MIT Backs Engineer Charged in China Crackdown

He faces up to 30 years in prison — but he is not accused of passing sensitive information to China.

More than two years ago, the U.S. Department of Justice announced a new effort, known as the China Initiative, to crack down on the passing of valuable research and intellectual property to the nation’s top economic rival.

In subsequent months, the initiative led to charges against more than two dozen researchers, including six visiting scientists and 10 American academic researchers. But the latest arrest, the New York Times reports, drew a fierce backlash.

Gang Chen, a prominent mechanical engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was arrested earlier this month amid allegations that he failed to disclose financial and academic ties to China when applying for U.S. government grants.

Prosecutors said Chen and his research group collected $29 million in foreign dollars, including $19 million from a Chinese government-funded university, and alleged that — decades after he moved to the U.S. and became a citizen — he was loyal to his native country.

But MIT and his colleagues see things differently. The university noted that the Chinese university funding in question went to MIT — not Chen — and was part of a well-known research collaboration. The university, the Times reports, took the unprecedented step of paying for his legal defense.

Dozens of MIT faculty members, meanwhile, argued that Chen’s activities amounted to routine academic work that did not require such disclosure.

Other critics have questioned the wisdom of severe crackdowns in cases that do not involve economic espionage. Chen, federal prosecutors acknowledged, is not accused of passing any sensitive information to China.

The DOJ’s efforts to combat Chinese economic espionage are unlikely to slow down as a new administration enters the White House, but the Times notes that the agency is considering a program that would allow academic researchers to disclose past foreign funding without the threat of criminal investigation.

Chen has pleaded not guilty in the case; he faces up to 30 years in prison on all charges.

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