Gang Chen, the China Initiative, and Open-Borders Academia

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by The Spectator World on February 19, 2022 and is crossposted here with permission.


In January, the Department of Justice dropped charges against Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Gang Chen, a mechanical engineer accused of concealing illicit ties to the Chinese government early last year. United States Attorney Rachael Rollins said regarding the decision, “After a careful assessment of this new information in the context of all the evidence, our office has concluded that we can no longer meet our burden of proof at trial… Today’s dismissal is a result of that process and is in the interests of justice.”

In a vacuum, this story may not be all that noteworthy — prosecutors drop charges all the time for a variety of reasons. But this case is the latest misstep of the DoJ’s faltering China Initiative, a crucial effort which continues to lose steam under the Biden administration [on February 23, the DoJ officially ended the China Initiative]. Chen may be innocent, but America is on the path to a new open-borders academia, in which institutional influence and research findings are on the market for any nation willing to put up the funds.

Let’s review the charges, shall we? As per a January 2021 press release, Chen was “charged by criminal complaint with wire fraud, failing to file a foreign bank account report (FBAR) and making a false statement in a tax return.” The Department added:

According to charging documents, Chen is a naturalized US citizen who was born in China. He is a professor and researcher at MIT where he serves as Director of the MIT Pappalardo Micro/Nano Engineering Laboratory and Director of the Solid-State Solar Thermal Energy Conversion Center (S3TEC). Since approximately 2013, Chen’s research at MIT has been funded by more than $19 million in grants awarded by various US federal agencies.

Since 2012, Chen has allegedly held various appointments with the PRC designed to promote the PRC’s technological and scientific development by providing advice and expertise — sometimes directly to PRC government officials — and often in exchange for financial compensation. This includes acting as an “overseas expert” for the PRC government at the request of the PRC Consulate Office in New York and serving as a member of at least two PRC Talent Programs. Since 2013, Chen allegedly received approximately $29 million of foreign funding, including $19 million from the PRC’s Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech) (Emphasis my own).

In other words, Chen is a big deal, both in the US and China. There’s nothing illegal about that on its face. But the charges present serious concerns regarding academic integrity and national security — after all, China is not exactly America’s best friend. Was Chen duplicating his US research in Chinese labs or otherwise sharing his work with Chinese institutions? We don’t know, and we may never know. If so, he wouldn’t be the first. MIT has welcomed him back with open arms. But that he was allegedly willing to commit wire fraud and lie on his taxes to conceal the PRC cash flow is awfully suspicious, to say the least.

[Related: “The Foreign Funding Quandary”]

When it comes to these kinds of charges, Chen is far from alone. As of November, the National Association of Scholars counts forty-eight cases of suspected illegal ties to China within American academia (there are more to be found within American industry, but that’s beyond the NAS’s purview). Many of these cases arose out of the DoJ’s China Initiative, an effort launched in 2018 which “reflects the strategic priority of countering Chinese national security threats and reinforces the President’s [Trump’s] overall national security strategy.” The Initiative has led to a few convictions — most notably that of Harvard’s Charles Lieber — but generally speaking, it’s batting below .500.

To be clear, I’m not arguing that Chen is guilty, or that there has necessarily been a miscarriage of justice here. It does appear by all accounts that the DoJ’s case had some serious holes. For example, the Department alleged that Chen failed to disclose certain international partnerships in a Department of Energy grant application, even though he applied three years before the DoE began requiring such disclosure. What’s more, Chen’s legal defense claims that five of his seven alleged overseas collaborations simply did not exist, while one of the two that did exist was properly disclosed to the DoE, namely the aforementioned funding from SUSTech (it’s unclear what the second collaboration is that Chen’s defense acknowledges as real).

If the defense team is telling the truth, then the DoJ messed up, big time. But even so, should we take the Department’s decision to drop charges at face value? I’m not so sure. For starters, what ever happened to the original charges? Let’s assume that Chen did cross his t’s and dot his i’s with the DoE. Let’s also assume that five of the alleged collaborations with China didn’t occur, as his defense claims.

