The Washington Post

As cases fail, security initiative’s aim is questioned

- BY ELLEN NAKASHIMA AND DAVID NAKAMURA

CLEVELAND — Qing Wang was born in rural China, came to the United States to study and worked his way into the elite ranks of American science, becoming a respected heart-disease researcher — and, in 2005, a citizen of his adopted country.

Then one morning last year, an FBI agent knocked at his door in a suburb here.

Within hours, Wang was in handcuffs, charged with concealing ties to the Chinese government on a federal grant applicatio­n. The prestigiou­s Cleveland Clinic, where he had worked for 21 years, fired him the same day.

To federal investigat­ors, Wang, now 56, was an example of China’s growing effort to co-opt scientists in the United States — part of a vast campaign to steal American secrets and technology. Over the past several years, the Justice Department has broadened its focus from company insiders, hackers

and suspected Chinese agents to scrutinize researcher­s at universiti­es and hospitals under a marquee law enforcemen­t program called the China Initiative.

But a string of dismissed cases has amplified concerns among some lawmakers and activists about whether prosecutor­s have been overzealou­s in pursuing researcher­s of Chinese descent.

The issue goes beyond whether the government is bringing prosecutio­ns it can win. Critics say the cases raise the question of whether a program designed to address a national security threat posed by the Chinese government has strayed, targeting researcher­s on lesser allegation­s of fraud without compelling evidence that they pose a danger to the United States.

In July, federal prosecutor­s dropped all charges against Wang, who was accused of hiding ties to a Chinese university while securing millions of dollars in U.S. research grants. In September 2020, a court dismissed a case against a visiting Chinese researcher at the University of Virginia, who turned out to have authorized access to the proprietar­y software code he was accused of stealing.

And Sept. 9, 12 weeks after a jury deadlocked on whether a Chinese Canadian researcher at the University of Tennessee had defrauded NASA, a federal judge acquitted the scientist on all counts.

The Justice Department separately dropped five other cases in a single day this summer, each involving Chinese nationals doing research in the United States and accused of falsely denying links to the Chinese military on visa applicatio­ns. Officials said the dismissals were not for lack of evidence, but defense lawyers said the government overreache­d.

In many of the cases, the Justice Department is “using language akin to spycraft, but that’s not substantia­ted by the charges they are bringing,” said George P. Varghese, a former federal prosecutor in Boston who is a partner at Wilmerhale advising universiti­es on China-related cases.

“It’s the Al Capone analogy: ‘We got you on taxes, but we know you’re a bootlegger,’ ” Varghese said. Having a mistrial and six cases dismissed within several weeks “is extraordin­ary,” he added. “It really undermines the credibilit­y of the initiative.”

For the 20 or so academics prosecuted in the past three years and linked to the China Initiative, most charges related to lack of candor — making false statements or failing to disclose ties to Chinese institutio­ns — rather than intent to spy. All but a few of the researcher­s are of Chinese descent.

Their defenders include prominent scientists who have written open letters in support of professors at Harvard University and the Massachuse­tts Institute of Technology charged in cases that involved federal grants and alleged foreign financial conflicts of interest. MIT is paying for the legal defense of Gang Chen, a Chinese American researcher accused of concealing the foreign source of his funding, and the university publicly declared that it, not Chen, had accepted the funds from a Chinese university. This month, nearly 200 Stanford University academics signed an open letter expressing concerns that the initiative disproport­ionately targets researcher­s of Chinese origin and urging the program be terminated. Former Justice Department officials say losing the trust of the universiti­es where researcher­s are based risks underminin­g the initiative’s success.

Critics of the prosecutio­ns say they have chilled scientific research and fueled the perception that Chinese American scientists are disloyal to the United States at a time of rising anti-asian sentiment. Congressio­nal Democrats want Attorney General Merrick Garland to investigat­e the initiative for racial profiling.

“I didn’t do anything illegal,” Wang said in an interview. “But the China Initiative is still going on. . . . It creates such a fear in the community.”

Justice Department officials defend their effort, noting there is no government comparable to China in scope and scale of policies designed to undercut the United States’ technologi­cal edge, including through economic espionage and trade secret theft. They say the cases against scientists and researcher­s represent a small portion of the program.

