This story has been updated after charges were officially dismissed, and to include statements from Dr. Gang Chen, Rachael Rollins, the US Attorney for the District of Massachusetts and MIT president L. Rafael Reif.
A judge has approved the government’s motion to dismiss all charges against MIT mechanical engineering professor and nanotechnologist Gang Chen, nearly one year to the day after he was indicted on charges relating to his alleged failure to disclose relationships and funding from Chinese entities.
From the start, Chen had maintained his innocence, while MIT had indicated that he was working to establish a research collaboration on behalf of the institution and that the funding in question was actually for the university rather than Chen personally. MIT also paid for his defense. (MIT Technology Review is funded by the university but remains editorially independent.)
“Today’s dismissal of the criminal charges against Gang Chen is a result of our continued investigation,” US Attorney for the District of Massachusetts Rachael Rollins said in a statement after the filing. “Through that effort, we recently obtained additional information pertaining to the materiality of Professor Chen’s alleged omissions in the context of the grant review process at issue in this case. After a careful assessment of this new information in the context of all the evidence, our office has concluded that we can no longer meet our burden of proof at trial.”
“The government finally acknowledged what we said all along: Professor Gang Chen is an innocent man,” Robert Fisher, Chen’s defense attorney, said in a statement. “Our defense was never based on any legal technicalities. Gang did not commit any of the offenses he was charged with. Full stop. He was never in a talent program. He was never an overseas scientist for Beijing. He disclosed everything that he was supposed to disclose and never lied to the government or anyone else.”
For his part, Chen said, “While I am relieved that my ordeal is over, I am mindful that this terribly misguided China Initiative continues to bring unwarranted fear to the academic community, and other scientists still face charges.”
“I will have more to share soon,” the scientist added.
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The China Initiative
Chen was one of the most high-profile scientists charged under the China Initiative, a Justice Department program launched under the Trump administration to counter economic espionage and national security threats from the People’s Republic of China.
Despite its stated purpose, an investigation by MIT Technology Review found that the initiative has increasingly focused on prosecuting academics for research integrity issues—hiding ties or funding from Chinese entities on grant or visa forms—rather than industrial spies stealing trade secrets. Only 19 of 77 cases (25%) identified by MIT Technology Review alleged violations of the Economic Espionage Act, while 23 cases (30%) alleged grant or visa fraud by academics.
Our reporting has also found that the initiative has disproportionately affected scientists of Chinese heritage, who make up 130 (88%) of the 148 individuals charged under the initiative.
Chen’s is the eighth research integrity case to be dismissed before trial. Last month, Harvard professor Charles Lieber was found guilty on six charges of false statements and tax fraud, while the trial of University of Tennessee–Knoxville professor Anming Hu, the first research integrity case to go before a jury, ended first in a mistrial and then a full acquittal.
Research Integrity cases from MIT Technology Review’s China Initiative Database
A catalyzing case
Chen’s indictment raised awareness of, and opposition to, the initiative because of both his prominence in his field and the seemingly routine activities for which he was being prosecuted, including collaborating with a Chinese university at the behest of his home institution. “We are all Gang Chen,” a group of MIT faculty wrote at the time, expressing both their support for their colleague and their concerns about how their own activities could draw government scrutiny.
“The end of the criminal case is tremendous news for Professor Chen, and his defense team deserves accolades for their work,” said Margaret Lewis, a law professor at Seton Hall University who has written about the China Initiative. “But let’s not forget that he was first questioned at the airport two years ago and indicted one year ago. The human cost is intense even when charges are dropped.”
In a note to the MIT community shortly after the dismissal was filed, MIT president L. Rafael Reif provided some more detail on that human cost. “Gang was first detained at Logan Airport about six weeks before the pandemic struck our community; the burdens on him and his family members since then have been beyond imagining,” he wrote, while acknowledging that “this case has also caused ongoing distress throughout our community, particularly for Gang’s friends, students, and colleagues, and for those across MIT and elsewhere who are of Chinese descent.”
“Having had faith in Gang from the beginning, we can all be grateful that a just outcome of a damaging process is on the horizon. We are eager for his full return to our community,” Reif said.
Lewis added: “I am hopeful that the Justice Department will soon move beyond announcements regarding the review of individual cases to a broader statement ending the China Initiative.”
But “rebranding the China Initiative will not be enough,” said Patrick Toomey, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project, which has represented two prominent researchers erroneously charged before the China Initiative was announced in 2018. “The Justice Department must fundamentally reform its policies that enable racial profiling in the name of national security.”
It is not just academics and civil rights groups that are speaking out. Over the past year, criticism of the initiative has ramped up from all sides. Ninety members of Congress have requested that Attorney General Merrick Garland investigate concerns about racial profiling, and former DOJ officials have advocated for a change in direction as well.
John Demers, the former head of the Justice Department division that oversees the initiative, reportedly favored a proposal for amnesty programs that would allow researchers to disclose previously undisclosed ties with no fear of prosecution. Meanwhile, in response to MIT Technology Review’s reporting, Andrew Lelling, the former US District Attorney for Massachusetts who brought charges against Chen, argued that the part of the program targeting academics should be shut down. Six more research integrity cases remain pending, with four scheduled to go to trial this spring.
Some kind of announcement may be coming soon: DOJ spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle told MIT Technology Review in an email last week that the Justice Department is “reviewing our approach to countering threats posed by the PRC government“ and anticipates “completing the review and providing additional information in the coming weeks.“
Additional reporting by Jess Aloe.