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DOJ Ends Troubled ‘China Initiative’ After Failures, Criticism

Feb. 23, 2022, 8:00 PM

The Justice Department said Wednesday that it’s ending the “China Initiative,” a program started under the Trump administration that came under intense criticism for fanning discrimination against Asian-Americans even as several of its high-profile criminal cases failed in court.

Instead, the department will pursue a broader effort to counter threats from adversarial nations including China, Russia and Iran, from hacking attacks to the theft of U.S. trade secrets, Matthew Olsen, head of DOJ’s national security division, told reporters.

“Fundamentally, I do not think that the initiative is the best approach in light of the threat landscape that we see,” Olsen said. “I’m convinced that we need a broader approach. One that looks across all of these threats and uses all of our authorities to combat them.”

President Donald Trump’s administration went all-in on the “China Initiative,” begun in November 2018, to investigate and prosecute Chinese and Chinese-American researchers it said were stealing U.S. secrets while hiding their links to the government in Beijing and to the People’s Liberation Army. It came as part of a broader attack on China’s ties in the U.S., with Secretary of State Michael Pompeo contending that Chinese spying was aided by colleges “hooked on communist cash.”

The announcement Wednesday marks a significant turning point for President Joe Biden’s administration in its posture toward the Chinese government, at the risk of exposing the Justice Department and other agencies to criticism that they’re being too soft in addressing serious threats and illegal activity.

U.S. Hunt for Chinese Spies Prompts Racism, Misconduct Claims

But Olsen vowed that the department “will be relentless in defending our country from China” and, when appropriate, will still pursue criminal charges in response to Chinese espionage, the theft of intellectual property and hacking attacks.

FBI Director Christopher Wray said in a Jan. 31 speech that the bureau opens a new case related to China every 12 hours and has more than 2,000 investigations tied to the Chinese government underway.

After a three-month internal review, Olsen said the department can no longer justify an initiative that singles out one country and creates the impression that U.S. officials are biased toward Asian-Americans and Chinese nationals.

“The department must maintain the trust of the people we serve,” Olsen said.

Olsen said he hasn’t seen any indication that bias against Asian-Americans or Chinese nationals drove decisions in the criminal cases that were brought under the initiative.

MIT Professor’s Case Over China Dropped as Proof Found Weak

The program faced the most criticism for targeting professors and researchers who allegedly violated terms of their grant funding at U.S. universities and other institutions. Several high-profile cases fell apart in court.

In January, U.S. prosecutors dropped a case against a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor charged last year with receiving federal grant money but failing to disclose his ties to China. Prosecutors concluded their evidence against Gang Chen, a U.S. citizen, no longer met the burden of proof at trial.

“There’s no facts in what they said,” Chen said in an interview with CBS News that aired on Wednesday. “We try very hard to go back to normal, but also I know I will never be the same Gang Chen again.”

Olsen said the Justice Department’s national security division will take an “active, supervisory role” in working with U.S. attorney’s offices and FBI agents to make decisions about China-related cases, such as whether to handle them as civil matters rather than criminal prosecutions.

The new, broader strategy for countering nation state threats will be driven by considerations that include defending core U.S. national security interests, protecting domestic institutions that are vital to economic prosperity like critical infrastructure and supply chains, and defending democratic values and institutions from authoritarians, Olsen said.

To contact the reporter on this story:
Chris Strohm in Washington at cstrohm1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story:
Bill Faries at wfaries@bloomberg.net

Larry Liebert

© 2022 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Used with permission.