Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Fibs About Funding Aren’t Espionage, Even When China Is Involved

The U.S. Justice Department’s China Initiative has become dangerously broad.

By , a research analyst with the Center for Security and Emerging Technology at Georgetown University.
U.S. Attorney Andrew E. Lelling announces that Charles Lieber was arrested.
U.S. Attorney Andrew E. Lelling announces that Charles Lieber was arrested.
U.S. Attorney Andrew E. Lelling announces that Charles Lieber, chair of Harvard University’s department of chemistry and chemical biology, was arrested in Boston on Jan. 28, 2020. Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

A jury has just convicted Charles Lieber, the former chair of Harvard University’s department of chemistry and chemical biology and a once well-regarded scientist, of six criminal charges relating to false statements to U.S. federal authorities regarding his connections to China.

But this isn’t a win for security hawks. Despite falling under the umbrella of the U.S. Justice Department’s China Initiative, which is focused on espionage and trade secret theft, these charges represent misconduct and broader research security issues. They are not China-specific, nor should they be classified as such. The China Initiative has been casting an overly wide net, and this case illustrates the discrepancy between the initiative’s stated goals and its actions.

The Justice Department announced that Lieber lied to federal authorities about his affiliation with China’s Thousand Talent Program (a flagship program for recruiting overseas talent) and the Wuhan University of Technology (WUT), in addition to failing to report the income he received from WUT. The official Justice Department release asserts that WUT paid Lieber via a Chinese bank account up to $50,000 per month, in addition to living expenses and funding to establish a research lab at WUT; Lieber failed to report this to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service. When confronted by authorities from the federal funding agencies behind his MIT research funding, Lieber denied any Chinese affiliations.

A jury has just convicted Charles Lieber, the former chair of Harvard University’s department of chemistry and chemical biology and a once well-regarded scientist, of six criminal charges relating to false statements to U.S. federal authorities regarding his connections to China.

But this isn’t a win for security hawks. Despite falling under the umbrella of the U.S. Justice Department’s China Initiative, which is focused on espionage and trade secret theft, these charges represent misconduct and broader research security issues. They are not China-specific, nor should they be classified as such. The China Initiative has been casting an overly wide net, and this case illustrates the discrepancy between the initiative’s stated goals and its actions.

The Justice Department announced that Lieber lied to federal authorities about his affiliation with China’s Thousand Talent Program (a flagship program for recruiting overseas talent) and the Wuhan University of Technology (WUT), in addition to failing to report the income he received from WUT. The official Justice Department release asserts that WUT paid Lieber via a Chinese bank account up to $50,000 per month, in addition to living expenses and funding to establish a research lab at WUT; Lieber failed to report this to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service. When confronted by authorities from the federal funding agencies behind his MIT research funding, Lieber denied any Chinese affiliations.

Taken at face value, these charges do not scream espionage; they don’t even indicate that Lieber’s collaboration with China was illicit. In fact, in its trial brief from Dec. 7 the prosecution explicitly stated that the U.S. government did not, and could not, claim that Lieber’s relationship with WUT and the Thousand Talents Program was itself unlawful. Instead, it asserted that the crimes in the case were Lieber’s false statements and material omissions to three U.S. federal agencies. This type of pretextual prosecution—the concept of targeting defendants based on suspicion of one crime but prosecuting them for another—is common practice in the United States, according to legal scholars, and has been deployed for everyone from Lieber to Al Capone.

Originally designed to counter economic espionage activities as they relate to China, the China Initiative appears to have expanded beyond its original purpose. A recent study from the MIT Technology Review found that only 19 of the China Initiative’s 77 publicly viewable cases (that is, 25 percent) included charges of violating the Economic Espionage Act; newer cases have increasingly focused on issues pertaining to research integrity and hacking.

In principle, this is not necessarily bad. Government programs and policies should be adaptable to changing times and situations. Since the initiative’s establishment in 2018, the United States has become more acutely aware of China’s long-standing legal, illegal, and extralegal means of acquiring technology and know-how, and has worked to hone its response accordingly.