We must still ask: what about “wire fraud, failing to file a foreign bank account report (FBAR) and making a false statement in a tax return”? Couldn’t Chen have theoretically committed all of these offenses while also completing his grant applications correctly? Perhaps I’m missing something, but none of the articles I’ve seen written in Chen’s defense mention these original charges, but instead focus on the DoJ’s blunders described above.

Further, President Biden has faced immense pressure to end the China Initiative ever since he took office. See, for example, a January 2021 open letter sent to the president by ​​Asian Americans Advancing Justice, the Brennan Center for Justice and APA [Asian Pacific American] Justice, which expressed “deep concern with the federal government’s racial, ethnic, and national origin profiling and discriminatory investigations and prosecutions of Asian Americans and Asian immigrants, harming the lives of not just individuals, their families, and communities, but eroding the health of our democracy.” While it’s laughable to characterize the China Initiative as a “racially biased” government effort, as the letter does (see my full response to this claim here), the Biden administration has proven itself to be soft on Beijing in other, related areas. Why would we expect it to act differently in this one?

Here’s what I see as an even bigger problem, though: we shouldn’t have to rely on the DoJ or other government agencies to discover and investigate illegal ties to foreign governments. This is the responsibility of our colleges and universities. Unfortunately, higher education has been all but completely unwilling to do this crucial work, and is more than happy to allow foreign funds to flow in unchecked. This is primarily because the universities themselves receive untold amounts of dark money, in many cases from America’s geopolitical rivals.

[Related: “Are Elite Universities Getting Too Chummy With China and Russia?”]

Case in point: in 2020, the Department of Education uncovered over $6.5 billion (yes, billion with a b) in previously undisclosed gifts to American colleges and universities. The benefactors? China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, to name a few. If university administrators are making like Scrooge McDuck with their own foreign funds, why would they care if faculty do the same? The more the merrier, right?

It’s clear that, regardless of the outcome of any particular case, America is fast approaching an open-borders academia. Perhaps we’re already there. On both the institutional and individual level, foreign governments have learned that America’s institutional influence and research output are for sale, if they’re willing to pay the price.

Professors are happy to accept these funds, often under the table, and universities are too busy swimming in their own foreign money to care. Even if the Gang Chens of the world are completely innocent with respect to the law — and that’s a big if — it is outrageous that they can receive millions of dollars from hostile foreign governments while their institutions turn a blind eye. In Chen’s case, MIT was a willing participant.

US STEM achievement is already lagging behind. An open-borders academia will only accelerate this process, as China and other rival nations strategically target America’s top scientists for so-called “collaboration.” Legitimate, transparent research partnerships are one thing. Accepting funds, often in secret, from America’s greatest rivals is quite another.

Colleges and universities must hold their researchers accountable — and if they won’t, the federal government must hold our institutions accountable. Right now, neither is happening to any significant extent. American science languishes as a result.


Image: John Phelan, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license, cropped

David Acevedo

David Acevedo is Managing Editor of Minding the Campus and Communications & Research Associate at the National Association of Scholars.

2 thoughts on “Gang Chen, the China Initiative, and Open-Borders Academia

  1. A few more details:

    1. While private, MIT is a land-grant college. (Massachusetts split the grant.) What this means in this context is not clear.

    2. One of the defenses was that it was MIT and not the professor who violated the law. To the extent grants get funneled through MIT’s payroll office, this may well be true. Well then….

    2A. To what extent is MIT getting research overhead on all of this? I haven’t seen that discussed anywhere…

    3. USA Rachael Rollins was formerly known as Rachael “Decline to Prosecute” Rollins, the Suffolk County (i.e. Boston) District Attorney who published a list of crimes she would not prosecute.

    Who also involved in a road rage incident and then threatened to fabricate criminal charges against a TV reporter — with the reporter’s cameraman getting it all on tape.

    4. Let’s not forget the grad student caught at Logan trying to fly home to China with biological samples hidden in his socks.

    There are a lot of issues here, national security being but one.

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