Economic Espionage: Harvard Chemist Charged with Aiding China

In terms of economic espionage, it’s no secret that China is our #1 threat today.

The United States has always been a beacon of scientific advancement and ingenuity. Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, discoveries and innovations made by American researchers and entrepreneurs have changed the world, most recently in the digital realm. When it comes to economic espionage, one of our greatest threats, China, isn’t playing by the same rules that we are.

Economic espionage is on the rise, with Chinese officials looking to steal trade secrets from universities, governments, and private corporations. For proof, look no further than this report from the United States Department of Justice, highlighting one American and two Chinese nationals charged in three China-related cases associated with espionage.

Dr. Charles Lieber

Dr. Charles Lieber, the Chair of the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Harvard University, has been charged with lying to the Defense Department about his work for the Wuhan Institute of Technology and the Thousand Talents Plan in China.

As a recipient of over $15,000,000 in federal grant money from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Department of Defense (DOD), Dr. Lieber was required to disclose any significant financial conflicts of interest. He failed to mention that during his three-year term working for the Thousand Talents Plan, he received $50,000 USD a month, up to $158,000 USD in living expenses, and more than $1.5 million to set up a research lab at the Wuhan Institute of Technology.

In a press conference about the arrest of Dr. Lieber, U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling was quoted as saying, “Chemistry, nanotechnology, polymer studies, robotics, computer science, biomedical research — this is not an accident or a coincidence. This is a small sample of China’s ongoing campaign to siphon off American technology and know-how for Chinese gain.”

Yanqing Ye

In 2019, Yanqing Ye, a Chinese national, was charged with visa fraud, making false statements, acting as an agent of a foreign government, and conspiracy. She is currently in China, and it is unlikely she will return to the United States.

Ms. Ye arrived in the U.S. after falsely identifying herself as a student on her J-1 application. She also lied about her military service at the National University of Defense Technology, being a Lieutenant of the People’s Liberation Army, and being a member of the Chinese Communist Party.

According to the statement released by the Justice Department, during her time in the United States, Ye, “…allegedly used U.S. military websites, sent American documents and information to China and compiled information for the PLA on two American scientists with expertise in robotics and computer science.” This is similar to how Chinese spies and other malicious actors can target prominent people on LinkedIn to dig for corporate and government secrets.

Zaosong Zheng

In what is the most traditionally “spy” story of these three, Mr. Zheng, another Chinese national, was indicted with one count of smuggling goods from the United States and one count of making false, fictitious, or fraudulent statements.

Living in the U.S. on a J-1 visa, Zheng was conducting cancer cell research at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. On December 9th, 2019, he stole 21 vials of biological research, attempting to smuggle them out of the United States to China, allegedly to research them in his own laboratory. Fortunately, federal officers were able to search his luggage and found the vials hidden inside one of his socks.

Continuing Threat of Chinese Economic Espionage

This trend of the Chinese government attempting to steal U.S. proprietary information, technology, and intellectual property is unlikely to stop. The head of the Justice Department’s national security division, John Demers, has said, “The threat from China is real, it’s persistent, it’s well-orchestrated, it’s well-resourced, and it’s not going away anytime soon.”

Thankfully, the U.S. government has taken steps in recent years to combat this threat. In 2018, Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the creation of a Chinese Initiative to identify Chinese trade theft cases and direct resources towards preventing them. If you are interested, here is a history of the cases, along with a six-month update about the initiative in July of last year.

The heightened awareness is one of the reasons why the United States has been so reluctant to allow the Chinese tech giant Huawei to help implement 5G in this country. Fifth-generation cellular networks are the future, but we cannot trust equipment that could be sharing data with the Chinese government. This and other threats are why it’s vital that organizations, including corporations, use proactive TSCM services to safeguard their systems and networks, along with the personal data security of their employees and executives.

You never know who is trying to gain access to your information. It could be a state actor from China, or it could be a hacker looking to lock you out of your computer until you pay them off. To help prevent nation state sponsored electronic eavesdropping attacks, ComSec LLC’s Assurance Option can provide you with ongoing preventative TSCM/Cyber TSCM sweeps for your corporation. If you occasionally work from home, we also offer Residential TSCM Services. If you want to make sure that your company’s proprietary data is secure, feel free to contact us today!

About the Author:

JD LeaSure ComSec LLCJ.D. LeaSure, CCISM, is the President / CEO of ComSec LLC, a global provider of world class counterespionage and TSCM / Cyber TSCM™ services.