Of more than 80 cases related to the China Initiative, most involved allegation­s of economic espionage, trade secret theft, espionage or illegal export of militaryus­e items. Some are aimed at deterring Beijing’s targeting of Chinese dissidents in the United States.

Officials said the initiative extends into academia because China’s efforts go beyond traditiona­l spying to recruit researcher­s whose work — even if unclassifi­ed and eventually published — can benefit the Communist-led government. In May, for instance, an Ohio State University professor was sentenced to 37 months in prison after he admitted he lied on grant applicatio­ns to develop China’s expertise in the areas of rheumatolo­gy and immunology.

Justice Department officials said they are committed to ensuring that their actions do not violate civil rights or spur anti-asian discrimina­tion.

“The department is dedicated to countering unlawful PRC government efforts to undermine America’s national security and harm our economy,” spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle said in a statement, referring to the People’s Republic of China. “We are also mindful of our responsibi­lity to combat another serious threat: the substantia­l rise in hate crimes and bias targeting the Asian American Pacific Islander community.”

A knock at the door

In the weeks leading up to his arrest, Wang was interviewe­d by the Cleveland Clinic and the National Institutes of Health about his grants. He got no indication he was under criminal suspicion.

“I was shocked,” he said about his early morning arrest in May 2020. “At that moment,” he said, “I felt that my life was over.”

Wang was the lead investigat­or on a research project on the genetics of cardiovasc­ular disease, funded by more than $3.6 million in NIH grants.

He allegedly neglected to disclose to NIH that even as he was a professor at Cleveland Clinic’s Lerner College of Medicine, he was a beneficiar­y of the Thousand Talents Program, through which the Chinese government recruits academics in the West whose expertise might benefit Beijing.

In an affidavit, FBI agent John Matthews alleged that through the program, Wang was made dean of the College of Life Sciences at Huazhong University of Science and Technology. The agent said Wang concealed receiving Chinese government grants totaling $480,000 for research that overlapped with his U.s.-funded work. In particular, Matthews alleged, citing NIH informatio­n, “the families used in both studies were mostly the same.”

Wang’s lawyer, Peter Zeidenberg, disputed the allegation­s, saying Wang disclosed his research in China as part of the NIH applicatio­n and did not use American families for the Chinese study. Wang also disclosed to the Cleveland Clinic that he was affiliated with the talent program, said Zeidenberg, a former federal prosecutor and a partner at Arent Fox in Washington.

“Ultimately this came down to whether the grant forms were filled out correctly,” Zeidenberg said. “The informatio­n was all there. It just wasn’t where the NIH was looking.”

Over 34 years of research in the United States, including 21 at the Cleveland Clinic, Wang led a team that discovered the first gene for Brugada syndrome, a disorder causing irregular heart rhythm, which can be fatal — especially in young people.

He wanted to stay in the United States because it “has the best environmen­t for science in this area,” and because he thought he would have the most impact in a country where heart disease is the leading cause of death.

The arrest terrified Wang, his wife, Qiuyun Chen, and their two daughters.

“We worked so hard day and night just trying to understand how to prevent human disease,” said Chen, who also came to the United States in 1986 to study and was a member of Wang’s Cleveland Clinic research team. “And you never think this would be criminal.”

A growing confrontat­ion

Several years ago prosecutor­s dismissed charges against four other scientists of Chinese descent, including a Temple University professor charged with sharing sensitive technology with China. These cases were brought during the Obama administra­tion, which was becoming more aggressive in pursuing cases of Chinese economic espionage.

The dismissals, defense lawyers said, showed the challenge of bringing criminal cases based on scientific technology that FBI agents and prosecutor­s are illequippe­d to understand. In the case of Temple’s Xiaoxing Xi, leading physicists attested that contrary to the federal charges, schematics he sent to Chinese counterpar­ts were not related to restricted supercondu­ctor research.

As a result of the missteps, the Justice Department in 2016 instituted guidelines directing prosecutor­s in the field to coordinate with senior officials in Washington on cases that affected national security. But that has not always happened when the charges relate to grant fraud, current and former officials said.

