Remarks Delivered by FBI Boston Division Special Agent in Charge Joseph R. Bonavolonta Announcing Charges Against Harvard University Professor and Two Chinese Nationals
No country poses a greater, more severe, and long-term threat to our national security and economic prosperity than China.
China’s goal, simply put, is to replace the United States as the world’s leading superpower, and they’re breaking the law to get there.
Massachusetts is a target-rich environment with world-class academic institutions, research facilities, hospitals, cleared defense contractors, and start-ups. And each and every one of them are in danger of having their research, development, and investments stolen right out from under them.
The ruling Communist Party of the PRC wants what we have so they can get the upper hand on us.
And while we are still confronted with traditional spies seeking our state secrets, often working under diplomatic cover, or posing as everyday citizens, I can tell you China is also using what we call “non-traditional collectors” such as professors, researchers, hackers and front companies.
All three individuals charged today are manifestations of the China threat.
Let’s start with the case of Harvard University Professor Dr. Charles Lieber.
Earlier this morning, FBI special agents arrested Dr. Lieber at his office at Harvard University. Shortly after he was taken into custody, we initiated the execution of two search warrants: one at his home in Lexington, Massachusetts, and the other at his office at Harvard.
As alleged, Lieber repeatedly lied—not only to federal agents but to Harvard University, and the National Institutes of Health—about his participation in China’s Thousand Talents Plan and his affiliation with Wuhan University of Technology. Lieber also failed to disclose that he has received millions of dollars from the Chinese Communist government for foreign research.
Back in 2011, Lieber was recruited and employed by the Chinese to conduct scientific research, publish articles in the name of Wuhan University, and recruit top international scientists to work for them as visiting scholars, all the while he was still working at Harvard and receiving millions of dollars in taxpayer funded grants for his research.
Lieber even went as far as signing a five-year agreement to set up a joint nanoscience research lab between Wuhan University and Harvard—without Harvard’s knowledge or consent. And when Harvard finally confronted him about it— he allegedly lied to them.
Now some of that grant money could be in jeopardy, along with the fruits of his research that we’re at risk of losing to China.
It’s a clear-cut case of a conflict of interest, and unfortunately, it’s not an isolated incident.
Just across the Charles River, at Boston University, we found Yanqing Ye acting as an agent for the Chinese government without registering as a foreign power as required by law.
Ye is a lieutenant in the People’s Liberation Army—also known as the PLA which is the military arm of the Chinese Communist government.
She lied about her military service in order to enter our country, and she manipulated Boston University to allow her to conduct research there, despite that fact that she was coming from a school that was on the Department of Commerce’s denied entity list.
That school where she studied just so happens to be a top military academy in China that is responsible for modernizing China’s armed forces and designing advanced weapons systems.
While working at BU, we allege Yeh was conspiring with senior PLA officers who tasked her to conduct research on various professors, our military, and assorted Department of Defense grants, while also collaborating with them on research projects that had potential military applications.
Time after time, she was collecting information for China—and even when we caught her red handed on her way out of the country—she continued to lie about it.
Just like Zheng Zaosong, another Chinese national here on a visa sponsored by Harvard University.
Zheng was being paid a stipend by the Chinese Scholarship Council while also working at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center conducting cancer research until we arrested him last month. He’s now charged with trying to smuggle 21 vials of biological material and research back to Beijing and lying to us about it.
When the FBI arrested him last month, Zheng eventually admitted that he stole the vials so he could take them back to China conduct further research and publish the results of that research under his own name.
All of the individuals charged today were either directly or indirectly working for the Chinese government, at our country’s expense.
Make no mistake, the ruling Communist Party of the People’s Republic of China is highly strategic in their approach, and we are deeply concerned about American innovation, research, and cutting-edge technologies ending up in the wrong hands.
The FBI is now investigating China-related cases in all 50 states, including right here in the Boston Division.
But let me be crystal clear: we are not suggesting that all, or even most, Chinese students and visitors are somehow up to no good.
There’s no question that we benefit greatly from foreign researchers in our academic institutions. However, some visitors are exploiting this collaborative environment, and it needs to stop.
Economic espionage and the theft of trade secrets significantly hurts our academic institutions, businesses, jobs, and consumers, resulting in hundreds of billions of dollars in losses every year.
So how do we combat this threat?
It starts with vigilance, and all of us working together. The FBI is devoting a significant number of agents and analysts to counterintelligence investigations, and we’re also partnering more closely with academia and the private sector.
We’re bringing all of our investigative resources to bear to fight the threats we face from China and to protect the security and stability of our nation, our economy, and our way of life for generations to come.
In closing, I’d like to extend my sincere appreciation for the tremendous work done by all the agencies standing before you today. We’re not just standing here side-by-side for this press conference, we’re standing side-by-side every day, both in terms of how we see this threat, and how we coordinate operations between our agencies.