“By choosing one country, what the China initiative did, it created in some ways a slightly myopic approach that I do not think really reflects the nature of the threat landscape,” said Olsen, who discussed the changes with journalists prior to his speech.
At least 20 academic researchers have been charged as part of the China initiative, including Charles Lieber, a professor at Harvard University who was convicted in December of lying about his ties to China in connection with federally funded research.
But several of the department’s cases were rejected because of flaws in the evidence or premise, including one against Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Gang Chen, who was accused of hiding ties to China while seeking federal funding.
“Anything that creates the impression that the Ministry of Justice applies different standards based on race or ethnicity harms the ministry and our efforts, and it harms the public,” Olsen said.
In future, the Ministry of Justice will have a much higher bar and conduct more intense supervision before instituting similar future criminal cases against academics, Olsen said.
Olsen added that the department will not “take any tools off the table” when it comes to bringing possible future cases involving researchers, nor will the department drop any of its outstanding cases against professors.
“The department will continue to stand behind the cases that we are currently prosecuting,” he said.
Linda Ng, the national president of OCA-Asian Pacific American Advocates, said her organization is “cautiously optimistic” about the changes, but warned that it should not just be “a rebranding exercise”.
“National security interests should never be used as an excuse to systematically deprive Asian Americans and Asian immigrant researchers of their civil liberties,” she added.
The Ministry of Justice’s new strategy will focus primarily on cases within a few core areas: defending the nation against threats of espionage, export controls and violations of sanctions; protection of corporate intellectual property, private information about Americans, and supply chains; and defend democracy against rising threats from authoritarian regimes.
“Make no mistake, we will be relentless in defending our country from China,” Olsen said.