The first academic conviction of the China Initiative raises more questions than it answers

Recently former Justice Ministry officials involved in the program, among others, called for an end to the effort or a significant change in its focus. Testifying before Congress, Attorney General Merrick Garland promised that the Ministry of Justice will review the program.

Given this context, “that there was an acquittal in this.” [the Lieber] In that case, it would look bad for the government, ”said Margaret Lewis, a law professor at Seton Hall University. written extensively on the initiative.

But the underlying facts of the case were strong – especially given the video in which Lieber admits to FBI agents that he received cash from a Chinese university, had a Chinese bank account and was not (in his own words) “completely transparent.” by any measure of imagination ”when Harvard administrators and government investigators asked them about these and other issues.

These facts made the Lieber case “extraordinary” among the cases of the China Initiative, according to one defense attorney who followed the case in search of clues for the upcoming trial of his client. While not particularly useful for predicting how the government could address future cases of research integrity within the initiative, it has raised questions about a key component of the investigation – talent recruitment programs.

Unanswered questions about the Thousand Talents program

The issue of Lieber’s innocence could be resolved, at least for now – his lawyer, Marc Mukasey, he told reporters that they “respect the verdict but will continue to fight”, which suggests a potential appeal – but the trial has raised additional questions about the Chinese initiative itself and, in particular, China’s “talent programs” that prompted such an inquiry.

Talent programs are government-sponsored recruitment plans designed to attract foreign experts (known as “talents”) to work in China. While U.S. institutions have long encouraged cooperation with Chinese universities, including through talent programs, the federal government has become increasingly concerned about them in recent years.

A Senate Report for 2019 they found that China funded over 200 talent programs that recruited over 7,000 participants. The report also warns that talent programs encourage their members to “lie on grant applications to U.S. grant agencies established shadow laboratories in China are doing research identical to theirs in the United States and, in some cases, transfer the hard-earned intellectual capital of American scientists. ”

“Part of what made Dr. Lieber the person to be interviewed was that he had a lot of Chinese students, didn’t he?”

“Marc Mukasey, Lieber’s counsel.”

An investigation by the MIT Technology Review found that 19 of the 77 known cases of the China Initiative (25%) were prompted by suspicions that defendants participated in Chinese talent programs. Meanwhile, fourteen of these talent program cases, alleged research integrity issues stem from not disclosing all links to Chinese entities in the grant documentation. None of the 14 cases includes allegations that the scientist in question transferred American intellectual property to China.

Despite the government’s doubts about talent programs, it is still not entirely clear whether disclosure of participation in them is considered tangible or intangible to the federal government.

This was an issue he hoped would be clarified during the trial and the defense attorney of another Chinese Initiative case, who followed the trial to better prepare his client’s case and did not want to be named so as not to jeopardize him. trial. Without that clarification, he said, some defendants might argue that they did not know it was important to report only participation in the talent program.

In the end, this was a contentious issue in Lieber’s trial: he withheld his participation and income from both Harvard University officials and state investigators, and the prosecutor did not have to clarify in the record whether participation in the Thousand Talent Program was or should not be. be logged in.

“My ears are ringing”

On the fifth day of the trial, Mukasey, Lieber’s defense attorney, asked Defense Department investigator Amy Mousseau a series of questions about her motives in the investigation against the chemists. Is it true, Mukasey asked, that the Marine Research Laboratory informed Mousseau that Lieber had “too many Chinese students in his laboratory?”

“Yes,” replied Mousseau.

However, U.S. Attorney James Drabick objected to the issue, so Mukasey reformulated it. “Part of what Dr. What made Lieber the person to be interviewed was that he had a lot of Chinese students, didn’t he? ”

“The trial was about individual guilt … not a political debate on the China Initiative.”

“Margaret Lewis, a law professor at Seton Hall University.”

When Mousseau did not respond immediately, he continued, “Did it occur to you in connection with the investigation that Dr. Lieber had many Chinese students working in his laboratory, yes or no?”

“Yes,” replied Mousseau.

A tweet in the courtroom Summarizing this exchange, “my ears are ringing,” said Lewis, a law scholar, because “it goes to this fundamental question ‘To what extent does the government, and American society in general, see a connection with China as a reason to improve suspicion?’

This shows “bias”, she adds, which contradicts what the Ministry of Justice has long argued: that their actions are based solely on what people have done, their behavior, and not on ethnicity, race, nationality, national origin or any of these factors. ”

But racial bias, which is well documented within the FBI and DOJ, according to Michael Herman, a former FBI special agent who became a whistleblower and associate of the Brennan Center for Justice, is not the only kind of bias this trial reveals. Another issue he sees is selective prosecution.

“I’m sure the Ministry of Justice would focus the same resource on researching corporate executives, not academics, it could find many more people who haven’t reported all their income properly,” he says. “Tax evasion” – the subject of two charges for which Lieber was eventually convicted – “is a problem, but it is not a problem that the Chinese Initiative intended to solve.”

For many critics of the China Initiative, there are broader and more fundamental issues that each case – whatever the outcome – highlights.

Is “the year of imprisonment a punishment that we, as a society, consider appropriate for these types of data disclosure violations?” asks Lewis, a law scholar. The verdict also says nothing, she adds, of another concern: that the China Initiative is creating “a greater narrative of threats related to people associated with China.”

According to Lewis, these issues are expected to remain unresolved at the end of Lieber’s trial. “The trial was about Lieber’s individual guilt,” she says, “and not about discussing the Chinese Initiative’s policy.”

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