Now I know what spies for China can expect to be paid

Charles Lieber, a Harvard chemist, has been arrested for working with the Chinese. My first thought was that this is terrible, science is an international enterprise, we value cooperation and the sharing of information, and working with the Chinese people and other international students is exactly what a respected scientist at a university ought to be doing. I have students from China in my classes, I think it’s great that they are here and learning.

I think that’s going to be part of the defense strategy. It’s government paranoia, part of a campaign of hostility against China.

Peter Zeidenberg, a lawyer who has represented Chinese Americans accused of espionage, said in an email that the Justice Department “has launched an all-out war on any U.S. scientist associated with the 1000 Talent or other Chinese Talent programs.”

He said that is a major shift in U.S. practice after years of lax scrutiny of the issue.

“The government is now expecting perfect compliance for scientists who received no training on how these forms needed to be filled out and no warnings about the dangers of submitting an inaccurate form,” Zeidenberg said. “Treating these mistakes as felonies is entirely inappropriate.”

Except, well, ‘not knowing how to fill out a form’ is a bad tactic when you’re defending one of the most successful scientists in the world, at one of the richest universities in the world. He can probably figure it out, and if not, there is certainly a team of well-paid administrators at Harvard who could figure it out for him.

Then I read the actual charges. He had a contract with the Wuhan University of Technology.

I about choked. He was personally paid $50K per month, handed $150K per year for personal expenses, and awarded a $1.5 million grant? All that was on top of his Harvard salary, which wasn’t stated, but is probably a healthy sum. Man, I’m wondering how I can get on the Chinese spy payroll all of a sudden, because those numbers are not what you get paid for academic work. Just the fact that he’s being given $750K per year as his own cash to swim around in in his vault is abnormal and suspicious, and then we learn that it was all under the table, and he didn’t tell anyone about his secret contract.

The Justice Department says Lieber, 60, lied about his contact with the Chinese program known as the Thousand Talents Plan, which the U.S. has previously flagged as a serious intelligence concern. He also is accused of lying about about a lucrative contract he signed with China’s Wuhan University of Technology.

In an affidavit unsealed Tuesday, FBI Special Agent Robert Plumb said Lieber, who led a Harvard research group focusing on nanoscience, had established a research lab at the Wuhan university — apparently unbeknownst to Harvard.

Universities care about this stuff. Every year I get a little form sent around that I have to fill out, which is basically asking if I’m moonlighting at anything, am I getting paid on the side. They are paying me a salary for full-time work 9 months out of the year; it’s OK if I’m bringing in summer salary, for instance, but they want to know about it, because they want to know that I regard them as my primary employer. If I were to mention that the Chinese government was paying me 10 times what the Minnesota state government was coughing up, they might suspect a conflict of interest.

Lieber lied about his affiliations. Further, and quite amusingly, when WUT started touting their connections to Harvard, Lieber was frantically contacting them to shush, that he was working with them, but Harvard was not, so ix-nay on the Arvard-hay talk, or they’ll catch on.

This ain’t about international cooperation and scientific values, it’s about a greedy American being bought by the Chinese government and lying about it. Throw the book at him.

Maybe the legal strategy of claiming that he was too stupid to fill out a form properly is his best bet after all.


  1. Meeker Morgan says

    So unlike your classic Commie spies of the 1950s such as the Rosenbergs, they are not doing it out of love?

  2. jrkrideau says

    He, just, might be in trouble.

    I am not particularly surprised at the money. China has been pouring huge amounts of money into scientific research over the last decade or so and probably were quite happy to hire a top-notch researcher—cheap at the price.

    Not all that different than Harvard come to think of it. How do you think they got all those Nobels?

    The stupid thing is lying to the US Dept of Defence.

    Further, and quite amusingly, when WUT started touting their connections to Harvard, Lieber was frantically contacting them to shush, that he was working with them, but Harvard was not

    Seems to me to indicate that Wuhan University of Technology looked on this as a normal contract so presumably the PRC Gov’t did too. Looks like a greedy researcher trying to double dip and dodge paying income tax unless he was declaring this income to the IRA.

    Based on the data at the moment, I don’t see any particularly nefarious about the Chinese Gov’t’s actions. They were buying expertise something they have been, openly, doing for years.

  3. brucegee1962 says

    Suppose he’d been doing the exact same thing, but open and above-board, and Harvard had been ok with it. Would it still have been a felony? In other words, was it the act itself that was felonious, or just the coverup? I’m vague on the legalese, but I’d think the defense had a strong case. Fired from Harvard, maybe, but a felony?

    It just seems as if there’s a broad landscape between “selling US secrets to a foreign power” and “hired by a foreign power to do research,” and it sounds as if he was on the latter end.

  4. unclefrogy says

    well if he was doing the work Harvard hired him to do and unless it was an exclusive contract like sharing his research with other entities he was not cheating them but he may have been cheating the tax man his fair share and maybe cheating Harvard out of an up-front joint venture contract with WUT for themselves. That might have been a little cheat of WUT.
    Does not sound like a Rosenberg like case so far.
    uncle frogy

  5. garnetstar says

    Wow, at last it has happened: someone I knew very well, for years (not anytime recently), has turned into a famous criminal.

    Charlie’s in my same field, and all the students/postdocs/assitant professors knew each other and met professionally all the time, and all that.

    It’s always funny how scientists, or the like, people who are educated in and good at one field, think that that means that they’ll be good at crime, too. Charlie always did think way too highly of himself, but then, they all did.

    I think that scientists are actually unusually bad at crime, because they don’t watch enough TV, where you can really learn professional-level techniques.

  6. jrkrideau says

    I think the serious problem is the lying to the Department of Defence. And probably not paying income tax. Either or both could be a felony. IIRC a couple of Trump’s mob went to prison for lying to the FBI as did Roger Stone.

    Does not sound like a Rosenberg like case so far.
    Except for the current campaign of hostility against China. Maria Butina ended up in solitary confinement due to the Russiagate hysteria.