. Chen was ultimately charged with three counts of wire fraud, false statements, and a failure to file a report on a foreign bank account.  But the heart of the case was whether the nanotechnologist had disclosed contracts, appointments, and awards from entities in the People’s Republic of China, including a Chinese talent program and more than $19 million in funding from the Chinese government, while receiving federal grant funding from the Department of Energy.  That question became less important when a Department of Energy official confirmed that grant requirements in 2017, when Chen submitted his application, did not stipulate that he must disclose posts in China, but that disclosure would not have affected his grants, as the Wall Street Journal first reported. The money at the centerpiece of the fraud allegations—$25 million—was intended for MIT to support a new collaborative research center at China’s Southern University of Science and Technology, rather than Chen individually. “While Professor Chen is its inaugural MIT faculty director, this is not an individual collaboration; it is a departmental one, supported by the Institute,” MIT President Raphael Reif explained in a letter to the MIT community last year. As one of the most prominent scientists charged under the initiative, Chen’s case received widespread attention. MIT faculty members wrote an open letter supporting the scholar that also reflected the broader concerns of the academic community about the criminalization of standard academic activity. “In many respects, the complaint against Gang Chen is a complaint against all of us, an affront to any citizen who values science and the scientific enterprise,” they wrote.  What next? With Chen’s charges all but certain to be dismissed, six more research integrity cases remain pending. Four are scheduled to go to trial later this spring. Meanwhile, an increasing number of disparate groups, from scientific associations, civil rights organizations, lawmakers and even former officials involved in shaping the program have been calling for either an end to the program, or at least the targeting of academics.  The Justice Department is “reviewing our approach to countering threats posed by the PRC government,” department spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle told MIT Technology Review in an email. “We anticipate completing the review and providing additional information in the coming weeks.” He referred questions about Chen’s case to the US Attorney’s Office in Boston, which has not yet responded to a request for comment. Meanwhile, on January 4 the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy published updated guidance on strengthening protections for American research and development against foreign interference, which included additional details on disclosure requirements for principal investigators. As for Chen, “He is looking forward to resolving the criminal matter as soon as possible,”his attorney, Robert Fischer, told MIT Technology Review. Additional reporting by Jess Aloe.