by Gang Chen
(Part of this statement was published in Boston Globe as an op-ed piece. An assembly of relevant info can be found at APA Justice website).
Around 6:30 a.m. on Jan. 14, 2021, numerous federal agents stormed into my home, woke my wife and daughter from their sleep, handcuffed me, and put me in jail, charging that, in my role as a professor at MIT, I had failed to disclose funding from various Chinese entities. I had known that I was under investigation by the Department of Justice under its China Initiative, launched during the Trump administration: When I returned to Logan Airport from a trip abroad in January 2020, I was interrogated and all my electronics were confiscated. Just a month before I was arrested, however, the US Attorney's office for Massachusetts, under then-US Attorney Andrew Lelling, informed my lawyers that there was no imminent indictment.
Regarding this sudden shift, after my arrest prosecutors on this case indicated to my lawyers this indictment had been rushed. Both the indictment and the complaint were riddled with basic factual errors - for instance, it listed notes I took at someone else's lecture as if they were my own thoughts - and I was arrested with less than a week to go in the Trump administration. This meant Lelling was about to leave office. The day of my arrest, Lelling and the FBI special agent in charge of the Boston office, Joseph Bonavolonta, held a press conference where my loyalty to America was questioned. For 371 days, my family and I went through a living hell.
On January 20, 2022, the government acknowledged in US District Court in Boston that it could not prove the charges against me, and said dismissing my case would be "in the interests of justice".
There is no winner in what seems to me a politically and racially motivated prosecution: My reputation is tarnished, my family traumatized, my students and postdocs suffered and changed their career, my institute lost the service of a professor and bore the financial burden of my legal defense, US taxpayers' money was wasted, the ability of the United States to attract talents from around the world has plummeted, and the scientific community is terrified. Lelling and Bonavolonta succeeded in creating the "chilling effect" they wanted by deterring researchers from collaborating with China - but in the process, they managed to blunt one of our great strengths as a nation, our rich history of academic research and collaboration, which leads to discoveries happening here instead of in some other country. They did this at a time when international scientific collaboration is urgently needed to address humanity's existential threats, such as COVID-19 and global warming.
Now, for whatever reason, even Lelling is acknowledging that the China Initiative he helped create has "lost its focus".
Let me be clear: While part of my story is certainly about the terribly misguided China Initiative, it also involves critical mistakes on the part of the FBI, federal prosecutors, and other federal investigative agencies. As my team of lawyers argued, Bonavolonta and his agents ignored basic exculpatory evidence, failed to interview critical witnesses until after I was arrested, and dramatically embellished facts in various official documents. Exculpatory information that, under the Constitution, the prosecution was required to turn over - such as a witness saying that I never was in a talent program, a Chinese government initiative to provide funding to researchers and scientists, which was one of the government's key allegations - was withheld for months until demanded by my lawyers. While I am relieved that my case has been dropped "in the interests of justice", I respectfully request a thorough review of this matter by Congress and the US Department of Justice to hold individuals accountable for their glaring misconducts.
I came to America from China more than 30 years ago. It is where I have chosen to raise my family and contribute my life's work. The promise of this nation is that race is not supposed to matter. But it is hard for me to look at the China Initiative and conclude that was the case. Although it is true that not every professor charged is of Chinese descent, the vast majority are, and - as is becoming clear as these "grant fraud" cases falter - the Justice Department's misguided theory of prosecution could likely apply to thousands of professors who failed to list every routine professional activity with any entity in a foreign nation (which was not a requirement at the time). As a nation, we can be more true to our ideals - and a better world leader - by acknowledging our wrongdoings and learning from our mistakes rather than blindly pressing forward. While acknowledging mistakes can be painful, history shows that it is the best way forward.
My ordeal was not all in vain; there are silver linings. My family and I are so grateful to the MIT leadership under President Rafael Reif, MIT faculty led by Professor Yoel Fink for their brave and steadfast support. My legal team from Nixon Peabody led by Rob Fisher, Brian Kelly, with diligent support from Scott Seitz and Briana Nassif, as well as my wife's legal team led by George Vein deserves our sincere gratitude and full credit, as they not only bravely, strategically, and tactfully defended us but also were the main people we communicated with and sought solace from during this difficult time. We are grateful to our friends, as well individuals and communities, most of whom I do not know personally, for their support in different forms: the brave voice of over 200 MIT faculty (that is 20% of MIT faculty!) and 1381 people signing on the petition that "we are all Gang Chen" initiated by Professor Jeff Snyder from Northwestern University, the generous financial support of over 2100 people via "Go Fund Me", the regular assemblages of gifts and greetings from my former group members and friends coordinated by Professor Chris Dames from UC Berkeley and their heartfelt letter, and the flowers, food, gifts, and cards delivered to my front door from friends and even unnamed colleagues. Your kindness warmed our hearts in a time of darkness and give us hope for this country. MIT's support allowed me to do my own research and later contact uninvolved students and post-docs to make new scientific discoveries. I take comfort in seeing more and more people are awakening to the danger of the racially discriminative China Initiative and voicing their opposition. It is harmful to our country, and it is harmful to the world.
There are many other people and organizations I hope to thank as they have fought for me and for people like me. I want to specifically mention some of them: the leadership team of the American Physical Society with over 50,000 members, including then president Dr. Gates, Jr., CEO Mr. Bagger, vice president Dr. Rosner, past president Dr. Bucksbaum, and president-elect Dr. Hellman for sending an open letter to US attorney general Garland questioning my arrest; many faculty members from Stanford University, UC Berkeley, Princeton, Temple, U. Michigan, Yale University, in fact, over 218 universities across the country for signing on open letters calling for a stop of the China Initiative. I am grateful to the work by the Committee of 100 via the leadership of its president Z. Huang and Brian Sun, the APA Justice, the Asian American Scholar Forum, the United Chinese Americans, the Asian American Advancing Justice, and many other human rights and justice organizations, as well as many individuals. Lastly and certainly not the least, my gratitude goes to my family, my wife for her steadfast support, her enduring the pain, and her patience in listening to my scientific theories when I did not have others to talk to, to my daughter for her skillful fundraising effort and her interfacing with other concerned friends without my knowledge, to my son for his daily calls during work break, and to my aging parents in China for encouraging me to stay strong.