Dec 09, 2020 05:12 PM

In Unprecedented Case, China Jails Elite Scientist for Embezzling Millions

Li Ning, a former academician at the Chinese Academy of Engineering, has been sentenced to 10 years in prison for embezzling public funds. Photo: Jilin Provincial Higher People’s Court
Li Ning, a former academician at the Chinese Academy of Engineering, has been sentenced to 10 years in prison for embezzling public funds. Photo: Jilin Provincial Higher People’s Court

China has for the first time jailed a scientist elected to one of its two elite national academies, as a sweeping government crackdown on corruption ripples through the highest levels of academia.

Li Ning, a top biotechnology expert and a former member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering (CAE), was sentenced to 10 years in prison for his role in embezzling more than 30 million yuan ($4.6 million) in research funding during his tenure, according to a court statement.

The judgment marks the first time the People’s Republic has imprisoned an academician —members of its most prestigious scientific societies — since its founding in 1949.

While corruption scandals are fairly common in Chinese scholarly circles, Li’s sentence represents an unprecedented indictment of one of the country’s best-regarded scientists. Since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, thousands of government and civil officials have fallen into disgrace amid a wide-ranging anticorruption drive.

At the time when his crimes took place, Li, now 58, was a professor at China Agricultural University, where he also served as director of a key state laboratory, headed his own research group and led several significant national research projects.

As a member of the CAE, Li had a status roughly akin to members of the National Academy of Engineering in the United States or fellows of the Royal Society in the U.K.

But behind his scholarly accolades lay a trail of financial wrongdoing. According to a statement (link in Chinese) issued Tuesday by the high court of Northeast China’s Jilin province, Li used his professional influence to “commit acts of embezzlement, invoice fraud and falsification of work expenses” to appropriate 34.1 million yuan of research funding between 2008 and 2012.

The money was diverted into a bank account controlled by Li, who invested it in companies in which he held shares, the statement said.

Li was arrested in 2014. During a stop-start trial, an intermediate court in the city of Songyuan adjourned (link in Chinese) for more than four years before finally hearing the case in full in 2019.

Li pleaded not guilty at the trial, arguing that all the money had been channeled into research projects. The court disagreed and in January sentenced him to 12 years behind bars.

Claiming to dispute some of the facts of the case, Li launched an appeal. But when he later appeared before the Jilin high court, he abruptly dropped the claims, changed his plea to guilty and signed a full confession. Li’s lawyer declined to comment on the sudden about-face.

Li’s confession secured him a degree of leniency. The high court subsequently cut his original sentence by two years and fined him 2.5 million yuan, a reduction of 500,000 yuan on the original penalty. A secretary who abetted Li’s crimes received a prison sentence of five years, eight months and a 200,000-yuan fine.

The case drew interest from Chinese academics, some of whom have previously claimed that incomplete management systems force researchers to temporarily hold project funding in personal bank accounts. Although Li argued this point at the trial, the intermediate court judge rejected the assertion and held that the country’s strict supervisory mechanisms served to deter embezzlement and other financial crimes.

Contact reporter Matthew Walsh ( and editor Joshua Dummer (

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