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Former Emory professor pleads guilty to not reporting income from China on tax returns

Xiao-Liang Li pleaded guilty to filing a false tax return.
Xiao-Liang Li pleaded guilty to filing a false tax return.

A former Emory University professor was sentenced on federal charges after he admitted to earning hundreds of thousands of dollars from China for research projects and failing to report it on his tax returns.

A federal judge ordered Xiao-Liang Li to pay $35,089 in restitution after he pleaded guilty to filing a false tax return, according to the U.S. District Attorney’s Office.

Federal prosecutors said that in 2011 while Li was working for Emory, he was also employed by Thousand Talents Program, a talent recruitment initiative funded by the Chinese government. Li was researching Huntington’s disease in large animal models for Emory from 2012 to 2018, according to U.S. Attorney BJay Pak. About the same time, he was working for two Chinese universities — Chinese Academy of Sciences and Jinan University — doing research on virtually the same thing.

During the six-year period, Li made more than $500,000 from China for his research. However, he never reported it on his federal income tax returns, Pak said.

The investigation into the 63-year-old professor began after the National Institutes of Health grew concerned that he had failed to disclose foreign research activity on a research grant application, Pak said. The concerns were brought to Emory and then to federal law enforcement.

RELATED: 2 Emory researchers didn't disclose Chinese funding, ties

In addition to restitution, Li was ordered to serve one year on probation. During the first two months of his probation, he must file accurate tax returns for the years 2012 through 2018.

Li’s sentence comes amid concern from NIH, the FBI and other federal agencies regarding foreign governments, especially China, attempting to steal U.S. research. In recent years, concerns have grown about whether foreign governments are involving themselves in U.S. scientific processes, AJC.com previously reported.

The NIH’s concerns included researchers’ failure to disclose substantial contributions of foreign resources, diversion of research and intellectual property to foreign countries, and violating boundaries of confidential peer review.

“This isn’t an anti-China effort,” said Scott Kennedy, a senior adviser on China at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

He said the U.S. scientific community has long relied on a world of open communication to advance scientific collaboration and discovery as efficiently as possible.

“I think as a result they hadn’t developed very strong systems of accountability to deal with global participation,” Kennedy said. “So they are trying to catch up with reality.”

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