WASHINGTON – The FBI is conducting about 1,000 investigations into suspected Chinese theft of U.S. intellectual property, with many expected to lead to criminal charges against individuals and companies later in the year, U.S. law enforcement officials said Thursday.
The investigations involve all 56 FBI field offices across the country and span nearly every industry and sector of the U.S. economy, from large Fortune 100 companies to Silicon Valley startups, FBI Director Christopher Wray said.
“They’re not just targeting defense sector companies,” Wray said at a conference on the Justice Department’s China Initiative. “They’re also targeting cutting-edge research at our universities.”
The China Initiative, unveiled in November 2018, combines DOJ and FBI resources into a single effort to investigate and prosecute cases of Chinese economic espionage. Under the initiative, the Justice Department has brought charges in several high-profile cases of Chinese economic espionage.
Last week, the department announced economic espionage-related charges against a prominent Harvard University professor and two others in the Boston area. Charles Lieber, chair of Harvard’s department of chemistry and chemical biology, was charged with lying to federal grant-making authorities about his ties to China.
Lieber, a pioneer in the field of nanoscience, is accused of working for China’s Thousand Talents Plan and Wuhan University of Technology while receiving millions of dollars in grants from the U.S. Department of Defense and the National Institutes of Health.
Speaking at the conference, federal prosecutors signaled that more Chinese economic cases are on the horizon.
Andrew Lelling, U.S. attorney for the District of Massachusetts, whose office is prosecuting the Lieber case, said he expects to announce additional China cases out of Boston. Boston and the surrounding area are home to numerous prestigious academic institutions.
“I can tell you that for the coming year in Boston, I anticipate, frankly, prosecuting more people, which I hope will deter this kind of conduct in the private and academic sectors. And we will couple that with outreach,” Lelling said.
However, Lelling said he expects the number to plateau as the private sector and academia “become sensitized to the problem” of Chinese economic espionage.
Richard Donoghue, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, whose office is prosecuting Huawei Technologies for alleged intellectual property theft and violation of U.S. sanctions on Iran, said he expects an increase in Chinese intellectual theft-related prosecution, “not only of individuals but of companies.”
“If we address it now, and we address it effectively, through prosecutions of individuals, prosecution of companies, outreach to academia and the technology industry, I think in the long run, that will lessen the chance for conflict between the United states and [China],” Donoghue said.
Lelling and Donoghue sit on the DOJ’s China Initiative working group.
China has sharply escalated its economic espionage in the United States over the past two decades, according to law enforcement officials, costing the U.S. economy an estimated $600 billion. The surge has come as Beijing seeks to surpass the U.S. in key economic sectors, using a variety of methods from cyber intrusions to outright physical theft.
With few exceptions, the recent uptick in prosecutions has involved Chinese nationals and Chinese American academics and researchers. That has led to pushback by Chinese American groups and universities concerned about protecting academic freedom.
But an aggressive outreach campaign by the FBI over the past year has helped chip away at the traditional wall of suspicion between universities and law enforcement, according to prosecutors and several university administrators who spoke at the conference.
“I appreciate so much the working relationship that we’re developing now with the Department of Justice and the FBI to let us know more about the threats, what they are, because we cannot convince our faculty if they don’t really have the information,” said Mary Sue Coleman, president of the American Association of Universities.
“So, kudos to the federal government for bringing these groups together to help us really know what the threat is, develop the armor to protect ourselves from the threat, but not kill what has made us so powerful for the last 75 years.”