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Neuroscientist Li Xiao-Jiang, who has pleaded guilty to not paying U.S. taxes on income earned from Chinese institutions, worked at Emory University.

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Fired Emory University neuroscientist with ties to China sentenced on tax charge

The saga of an Emory University neuroscientist who was fired in May 2019 after an investigation into his ties to China ended last week in a federal court. But the sentencing of Li Xiao-Jiang sheds little light on the politically explosive issue of foreign influences on U.S. research that has roiled the scientific community for the past 2 years.

Emory fired Li, a tenured faculty member, and his wife, Li Shihua, for “failing to fully disclose” his connections to Chinese research institutions through that country’s Thousand Talents program. It is one of many actions taken by research institutions as part of an ongoing investigation by the U.S. National Institutes of Health and other federal agencies into whether foreign governments, notably China, are trying to improperly acquire work done by U.S.-funded researchers.

On 8 May, Li Xiao-Jiang pleaded guilty in the U.S. district court in Atlanta to underreporting his income on federal tax returns. He agreed to pay $35,089 and any penalties stemming from refiling amended returns from 2012–18. The sentence includes 1 year of probation.

Federal officials say Li Xiao-Jiang’s actions illustrate the ongoing threat to the integrity of the U.S. research enterprise.

“The Department of Justice remains vigilant over programs such as the Thousand Talents Program that recruits professors and researchers to work for China,” John Demers, assistant attorney general for national security, said in an 11 May press release. “This defendant thought that he could live two, separate lives—one here at Emory University and one in China as a Thousand Talents Program participant,” adds U.S. Attorney Byung Pak. “Eventually, the truth caught up to this defendant, and he is now a convicted felon who is ordered to repay over $35,000 to the IRS [Internal Revenue Service].”

The Chinese-born Li Xiao-Jiang, who joined Emory in 1995 and became a U.S. citizen in 2000, began to collaborate with Chinese colleagues in 2007 and in 2012 set up a lab at the Institute of Genetics and Developmental Biology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. After Emory fired him, Li Xiao-Jiang began to work at Jinan University. But since November 2019, he has been detained in the United States awaiting resolution of his case.

Li Xiao-Jiang’s attorney, Peter Zeidenberg, says his client “admits that he should have reported the income on his taxes. And he’s embarrassed by it.”

The judge’s actions, Zeidenberg says, will allow Li Xiao-Jiang “to get back to his research” on Huntington disease, which was halted when the couple’s lab was abruptly shut down last year. But Zeidenberg thinks the case wound up having the opposite effect of what federal authorities claimed was their goal in prosecuting Li Xiao-Jiang.

“He would have preferred to do it in the United States, at Emory,” Zeidenberg says. “He’s had a successful career here, and this is where his life is. But now he is being forced to work in China. And I think that’s incredibly ironic.”