WASHINGTON — A former Emory University neuroscientist who was fired last year after the university alleged he failed to disclose income from China is facing a criminal charge, court records show.
The federal charge against Xiojiang Li, alleging theft of grant funds, spotlights a new federal effort to combat Chinese economic espionage on university campuses. Li was a member of the Thousand Talents plan, a Chinese recruitment program that a Senate report last year said was designed to steal sensitive research.
The charge was filed in November but not announced. George Washington University's Seamus Hughes, who closely scrutinizes federal court records, unearthed the case Tuesday.
Federal authorities have stepped up their efforts to investigate and prosecute American researchers who allegedly concealed relationships with Chinese universities and programs, arguing that China is using those ties to obtain sensitive research. Academic leaders and activists have accused the federal government of a massive overreaction that smacks of racial profiling.
Last week, the chairman of Harvard's chemistry department, Charles Lieber, was charged with lying to investigators about more than $1 million he allegedly received from Chinese sources. Lieber, out on bond, has not commented.
Like Li, Lieber was allegedly associated with China’s Thousand Talents plan. Last year's bipartisan Senate report said the program required contracts that "violate U.S. standards of research integrity, place members in compromising legal and ethical positions, and undermine fundamental U.S. scientific norms of transparency, reciprocity, and integrity."
NBC News reported Sunday that U.S. intelligence officials believe America's world class university system has become an easy target for a Chinese government determined to steal U.S. intellectual property. Beijing denies such a campaign.
Last May, Emory announced it had fired Li and his wife Shihua Li — also a neuroscientist — alleging they had failed to disclose income from Thousand Talents, the Chinese talent recruitment program.
The criminal complaint names only Li Xiao-Jiang, and it alleged he accepted a full salary from Emory paid in part by federal research grants, despite working for a significant portion of the time in China.
The complaint reveals that the university, as part of its investigation, reviewed Li's emails and turned some of them over to the FBI. The emails revealed that Li was paid hundreds of thousands of dollars from 2012 to 2016 working for the Chinese Academy of Sciences, according to the criminal complaint.
A lawyer for Li, Peter Zeidenberg, said he had no comment.
After the firing in May, Li pushed back publicly against Emory, saying he disclosed his Chinese relationships to the university.
"I was shocked that Emory University would terminate a tenured professor in such an unusual and abrupt fashion and close our combined lab consisting of a number of graduates and postdoctoral trainees without giving me specific details for the reasons behind my termination," he said in a statement published on the website of Science magazine.
Li and his wife, both U.S. citizens, had worked at Emory for 23 years, he told the magazine. They had been studying Huntington's disease.
Li told Science magazine the university shut down the couple's joint laboratory, which was part of the medical school, and that four postdoctoral students working in the lab, who are Chinese nationals, were told to leave the U.S. within 30 days.
The criminal complaint says that in 2015, Li told Emory he wanted to switch to part-time status so he could spent more time working in China. But no agreement was executed, the complaint says, and Li continued to accept full time salary while working in China. In 2015, the complaint says, his travel records show that he spent 146 days in China.
In a statement, Emory said, "Emory remains committed to the free exchange of ideas and research and to our vital collaborations with researchers from around the world. At the same time, Emory also takes seriously its obligation to be a good steward of federal research dollars, to ensure compliance with all funding disclosure and other requirements, and to promote adherence to its own policies."
Li is free on bond, and a preliminary hearing in the case is scheduled to occur next month, court records show.