The U.S. Department of Justice is scrapping the name of an Trump-era initiative aimed at cracking down on economic espionage per se. China but has been criticized for being unfairly directed at Chinese professors at American colleges because of their ethnicity.
The decision to abandon the “China Initiative” and impose a higher bar for prosecuting professors was announced Wednesday by the department’s top national security official.
This is followed by a month-long review complains that the program cooled academic cooperation and contributed to anti-Asian bias. The department has also been subjected to high-profile setbacks in individual prosecutions, which has resulted in the dismissal of several criminal cases against academic researchers in the past year.
Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen said the department would still “be relentless in defending our country from China” but would no longer group its investigations and prosecutions under the China Initiative label, in part in recognition of the threats the United States also faces. from Russia. Iran, North Korea and others.
“I am convinced that we need a broader approach, one that looks at all of these threats and uses all of our authorities to combat them,” he said.
The program was established in 2018 under then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions as a way to counter what officials said were China’s aggressive efforts to steal U.S. intellectual property and to spy on U.S. industry and research.
Olsen told reporters he believed the initiative was prompted by genuine national security concerns. He said he did not believe investigators had targeted professors on the basis of ethnicity, but he had to be responsive to concerns he heard, including from Asian American groups.
“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 said.
Olsen said that by “grouping cases under the China Initiative column, we were helping to create a damaging perception that [justice department] apply a lower standard for its investigation and prosecution of criminal conduct related to the country in question, or that we somehow view people with racial, ethnic or family ties to China differently ”.
Some Asian-American groups and officials who had lobbied the department to end the China initiative cheered on the move. Judy Chu, a California Democrat and president of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, said the initiative had ruined careers, discouraged Asian Americans from pursuing academic specialties in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and reinforced “harmful stereotypes.”
“There are serious national security issues facing our country from around the world, but our response must be based on evidence, not racism and fear,” Chu wrote.
The initiative has resulted in judgments, including by Charles Liebera professor at Harvard University who in December was found guilty of hiding his ties to a Chinese-run recruitment program.
But its hunt for professors, including those accused of hiding ties to the Chinese government in connection with applications for federal research fellowships, hit trouble. In the last year, the department has rejected several cases against researchers or had them thrown out by judges.
Federal prosecutors are still expected to pursue cases of grant fraud against researchers when there is evidence of malicious intent, serious fraud and a link to economic and national security. In some cases, prosecutors may choose civil or administrative solutions instead of criminal charges, Olsen said.
FBI Director Christopher Wray said in a January speech that the threat from China was “more cheeky” than ever, with the FBI opening new cases to counter Chinese intelligence operations every 12 hours or so. Olsen said he agreed.
“I’m not taking any tools from the table here,” Olsen said. “I do not think there is a reason to step back from that threat and we will not step back from that threat.”