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China defends science exchange program following US arrest

BEIJING (AP) — China on Wednesday defended its international scientific exchange programs in the wake of the conviction of a Harvard University professor charged with hiding his ties to a Chinese- run recruitment program.

Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said China manages such exchanges along the same lines as the U.S. and other countries.

U.S. agencies and officials should not “stigmatize” such programs and “instead do something conducive to China-U.S. scientific and people-to-people exchanges and cooperation,” Zhao said.

Charles Lieber, 62, the former chair of Harvard’s department of chemistry and chemical biology, pleaded not guilty to filing false tax returns, making false statements, and failing to file reports for a foreign bank account in China.

Lieber’s defense attorney, Marc Mukasey, had argued that prosecutors lacked proof of the charges, maintaining that investigators kept no records of their interviews with Lieber prior to his arrest.

Prosecutors argued that Lieber, who was arrested in January, knowingly hid his involvement in China’s Thousand Talents Plan to protect his career and reputation. The Chinese program is designed to recruit people with knowledge of foreign technology and intellectual property who could pass secrets on to China.

Lieber denied his involvement during inquiries from U.S. authorities, including the National Institutes of Health, which had provided him with millions of dollars in research funding, prosecutors said.

Lieber also concealed his income from the Chinese program, including $50,000 a month from the Wuhan University of Technology, up to $158,000 in living expenses and more than $1.5 million in grants, according to prosecutors.

In exchange, they said, Lieber agreed to publish articles, organize international conferences and apply for patents on behalf of the Chinese university.

The case is among the highest profile to come from the U.S. Department of Justice’s “China Initiative.”

The effort, launched in 2018 to curb economic espionage from China, has faced criticism that it harms academic research and amounts to racial profiling of Chinese researchers.

Hundreds of faculty members at Stanford, Yale, Berkeley, Princeton, Temple and other prominent colleges have signed letters to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland calling on him to end the initiative.

The academics say the effort compromises the nation’s competitiveness in research and technology and has had a chilling effect on recruiting foreign scholars. The letters also complain the investigations have disproportionally targeted researchers of Chinese origin. Lieber has been on paid administrative leave from Harvard since being arrested in January 2020.

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