Prosecutors drop China Initiative case against MIT’s Gang Chen

A federal judge has dismissed charges against Gang Chen, a professor of mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) accused of lying about his ties to China.

It was one of the highest profile cases under the government’s 3-year-old China Initiative, which is intended to prevent China from stealing U.S.-funded research. Critics of the initiative say it has unfairly targeted scientists of Chinese descent in trying to enforce ambiguous rules about what scientists need to disclose about their research activities when applying for a federal grant.

“Today is a great day,” said Rob Fisher, Chen’s attorney, in a statement reported by The Washington Post and other media outlets. “The government finally acknowledged what we have said all along: Professor Gang Chen is an innocent man. … He was never an overseas scientist for Beijing. He disclosed everything he was supposed to disclose, and he never lied to the government or anyone else.”

U.S. Department of Justice lawyers this morning asked District Court Judge Patti Saris to dismiss the charges because the government had “obtained additional information … on the defendant’s alleged omissions” and that, as a result, it “can no longer meet its burden of proof at trial.”

Chen was indicted in January 2021 and charged with lying to the Department of Energy on a 2017 grant application, failing to report a foreign bank account, and making a false statement on his tax return. His is one of two dozen similar cases brought against academic scientists under the China Initiative. Chen was never charged with abetting the Chinese government nor espionage, and MIT officials are paying for his legal defense, a rarity among the cases.

“All of us who know Gang are deeply relieved,” MIT President L. Rafael Reif said in a statement. “We are eager for his full return to our community.” Referring to the toll on his family from the government’s prosecution, Reif said, “It is difficult to reconcile and accept the pain and anguish that such good people, people we are proud and fortunate to know, have endured over the last 2 years.”

The U.S. government has a 50-50 record in two previous cases that went before juries. Last month, Harvard University chemist Charles Lieber was found guilty of failing to disclose his research ties to China, and in September 2021 a federal judge acquitted Anming Hu, a former engineering professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, after his earlier trial ended in a hung jury.

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