In what is becoming a familiar scene in American higher education, a Chinese-born scientist at a high-profile university was recently arrested for his ties to the Chinese government. About a month ago, Gang Chen, a naturalized American citizen and highly respected professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, was indicted by a grand jury for “failing to disclose contracts, appointments and awards from various entities in the People’s Republic of China.” Authorities say that Chen, who received U.S. Department of Energy grants for his research in nanotechnology, did not properly inform the agency about contracts entitling him to “hundreds of thousands of dollars in direct payments” from entities in China. Chen’s lawyers have responded aggressively, accusing U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling of making “false, highly inflammatory” comments that questioned Chen’s “character and reputation.” MIT has agreed to fund Chen’s defense, and hundreds of his colleagues have signed an open letter testifying to his character.
Chen’s case is part of a broader U.S. government crackdown on scientists that has targeted both Chinese citizens and Chinese Americans—and has challenged the leading role American research institutions play in global science. Trade battles, human-rights abuses in Xinjiang, and the militarization of the South China Sea are what usually come to mind when Americans think about the growing friction with China. But in many ways, U.S. universities are a more immediate battleground. They are centers of basic research—studies about the underlying foundations of natural phenomena conducted without specific commercial or military applications in mind. According to existing U.S. government policy, such research is meant to be kept as open as possible. The concern of many U.S. policy makers is that Beijing is using so-called non-traditional intelligence collectors—students, faculty, and other researchers—to steal secrets from American labs and gain a competitive edge.