U.S. drops criminal case against MIT professor over China ties

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BOSTON, Jan 20 (Reuters) - The U.S. Justice Department on Thursday dropped charges against a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor accused of concealing his ties to China when seeking federal grant money, in the latest setback for a crackdown on Chinese influence on American research.

Federal prosecutors in Boston in a court filing said new information had emerged concerning Chinese-born mechanical engineer and nanotechnologist Gang Chen's alleged omissions that undercut the wire fraud and other charges he faced.

He had been accused of failing to disclose, among other things, that he served as an "overseas expert" for the Chinese government and sat on the advisory board of Shenzhen's Southern University of Science and Technology when applying for a U.S. Department of Energy grant.

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But newly appointed U.S. Attorney Rachael Rollins in a statement said prosecutors had determined they could no longer prove their case at trial. She said dropping it was "in the interests of justice."

Robert Fisher, Chen's lawyer, said he had "disclosed everything he was supposed to disclose and he never lied to the government or anyone else." MIT's faculty had rallied around Chen's case, and the school paid the professor's legal fees.

Chen was charged in January 2021 as part of the department's "China Initiative," launched during then-President Donald Trump's administration to counter suspected Chinese economic espionage and research theft.

Targets included university researchers. A Harvard University professor, Charles Lieber, last month was convicted of lying about his ties to a China-run recruitment program. He is expected to appeal.

Critics say the initiative chilled academic research and targeted Chinese researchers through racial profiling. And despite the Harvard win, several other cases have faltered.

A Tennessee professor was acquitted by a judge last year following a mistrial, and prosecutors dropped charges against six other researchers.

President Joe Biden's administration has continued the initiative, though the Justice Department has said it is reviewing its approach.

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Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Lisa Shumaker

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