MIT funds defence of scientist accused of undisclosed China ties

Gang Chen gets backing as US reported to be considering retreating from such cases

January 25, 2021
China embassy
Source: iStock

Amid a possible US government reassessment of tactics, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is funding the defence of a faculty researcher accused of failing to disclose financial ties to China.

MIT has promised to legally defend Gang Chen, its recently arrested Chinese-born nanoengineering professor, while the Biden administration is reportedly considering a retreat from the pursuit of such prosecutions.

The plan being evaluated within the Justice Department would provide an amnesty for academics if they admitted to receiving foreign funding they had not previously disclosed, according to The Wall Street Journal. The Justice Department was not commenting on the idea, a spokesman said.

The developments suggested shifts by both academia and the government after years of Trump administration efforts to pressure China by aggressively investigating and prosecuting cases that academics and their defenders regarded as largely procedural violations.

Professor Chen, who has spent 20 years at MIT, has been accused of hiding various partnerships with China, including $19 million (£14 million) from the Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech) in Shenzhen.

MIT’s leadership has disputed a central contention in the government’s complaint against Professor Chen – pointing out that the $19 million went to MIT, not to the professor – and has agreed to finance his legal representation.

MIT “takes seriously” legitimate national security concerns, but it values Professor Chen and the university community is “deeply concerned” by the government’s move against him, MIT’s president, Rafael Reif, said in a community letter.

Another 100 MIT faculty, in a separate letter, rebut several other allegations in the government’s legal case, which prosecutors filed just before the Trump administration left office.

The prosecution is a “deeply flawed and misleading” example of a racially biased campaign against US-based academics with Chinese affiliations, the faculty write. “At best, it represents a deep misunderstanding of how research is conducted or funded at a place like MIT,” they say.

The case came about a year after arguably the most high-profile such arrest, that of Charles Lieber, a professor of chemistry at Harvard University. Top Trump administration officials celebrated it at the time as having “a chilling effect on collaboration with Chinese institutions”, even as public presentations showed that Professor Lieber had openly publicised his work in China.

While MIT is backing Professor Chen, Professor Lieber has been suing Harvard to force it to fund his defence costs. Harvard has been cooperating with the government in the case and has declined to comment on the matter.

“Academics everywhere should be horrified” by Harvard’s behaviour, said a Lieber attorney, Marc Mukasey. Harvard “embraced for years the prestige and the grant money Charlie brought in”, Mr Mukasey said. But after the arrest, he continued, “Harvard abandoned Lieber, washed its hands of him, threw him under the bus”.

Despite the reported consideration of an amnesty initiative, the Biden administration’s likely attitude towards the idea remains unclear. The new US president was understood to share his predecessor’s fundamental wariness towards China, if not his confrontational style.

And the idea of a possible amnesty was described by the Journal as dating back months, with origins in a Republican Trump administration appointee.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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