Wuhan and the Professor

28 January: A Harvard professor has been arrested on suspicion of spying for China. Dr Charles Lieber, 60, is chair of the department of chemistry and chemical biology and one of only twenty-six senior professors at Harvard. He specialises in nanoscience and brain/computer interface technology. It is alleged that since 2011, Lieber has been part of a science co-operation programme known as “the Thousand Talents Plan”. Although ostensibly about international co-operation the programme is often a cover for espionage and intellectual property theft. It is said that Lieber has been paid $50,000 per month plus bonuses for working with the Chinese. It is also alleged that he was given $1.5 million to build a laboratory for Wuhan University.

Lieber says that his connections with China have always been known. He also works for the US government. He says that being paid for this work is standard and not espionage. Although China calls him a “strategic scientist” who is part of the Plan, he is not. He says that this sort of claim is typical of the Chinese who always overstate the affiliation of foreign scientists in order to make the extent of international co-operation sound grander than it really is and make Chinese officials involved in the programme look more important.

The problem for Lieber is that US authorities claim that he has not declared his income from China and that these amount to clandestine payments. He claims that this is a misunderstanding caused by administration at Harvard. He may be right. Since 2019, the FBI has been examining links between US scientists and China as part of the current President’s policy of putting pressure on Chinese trade and academic links as these are often used as a cover for theft. These supposedly innocent links between academics are also sometimes used as cover by Chinese intelligence services to lure targets over the boundary from international co-operation into espionage. Whether or not Charles Lieber had crossed that line is yet to be determined.

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