A professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has been accused of failing to disclose his work for groups connected to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) while he was accepting grant money from U.S. agencies, the Justice Department said on Jan. 14.
Chen, a naturalized U.S. citizen from China, serves as the head of the MIT Pappalardo Micro/Nano Engineering Laboratory and director of the Solid-State Solar Thermal Energy Conversion Center. Since about 2013, Chen has been funded by more than $19 million in U.S. agency grants, according to the statement.
“Since 2012, Chen has allegedly held various appointments with the [CCP] designed to promote” China’s “technological and scientific development by providing advice and expertise” and sometimes directly to CCP officials “often in exchange for financial compensation.”
That included acting as an expert for the communist regime at the request of the Chinese Consulate in New York. He also served on at least two talent programs operated by China, the DOJ said.
“Since 2013, Chen allegedly received approximately $29 million of foreign funding, including $19 million from the … Southern University of Science and Technology,” according to the DOJ.
According to the DOJ, Chen detailed the CCP’s scientific and economic development strategy in an email that he sent to himself on his MIT account.
The email, in part, read that he should “promote chinese collaboration [sic]”; “China places innovation (scientific) as key and core not fashion [sic], but because we must do it, from historic trend as well from our stage”; “our economy is no. 2, but from technology (structure of economy) and human resources, we are far from no. 2”; “we are paying big price in environment, not sustainable, as well as from labor cost”; and other items.
The email also read that importance should be placed on “environment protection and development in same place, environment even higher, clean energy if higher cost, reduce steel, cement. We must count on technology, cannot grow as past.” It also read that “communist 18th convention, scientific innovation [should be] placed at core. We realize not just independent innovation; but also internationalize to plan for and facilitate. Closed door innovation does not work; innovation as driving force.”
Andrew Lelling, U.S. attorney for the District of Massachusetts, noted that it’s not a problem for researchers to collaborate with foreign nationals and entities.
“The problem is not the collaboration itself,” he said. “The problem is lying about it.”
Officials further alleged Chen became a recruiter and helped Chinese programs to identify academics who could help in their efforts to advance the CCP’s technology and science programs.
Prosecutors added that Chen allegedly tried to hide some of his ties with CCP entities.
“Chen also allegedly failed to disclose to the IRS in his 2018 tax return that he maintained a bank account in the PRC with more than $10,000 in 2018,” the DOJ wrote.
In a statement on Jan. 14, MIT said it is “deeply distressed” about Chen’s arrest, adding, “Prof. Chen is a long-serving and highly respected member of the research community, which makes the government’s allegations against him all the more distressing.”
As of Dec. 31, 2020, MIT reported receiving more than $125 million in gifts and contracts from China, more than any other university in the United States, according to the Department of Education.
It isn’t known whether Chen has a lawyer.
In December, a professor pleaded guilty to charges that he lied to federal agents after he allegedly used his position as a researcher for the University of Texas–Arlington to steal technology and intellectual property for Chinese telecom giant Huawei. Another professor, Franklin Tao, who worked for the University of Kansas, was accused in 2019 of defrauding the university and U.S. government officials with regard to his research.
Ivan Pentchoukov contributed to this report.