WASHINGTON (AP) – The Justice Department is scrapping the name of a Trump-era initiative aimed at cracking down on economic espionage by Beijing, but which has been criticized for being unfairly targeted at Chinese professors at American colleges because of their ethnicity .
The decision to abandon the China initiative and to introduce a higher bar for prosecuting professors was announced on Wednesday by the Justice Ministry’s top official for national security. It follows a month-long review conducted following complaints that the program cooled academic collaboration 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 faces from Russia . Iran, North Korea and others.
“I am convinced that we need a broader approach, one that looks at all these threats and uses all our authorities to combat them,” he told reporters before a speech detailing the changes.
The program was established in 2018 under then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions as a way to thwart what officials said were aggressive efforts on the part of China 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 also said he should 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.
Speaking later in the day at the National Security Institute at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School, Olsen said that by “grouping cases under the China Initiative column, we were helping to give rise to a damaging perception that (Justice Department ) uses a lower standard for its investigation and prosecution of criminal conduct related to that country, 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 on Wednesday. Rep. 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 said in a statement.
The initiative has resulted in convictions, including by Charles Lieber, a 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.
In January, the department dropped its case against Gang Chen, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who was charged in the last days of the Trump administration. Prosecutors concluded that they could no longer live up to their burden of proof after receiving information from the Ministry of Energy indicating that he had not been required to disclose certain information on his forms.
A federal judge in September dismissed all charges against a professor at the University of Tennessee who is accused of hiding his relationship with a Chinese university while receiving research grants from NASA, and the university has since offered to reinstate him.
Olsen said the department continued to stand behind the pending cases it has against academics and researchers, signaling that these lawsuits will not necessarily be abandoned.
Federal prosecutors are still expected to prosecute cases of grant fraud against researchers when there is evidence of malicious intent, serious fraud and a link to economic and national security, with prosecutors from the National Security Division in Washington playing an active supervisory role – though in some cases, prosecutors can choose civil or administrative solutions instead of criminal charges, Olsen said.
FBI Director Christopher Wray said in a speech last month 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. And Olsen said he agreed.
“I’m not taking any tools from the table here,” Olsen said. He also noted, “I do not think there is a reason to step back from that threat and we will not step back from that threat.”