The Justice Department is ending its three-year-old China Initiative, a national security program intended to thwart China’s intelligence activities in the US, including those aimed at stealing emerging technology from research universities, in the wake of a string of dismissals of cases and complaints that it fueled suspicion and bias against innocent Chinese Americans.
Matthew Olsen, assistant attorney general for national security, announced the change of strategy Wednesday, following a months-long review of the initiative and his conclusion that there was merit to some of the criticism from Asian Americans and from universities that the program was not only fueling discrimination but was also harming efforts to attract top talent and to pursue cutting edge research.
“Anything that creates the impression that the Department of Justice applies different standards based on race or ethnicity harms the department and our efforts, and it harms the public,” Olsen told reporters Wednesday. “I do believe that the China Initiative was driven by genuine national security concerns. But I’m also mindful that the department must maintain the trust of the people whom we serve.”
Olsen, in a speech at George Mason University’s National Security Institute, announced that the department would pursue a broader strategy to counter not only threats from China but also from Russia, Iran and North Korea. It’s a nuanced change, Olsen told reporters, noting that he agreed with comments recently from FBI Director Christopher Wray, who said that the Chinese government’s activity have become “more brazen, more damaging than ever before.”
The China Initiative was launched in 2018 under then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who early on had decided the intelligence, cyber and repressive threat that China posed to be worse than the Russian threat then dominating the headlines amid the investigation at the time of Russian election interference to aid Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
The Justice Department has credited the initiative with some major prosecution victories, including against Chinese spies working to steal US technology. The department’s website lists nearly 60 cases under the initiative ranging from hacking to spying to false statements in grant applications.
But the initiative also ran into major problems in court, particularly in cases targeting what prosecutors said was grant fraud by university researchers who the government said failed to disclose ties to China.
Last summer, the department was forced to drop charges against a half dozen people who faced charges related to their research grants and what the department said was an attempt to hide ties to China. In Tennessee, a judge dismissed a case against a Chinese Canadian researcher after a jury deadlocked on what prosecutors said was an attempt to defraud the US government.
Olsen, in his speech Wednesday, said his national security prosecutors would more closely supervise cases involving grant fraud, which was the source of many of the complaints about the China initiative. In some cases, instead of criminal prosecution, he said, the department might seek civil or administrative sanctions.
Asian Americans Advancing Justice, an Asian American civil rights group, called the end of the China initiative “an important step towards ending the cyclical and historic racial profiling of Asian Americans and immigrants.”
And Zhengyu Huang, president of Committee of 100, a group of prominent Chinese Americans, said in a statement: “The China Initiative is a failed program that has fueled racial animosity, xenophobia, and suspicion towards the AAPI community and Chinese Americans in particular.”
“Today’s announcement is an important step forward, but much more work needs to be done to ensure that all cases being prosecuted are based solely on evidence and not on perception.”
Olsen also highlighted recent Justice Department charges to show how prosecutors would redirect their efforts to broader threats. He noted charges against government officials from Belarus for using a false bomb threat to divert a passenger aircraft in order to arrest a prominent dissident, and charges against Iranian intelligence agents for plotting to kidnap a US-based journalist and human rights activist.
Olsen took pains to say that while he is ending the China Initiative, he doesn’t believe prosecutors and agents were acting with bias in cases that have run into trouble. But ending the initiative may not be embraced by some national security hawks, who believe the Biden administration has eased off the focus on threats from China.
Wray, in his January speech, appeared to stake out a prebuttal position against any effort to soften the focus on China.
“There is no country that presents a broader threat to our ideas, our innovation and our economic security than China,” Wray said, speaking at the Ronald Reagan Library.
The FBI echoed Wray’s comments in a statement later on Wednesday saying, “No government poses a broader, more severe threat to our ideas, innovation, and economic security than the government of China does,” and vowing that it “will remain relentless countering the Chinese government in the long fight already underway. “
This story has been updated with additional details Wednesday.