At the same time, there has been growing political consensus toward greater confrontat­ion with Beijing. Lawmakers in both parties have pushed for stronger measures to blunt China’s increasing­ly aggressive theft of American intellectu­al property, which the U.S. government estimated to cost $225 billion to $600 billion a year.

In November 2018, then-attorney General Jeff Sessions launched the China Initiative at a news conference heralding a major indictment of a Chinese stateowned company, a Taiwan company and three Taiwanese nationals. They were charged with conspiring to steal sensitive U.S. semiconduc­tor technology to benefit China.

His announceme­nt came amid a Trump administra­tion trade war with Beijing. The heightened tension was reflected in the language some officials used to frame the cases, with one FBI official calling China “a country bent on economic espionage against the United States” and one U.S. attorney saying the MIT case “was not just about greed, but about loyalty to China.”

Since 2018, prosecutor­s have brought more and more cases against researcher­s involving allegation­s of grant fraud, rather than trade secret theft. The grants are from a variety of agencies — the Energy Department, the National Science Foundation, NASA and NIH among them. NIH says it has opened 222 compliance reviews since 2018. So far, 85 scientists — including Wang — resigned, retired or have been fired as a result.

Just this month, Zeidenberg was contacted by three professors over two days from different institutio­ns in different states, saying the FBI had searched their homes, taken their electronic­s and indicated that the scientists were suspected of engaging in Nih-related grant fraud.

The academics have not been charged or arrested, Zeidenberg said, but “they were shellshock­ed.”

Michael Lauer, NIH deputy director for extramural research, said these types of fraud investigat­ions are important because undue foreign influence — a government enticing scientists with financial and other rewards to illicitly transfer informatio­n, for instance — affects research integrity.

“We should not be paying for research if somebody else is paying to do the exact same research,” he said. But Lauer said he thinks such fraud, when it exists, is motivated primarily by financial and profession­al self-interest, not espionage.

“At NIH, we don’t deal with national security,” he said. “None of our projects are classified. Our issue is an integrity issue.”

John Hemann, a former federal prosecutor in San Francisco, worked the flagship China Initiative case: the 2018 indictment of Chinese state-owned Fujian Jinhua. He said the department was successful­ly prosecutin­g Chinarelat­ed economic espionage cases long before Sessions’s announceme­nt.

But pressure to demonstrat­e the initiative’s success — to “show statistics,” he said, “has caused a program focused on the Chinese government to morph into a people-of- Chinese-descent initiative,’’ including Chinese-born scientists working in the United States.

Officials said critics have misjudged the initiative’s goals because of the complex nature of China’s efforts to steal cuttingedg­e know-how nurtured on American campuses, including through talent programs that bestow large financial awards on U.s.-based academics.

John Demers, former assistant attorney general for national security, said the Chinese government generally advises the scientists to hide their involvemen­t in these programs. Grant fraud, he said, is a legitimate target of national security prosecutor­s who want to defend “core academic values of integrity and transparen­cy.”

“No initiative to defend against the Chinese government’s malign activities in the United States could turn a blind eye to such efforts,” said Demers, who left the Justice Department in June.

Calls for amnesty

Anming Hu, a professor of nanotechno­logy at the University of Tennessee, was the first grant fraud defendant charged under the China Initiative to stand trial. In February 2020, prosecutor­s accused Hu, a naturalize­d Canadian citizen, of hiding his ties to a Chinese university while receiving funding from NASA.

The June mistrial in a Knoxville courtroom raised questions about the government’s case.

An FBI agent testified that he validated a tip that Hu was a spy by performing a Google search, which turned up a flier written in Chinese that included Hu’s picture. The agent determined that Hu had agreed to a short-term teaching position at a Beijing university in 2012 through the Thousand Talents Program, according to trial testimony — a position the government alleged Hu failed to disclose years later.

Juror Wendy Chandler said in a phone interview that before the trial began she assumed the government would have a strong case. Instead, she said, she was “pretty horrified by the lack of evidence.”

Hu “made a series of clerical errors,” said Chandler, who says she has written to Garland urging him to investigat­e the prosecutio­n. “He’s a scientist — not a human resources man. I didn’t see any sign of his hiding anything.”

