Peddling Influence and Stealing Secrets: Foreign Governments and U.S. Universities

Peddling Influence and Stealing Secrets: Foreign Governments and U.S. Universities

Judicial Watch last month sued the U.S. Department of Education for records of money funneled from foreign governments to American colleges and universities. The numbers are big—billions of dollars—and difficult to pin down, despite federal reporting requirements. The foreign governments often are U.S. adversaries. What are they after?

In some instances, professors are pawns in long running games of technological theft. That’s the case of part-time UCLA Professor Yi-Chi Shih, convicted in Los Angeles in 2019 of trying to steal sensitive microchip technology and ship it to China, where it could be used for fighter jets and missiles.

In other cases, foreign governments—and the Chinese government in particular—are playing a subtler game, attempting to absorb intellectual property without outright theft. That appears to be the case of Harvard Professor Charles Lieber, indicted in June for allegedly making false statements about his work for Wuhan University of China. Lieber is the former chair of Harvard’s Chemistry and Chemical Biology Department; he’s a leader in the revolutionary field of nanotechnology—the ability to manipulate atoms and molecules across a wide variety of scientific and industrial platforms. Wuhan of course lately is famous as the original source of Covid-19, but Lieber’s arrest has no connection to the virus.

But something big was going on at Wuhan. The indictment notes that from 2012 through 2015, Lieber was paid $50,000 per month, plus $158,0000 in living expenses, plus an award of $1.5 million to set up a research lab. At roughly the same time, he was taking in $15 million in research grants from the National Institutes of Health and the Defense Department for his work at Harvard.

What did the Chinese want for their money? It seems clear: they wanted to know what Lieber knew—what he was producing for the Americans.

The American grants required disclosure of all research support, financial conflicts of interest, and foreign collaboration. The indictment alleges that Lieber lied to U.S. authorities about his affiliation with Wuhan University and the Chinese “Thousand Talents Program.”

The Justice Department noted in charging Lieber that the Thousand Talents Program is “one of the most prominent Chinese talent recruitment plans designed to attract, recruit, and cultivate high-level scientific talent in furtherance of China’s scientific development, economic prosperity and national security.” The program seeks “to lure Chinese overseas talent and foreign experts to bring their knowledge and experience to China, and they often reward individuals for stealing proprietary information.”

China also seeks influence on American campuses through its Confucius Institutes programs. According to a recent investigative report in the Washington Free Beacon, the Beijing-sponsored Chinese language and culture programs appear on more than 80 U.S. campuses and have funneled tens of millions of dollars to U.S. universities. The exact dollar figures are unknown, although federal regulations require disclosure by the universities.

Judicial Watch is suing the Department of Education to get to the bottom of the foreign money question. The sums are not small. Three universities that did report Confucius Institute funding—Michigan, Maryland, and Emory—received more than $30 million, the Free Beacon noted.

“Policymakers and education experts alike have long warned that Confucius Institutes might be a conduit for Chinese influence on American campuses that could restrict academic freedom and promote a distorted account of Chinese history and culture that favors the Chinese Communist Party,” the Free Beacon noted. “Senate and federal investigations have corroborated some of those concerns.”

Judicial Watch also is probing Qatar’s connection to American education. The Persian Gulf monarchy, an inconsistent American ally and sometimes purveyor of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel propaganda, has given $1 billion to American universities since 2011. The Zachor Legal Institute, a think tank and advocacy group that investigates anti-Israel and anti-Semitic activities, started asking questions about the origins of Qatari influence at Texas A&M University. That’s when entities connected to the Middle East monarchy teamed up with Texas A&M and the powerhouse law firm Squire Patton Boggs to crush a Freedom of Information Act request about Qatari financing. Judicial Watch is helping Zachor fight back. Read more about the case here.

According to one estimate, at least $6.5 billion has moved from authoritarian regimes into the coffers of American academe, “primarily from Chinese and Middle Eastern sources.” That’s from a letter to ranking members on several House committees from the U.S. Education Department’s general counsel. The letter notes that Education Department investigations into “Chinese, Middle Eastern, and Russian foreign sources” are underway.

The website Campus Reform first reported the letter. Campus Reform also reports that Education Department investigations have been launched into possible undisclosed foreign ties at Harvard and Yale. According to the website, the Education Department has asked Harvard and Yale “to disclose any funding they may have received from China, Iran, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia.”


Micah Morrison is chief investigative reporter for Judicial Watch. Follow him on Twitter @micah_morrison. Tips:

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