The Lieber case

Tension between China and the US after the conviction of the potential Nobel Prize winner

Sara Montesel
Current events

In this respect, what the Lieber case has shown us is how the Western attitude towards the Asian power has changed.

On the 21st of December, US chemist Charles Lieber, an internationally renowned scientist and specialist in nanotechnology as well as former Chair of Harvard University’s chemistry and chemical biology department, was found guilty on behalf of a Boston court of concealing his business relationship with China. In order to understand why a scientist who for years has been considered one of the leading contenders for the Nobel Prize in Chemistry is facing imprisonment, we need to go back a few years and trace his history.

In 2011, according to the indictment, the professor established a partnership with Wuhan University of Technology, signing a three-year contract identifying him as an in-house expert in the Thousand Talent Plan (TTP). This is a programme for recruiting top-level talent from abroad set up in 2008 by China’s central government to recognise and recruit top international experts in scientific research, innovation, and entrepreneurship. 
In 2018, however, the Donald Trump administration instituted Operation China Initiative; this reflected the strategic priority of countering the Chinese threat to national security and forced dozens of high-profile scientists to declare their relationships with China in the interests of transparency, as well as to prevent strategic information from falling into Chinese hands. 
In the same year, Lieber was questioned by both the National Institutes of Health and the US Department of Defence, and two years later by the FBI too. However, on all three occasions he denied his participation in the TTP.
By not declaring his participation in the programme, Lieber also failed to declare the income he received from his academic relationship i.e., $50,000 a month from China – some of which was deposited in a Chinese account, while the rest was paid out in cash – plus, a bonus of $150,000, and a $1.5 million grant to open a laboratory in Wuhan.

So, why lie in the face of prison sentences according to the US legal system for false statements?
As claimed by statements made after his arrest, Lieber was afraid of being arrested because he was aware of the government’s hostile attitude towards academics working with China. Moreover, it is widely believed that admitting his participation in the TTP would probably have meant the end of funding for his laboratory at Harvard. Substantial aid, considering that his research group had received $18 million since 2008 from the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Defence, both of which require disclosure of foreign financial conflicts of interest.

As stated by the US Department of Defence, the reason behind the China Initiative is the massive Chinese participation detected in cases of intellectual property theft and industrial espionage against Washington. However, there is no such evidence against Lieber, as there was no evidence that he was giving away sensitive information.
As maintained by Brian Timko, a former colleague of the professor, the government is focusing on situations that until recently would have been handled by the university. Furthermore, critics of the China Initiative declare that many of those targeted by the government should not be charged with espionage and intellectual theft, but only with failing to declare links to Chinese funding.
According to several academics, the crux of the matter is that the US administration’s overly aggressive attitude towards scientists collaborating with Beijing threatens to undermine the exchange of ideas that lies at the heart of academic research. This is all the more so as the ties between the US and Chinese scientific communities are well grounded: on the report of a 2018 analysis, in 2019, 9% of scientific studies produced by Chinese institutes and 9% of US studies had US and Chinese scientists as co-authors respectively.

Despite complaints from members of academic circles about the Chinese initiative, the US government’s attitude can be, if not shared, at least understood.

In this respect, what the Lieber case has shown us is how the Western attitude towards the Asian power has changed. In fact, Chinese behaviour towards foreign countries is not generally considered cooperative but has rather been judged as non-transparent and characterised over the years by unfair practices as well as by a climate of closure, whereby everything that happens, or is granted, takes place for Chinese purposes. Just to mention a trivial example, one needs to simply realise that today Chinese companies operate in the global market, whereas Western companies cannot operate in China unless they make huge compromises or risk intellectual property theft.
It is important to understand that each country achieves its goals by pursuing a specific strategy.
If, on the one hand, China moulds the idea of collaboration based on a culture that pushes to exploit the capabilities of others in order to grow in strength one-sidedly; on the other, it is just as understandable that Western states must recognise the danger that can arise from giving themselves freely to a competitor who ‘plays it safe’.
Nevertheless, it is a pity to realise that the burden of the geopolitical strategies of the Washington-Beijing alliance will be borne first and foremost by the openness and freedom that have always characterised Western academic circles.

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