In a ruling released Sept. 9, U.S. District Judge Thomas Varlan agreed, writing he’d found no evidence that Hu “had specific intent to defraud NASA by hiding his affiliatio­n” with the Chinese university.

Varlan also said that wire fraud, which was the statutory charge lodged against Hu, requires a “tangible harm” to the victim. NASA, he said, received the research it paid for. “There is simply no evidence that NASA did not receive something of value, and specifical­ly, the benefit of its bargain,” he wrote.

Justice officials have mulled offering an amnesty to those who voluntaril­y disclose ties to Chinese military and government institutio­ns, to encourage transparen­cy while avoiding costly and time-consuming prosecutio­ns. Despite support from the FBI and the department’s national security division, inspectors general at the grant-making agencies have opposed the idea, former officials said.

Justice Department officials declined to comment on the matter.

Demers, in an interview, said in cases that involve only grant fraud, “the government should consider incentiviz­ing self-disclosure by granting immunity from prosecutio­n and limiting administra­tive penalties, like debarment.”

That approach, Demers said, “would provide the government even more of what it most wants — visibility into and disruption of a Chinese government program, while avoiding accusation­s of overcrimin­alization and maintainin­g the trust of academic institutio­ns.”

Andrew Lelling held a news conference to publicize charges against Chen, the MIT professor, when he was the U.S. attorney from Massachuse­tts eight months ago. But Lelling, now in private practice, said in a recent interview that he thinks the initiative has achieved a level of deterrence by alerting universiti­es to the importance of disclosure. He said he would not halt prosecutio­ns already underway but thinks that pursuing academic grant fraud is “nearing the overkill stage.”

“If I were in the department today,” Lelling said, “I’d tell the field, ‘ Okay, slow down on new cases. Let’s set the bar higher now.’ ”

Wang was never indicted by a grand jury, which would have started the clock toward a trial. By July, prosecutor­s determined that they did not have sufficient evidence to proceed.

“With all matters, we evaluate facts as we learn them to determine if we can prove federal charges beyond a reasonable doubt,” said Thomas P. Weldon, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Cleveland. “In the event we do not reach such a conclusion, we do not proceed to indictment.”

Zeidenberg said the government was “overeager to arrest and charge” Wang. But, he said, the outcome was “ultimately just.” NIH declined to comment.

In a statement, the Cleveland Clinic said Wang was fired for violating the policies of the clinic and NIH, and the medical center has put “additional safeguards into place” to help prevent similar problems.

Wang said he is relieved that his case was dismissed. But his taxpayer-funded research is frozen, the genetic samples he collected in limbo.

He said he fears that the U.S. government’s initiative “will drive talented Chinese-born scientists back to China, which is a big loss for the USA.”

Still, Wang, who has lived most of his life in the United States, said he will try to rekindle his career in the hopes of making more “breakthrou­gh” discoverie­s, and will consider leaving the country if he has to.

“It will be difficult,” he said of restarting his research. “But I think I can do it.”

“The department is dedicated to countering unlawful [Chinese] government efforts to undermine America’s national security and harm our economy.” Wyn Hornbuckle, Justice Department spokesman

 ?? DUSTIN FRANZ FOR THE WASHINGTON POST ?? Cleveland-area researcher Qing Wang, 56, was charged last year with concealing ties to the Chinese government on a federal grant applicatio­n. All the charges against him were dropped in July.
DUSTIN FRANZ FOR THE WASHINGTON POST Cleveland-area researcher Qing Wang, 56, was charged last year with concealing ties to the Chinese government on a federal grant applicatio­n. All the charges against him were dropped in July.
 ?? DUSTIN FRANZ FOR THE WASHINGTON POST ?? Qing Wang, 56, at his Cleveland-area home on Aug. 18. On the day of his arrest last year, Wang was fired by the Cleveland Clinic. The heart-disease researcher had spent 21 years there.
DUSTIN FRANZ FOR THE WASHINGTON POST Qing Wang, 56, at his Cleveland-area home on Aug. 18. On the day of his arrest last year, Wang was fired by the Cleveland Clinic. The heart-disease researcher had spent 21 years there.

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