WASHINGTON - The FBI is conducting roughly 1,000 investigations into suspected Chinese theft of U.S. intellectual property, with many expected to result in 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 initiative to combat Chinese economic espionage. "They're also targeting cutting-edge research at our universities."
The FBI's China-related investigations have steadily grown over the last two decades and now stand at an all-time high, according to John Brown, assistant director for the FBI's counter-intelligence division. China-related arrests have also surged in recent years. During the past fiscal year, the FBI arrested 24 people in China-related cases, up from 15 five years earlier, FBI data show. So far this fiscal year, the bureau has made 19 similar arrests.
"Of course, with our increased caseload we're achieving more disruptions than ever," Brown said.
The Justice Department's China initiative was unveiled in November 2018 in response to mounting Chinese economic espionage and came as Washington and Beijing engaged in a months-long trade and tariffs war that cooled off with the signing of an initial agreement between the two nations last month. Since its launch, the Justice Department has brought charges in more than a dozen Chinese economic espionage cases.
Last week, the Department announced criminal 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 intellectual property theft and violating 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, which is focused on preventing and prosecuting thefts of American technology and intellectual property.
China has sharply escalated its economic espionage activities in the U.S. over the past two decades, according to law enforcement officials, costing the U.S. economy an estimated $600 billion. The surge comes as Beijing seeks to supplant the United States as the world's dominant economic power in part by stealing U.S. intellectual property and trade secrets. China denies the assertion.
The Justice Department's aggressive prosecution of Chinese economic espionage has swept up 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 campaign by the FBI over the past year to highlight the threat has helped chip away at the traditional wall of suspicion between universities and law enforcement, according to officials 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."