As a result, agencies across the U.S. government are recognizing a need for new, creative solutions. In 2019, the U.S. Defense Department created a new position and office solely dedicated to integrating and analyzing the department’s China work. In September, the U.S. State Department announced its plans to create a more central office of its own dedicated to China and to hire 20 to 30 staff for the task. However, the U.S. government writ-large is still processing and shaping its response to China, and the China Initiative is grasping at straws.

Whether U.S. policymakers need to re-calibrate the tools they have or come up with new tools remains to be seen. Relatedly, export controls have been at the forefront of the U.S. approach to China, yet experts argue that they are at risk of being misused as the United States attempts to deploy them to handle issues beyond their limited latitude.

In his recent testimony before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce Kevin Wolf argued that the U.S. government needs to develop an actionable definition of “national security” in the context of using export controls to address China-specific policies that go beyond the scope of traditional export control objectives. Wolf maintained the export controls were a means to an end, and the end had to be effectively articulated and understood to avoid “unintended adverse collateral consequences.”

The China Initiative requires the same mentality. Legal scholar Margaret Lewis recently explored the idea of a China Initiative “victory” or “win,” arguing that viewing China Initiative cases as “marks on the government’s scorecard” shifts the framing away from the fundamental question: How does Washington tackle very legitimate concerns surrounding Beijing’s tactics in the growing competition between the United States and China?

The challenge posed by China is a real one, as a body of research at the Center for Security and Emerging Technology (CSET) has shown, illustrating the need for some amount of country-specific enforcement. The Center has detailed a variety of means by which China is working to compete with the United States. In a recent Foreign Policy opinion piece, CSET colleague Ryan Fedasiuk and I laid out four of the key resources at the heart of U.S.-China competition: equipment, personnel, information, and capital. We argued that these resources are the pillars upon which Beijing seeks to amass comprehensive national power. The majority of publicly outlined China Initiative cases fit within at least one of these four categories, which illustrates that the China Initiative is founded on a genuine threat. However, the threats posed by these tactics are not equal in terms of scope, nor do they all represent clear forms of espionage.

Moving forward, the Justice Department should work toward more clearly defining the China Initiative’s mission. Lumping together cases such as Lieber’s under a broader espionage umbrella does more harm than good, as it puts the leadership in Beijing in a better position to weaponize the resulting misunderstandings. Research security, integrity, and misconduct—as important as they are—deserve their own category and set of experts to handle their unique set of issues.

Emily Weinstein is a research analyst with the Center for Security and Emerging Technology at Georgetown University.

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

Oleg Salyukov salutes to soldiers during Russia’s Victory Day parade.
Oleg Salyukov salutes to soldiers during Russia’s Victory Day parade.

Stop Falling for Russia’s Delusions of Perpetual Victory

The best sources on the war are the Ukrainians on the ground.

A fire rages at the Central Research Institute of the Aerospace Defense Forces in Tver, Russia
A fire rages at the Central Research Institute of the Aerospace Defense Forces in Tver, Russia

Could Sabotage Stop Putin From Using the Nuclear Option?

If the West is behind mysterious fires in Russia, the ongoing—but deniable—threat could deter Putin from escalating.

China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi is received by his Kenyan counterpart, Raychelle Omamo, in Mombasa, Kenya.
China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi is received by his Kenyan counterpart, Raychelle Omamo, in Mombasa, Kenya.

While America Slept, China Became Indispensable

Washington has long ignored much of the world. Beijing hasn’t.

A bulldozer demolishes an illegal structure during a joint anti-encroachment drive conducted by North Delhi Municipal Corporation
A bulldozer demolishes an illegal structure during a joint anti-encroachment drive conducted by North Delhi Municipal Corporation

The World Ignored Russia’s Delusions. It Shouldn’t Make the Same Mistake With India.

Hindu nationalist ideologues in New Delhi are flirting with a dangerous revisionist history of South Asia.