About one week ago, Jorge Salcido was sentenced in federal court in Boston to eight months in prison. This news made headlines even though the individual sentenced was not a celebrity. The mere fact that he was part of the Varsity Blues scandal was enough to warrant national coverage.
While this sentencing is newsworthy, a much bigger story goes largely unreported. The much bigger story is the threat to our national security. China has infiltrated our universities to steal intellectual property and conduct military espionage. Yet most people are unaware of the influence of China on many of America’s college campuses.
William Evanina, Director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, said, “We estimate $500 billion a year in economic loss just from the country of China. That’s theft of intellectual property and trade secrets.” China’s undercover work in our universities goes beyond this to include military espionage. China’s interests on American campuses, and elsewhere throughout the world, focus on science, technology, mathematics, medicine and economics.
America’s colleges and universities are widely recognized as among the best in the world. As such, they are where the best minds gather and where cross-pollination of the best ideas result in cutting edge discoveries in the fields most important to our future. This attracts undergraduate and graduate students from around the world. Many professors also come to U.S. colleges and universities to teach and do research. Virtually all of these students and professors are honest and come only to study, to do research, to teach and to learn. But there is a small but significant minority, some U.S. citizens and others from abroad, who have sinister and self-serving motives.
Three cases announced by the Justice Department in January 2020 illustrate this. The three unrelated cases involve two Chinese nationals and an American college professor who were arrested and charged with working on behalf of China.
According to the Justice Department, Yanqing Ye, 29, was working as a student and researcher at Boston University. The Justice Department alleges that on questioning Ye admitted she held the rank of Lieutenant in the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) and that she was a member of the Chinese Communist Party, which she did not disclose on her student visa application.
The Justice Department statement also alleges that “a search of Ye’s electronic devices demonstrated that at the direction of a PLA Colonel, Ye had accessed U.S. military websites, researched U.S. military projects and compiled information for the PLA on two U.S. scientists with expertise in robotics and computer science.”
Ye was indicted on January 9, 2020 but is now in China.
In a second case the Justice Department alleged that Zaosong Zheng, 31, working on a student visa, conducted cancer-cell research at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and that on Dec. 9, 2019 he stole 21 vials of biological research and attempted to smuggle them out of the United States aboard a flight to China. According to the Justice Department, Zheng admitted he had stolen the vials from a lab at Beth Israel and that he intended to bring the vials to China to use them to conduct research in his own laboratory and publish the results under his own name.
Zheng is charged with multiple crimes including visa fraud, acting as an unauthorized agent of a foreign government and smuggling goods from the United States.
On January 6, 2021, Zheng was sentenced in U.S. District Court to time served (approximately 87 days), three years of supervised release and ordered removed from the United States.
In a third case, the Justice Department stated that Dr. Charles Lieber was the chair of Harvard’s chemistry and chemical biology department and also served as the Principal Investigator of the Lieber Research Group at Harvard University. The Lieber Research Group, which specialized in nanoscience, has received more than $15,000,000 in grant funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Department of Defense (DOD). NIH and DOD grants require disclosure of significant foreign financial conflicts of interest, including financial support from foreign governments or foreign entities.
The Justice Department alleges that beginning in 2011, Dr. Lieber became a “Strategic Scientist” at Wuhan University of Technology (WUT) in China and that under the terms of his Thousand Talents contract WUT paid him $50,000 per month, living expenses and gave him more than $1.5 million to establish a research lab at WUT. The Justice Department further alleged that in return, Dr. Lieber was required to work for WUT “not less than nine months a year” by “declaring international cooperation projects, cultivating young teachers and Ph.D. students, organizing international conference[s], applying for patents and publishing articles in the name of” WUT.
The Justice Department made clear that Harvard University was unaware of any engagement by Dr. Lieber in what is alleged against him.
Dr. Lieber was indicted on January 9, 2020. He denies all allegations.
In a press conference following these indictments, U. S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said, “Our community benefits greatly from the diversity and talent of international visitors and our partnerships with foreign institutions. But Chinese economic espionage and theft is a real and daily occurrence that we must begin to confront.”
The news media that feature stories like Varsity Blues don’t cover the China story, but you can. To find out more about China’s undercover work at our colleges and universities, simply Google it. It’s that easy.