Following the arrest of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) nanoengineering professor Chen Gang on charges of failing to disclose China ties and financial accounts on Jan. 14, objections to the high-profile professor’s arrest flooded in last week.
On Jan. 22, MIT President L. Rafael Reif sent a letter to the MIT community and clarified Chen’s ties with the Chinese institute Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech), saying “This is not an individual collaboration; it is a departmental one, supported by the Institute.” In addition, the letter stated that SUSTech agrees to provide $25 million to MIT over five years for advancing the work of a group of colleagues, and the research and educational mission of MIT. In other words, the funding is not solely received on behalf of Chen.
On Jan. 21, roughly 100 of Chen’s colleagues signed a letter in protest of the Department of Justice (DOJ) decision to arrest Chen and delivered it to the university’s president. The letter stated that “the complaint against Gang vilifies what would be considered normal academic and research activities, including promoting MIT’s global mission.” The letter further claimed that “the criminal complaint against Gang has nothing to do with protecting intellectual property [as] published it is deeply flawed and misleading in its assertions. At best, it represents a deep misunderstanding of how research is conducted or funded at a place like MIT.”
According to Boston Globe on Jan. 20, “the grand jury has now indicted Chen on two counts of wire fraud, one count of failing to file a foreign bank account report and one count of making a false statement in a tax return.”
Chen’s case falls into DOJ’s “China Initiative.” Launched in 2018, the initiative aims to counter threats posed by trade secret theft and economic espionage from China. It also prosecuted researchers at American universities who are accused of concealing their professional relationships with Chinese institutions.
Harvard Professor Charles Lieber was charged last January with failing to disclose his ties to China’s Thousand Talents Plan even though his attorney has denied the allegations, calling the professor the “victim in this case.”
However, earlier this month, several groups, including Asian Americans Advancing Justice sent a letter to President Joe Biden to encourage him to end the “China Initiative.” The groups stated the initiative has “greatly increased the targeting and profiling of Asian Americans and immigrants, particularly those of Chinese descent who are working in science and technology.”
On Jan. 14, Rafael wrote in a letter sent to the MIT community that Chen’s charge was “surprising, deeply distressing and hard to understand,” highlighting that Chen had been a widely respected faculty member for decades.
Chen was arrested and then released on bail last week.