The Justice Department is shuttering its controversial China Initiative and replacing it with a broader strategy aimed at countering espionage, cyberattacks and other threats posed by a range of countries, a top official said Wednesday.
Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen, who heads the department’s national security division, said the move was spurred by a growing recognition that the initiative’s name and approach unintentionally fueled a “harmful perception” that the program unjustly targeted ethnic Chinese for prosecution.
“I want to emphasize my belief,” he said in a speech at George Mason University in Northern Virginia, just outside Washington, “that the department’s actions have been driven by genuine national security concerns. But by grouping cases under the China Initiative rubric, we helped to” create a misperception.
“It’s important to end that perception,” Olsen, who undertook a review of the program in November at the direction of Attorney General Merrick Garland, said in remarks to reporters before the speech. “By picking one country, what the China Initiative did is it created in some ways a bit of a myopic approach, which I don’t think really reflects the nature of the threat landscape.”
The initiative is intended to counter a rising tide of Chinese economic espionage, cybertheft and influence operations. Some lawmakers and civil liberties groups have criticized the prosecution of academics — often of Chinese descent — who allegedly did not disclose ties to Chinese institutions while applying for federal grants. Their complaints, including that the department was engaging in racial profiling, took on added urgency as some cases failed and as anti-Asian hate incidents mounted within the United States.
On Wednesday, Olsen stressed that the national security threat posed by the Chinese government remains as great as ever. But he also made clear that other countries pose similar challenges.
“I have concluded that this [China] initiative is not the right approach to meet the threat in the coming years,” Olsen said. “Instead, the current threats demand a broader approach.”
The revamped approach means the Justice Department’s China Initiative webpage will be archived as of Wednesday, officials said. The prosecutions and investigations in the pipeline will continue. But officials said they expect increased transparency by academics and greater oversight by the Justice Department to result in a reduction in the number of cases brought over alleged grant fraud by academics with links to China — an area of inquiry that has resulted in some high-profile losses over the past year.
The decision to reorient around nation-state challenges reflects how the perceived threat landscape for the United States has evolved since 2006, when Olsen first served at the newly created division. Back then, the principal danger, and the division’s primary focus, was foreign terrorism.
Olsen left the division in 2009. What struck him upon his return last year, he said, is how the landscape has broadened to include transnational repression, economic espionage and cyberattacks.
“Even compared to just a few years ago, we are seeing nations such as Russia, China, Iran and North Korea become more aggressive, more brazen and more capable in their nefarious activity than ever before,” he said in announcing a new “Strategy for Countering Nation-State Threats.”
The China Initiative was unveiled to great fanfare in 2018, during the Trump administration, by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The announcement was accompanied by the unveiling of a major indictment against a Chinese state-owned company, a Taiwan company and three individuals charged with stealing trade secrets of an American semiconductor firm, Micron.
Prosecutors racked up convictions, including of a Chinese intelligence officer on charges of economic espionage and, in January, of a Chinese national for conspiring to steal proprietary technology from Monsanto, a major agricultural biotechnology company.
The dozens of indictments included charges against nine individuals accused of acting as illegal agents of the Chinese government to harass and stalk U.S. residents of Chinese descent to coerce them to return to China. In 2018, the Justice Department indicted two alleged Chinese hackers in connection with a 12-year-long campaign of cyber-intrusions that vacuumed up technology and trade secrets from corporate computers in a dozen countries. It also indicted the Chinese firm Huawei, the world’s largest maker of telecommunications equipment, for allegedly conspiring to steal American trade secrets.
These cases coincided with a growing awareness in Congress and the national security community of the Chinese government’s increasing aggressiveness in competing with the West economically and technologically. Some 80 percent of all U.S. federal prosecutions of economic espionage involved allegations of theft that would benefit the Chinese state, the department has said.
FBI Director Christopher A. Wray said last month that the bureau is working more than 2,000 investigations of Chinese technology and intellectual property theft and is opening a new case about every 12 hours. “There’s just no country that presents a broader threat to our ideas, innovation and economic security than China,” he said.
Officials including Wray have said that the Chinese government uses “nontraditional” means of stealing Western technology, including through co-opting academics at American universities. Increasingly over the years the FBI opened cases investigating researchers who had links to Chinese government “talent” programs that allegedly paid academics to secretly share technology with the government. The academics were often accused of failing to disclose those ties on grant applications.
But a number of those prosecutions fell apart, resulting in dismissals or acquittals. In September, University of Tennessee professor Anming Hu was acquitted of fraud and espionage. Last month, Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Gang Chen’s case was dismissed after the government acknowledged it could not meet its burden of proof at trial.
Though the department did obtain a number of convictions, including of Harvard University professor Charles Lieber in December, the dismissals fueled criticism that the cases were motivated by ethnic bias or that the department applied a lower standard to bring them.
Olsen said he is convinced that neither criticism is justified.
Moving forward, Olsen said, the division will exercise more supervision over grant fraud cases and will work with the FBI and other investigative agencies to ensure that criminal prosecutions are brought only when there is clear evidence of intentional misconduct; “materiality,” meaning the researcher would not have received the grant if he or she had disclosed a link to China; and a nexus to national or economic security. In other cases, he said, civil or administrative remedies might be more appropriate.
He noted that the White House Office of Science and Technology in January issued guidance to federal funding agencies directing them to craft within 120 days uniform and clear disclosure guidelines for researchers.
In retrospect, the blowback provoked by the initiative’s name appears to have been an unintended outcome of a desire to publicize the threat posed by Beijing and the department’s work to counter it.
In fact, the national security division for years had put a major focus on Chinese economic espionage, cyber-intrusions and influence operations. In May 2014, in a bellwether case, prosecutors obtained an indictment of five Chinese military hackers accused of stealing valuable trade secrets from leading steel, nuclear-plant and solar-power companies, marking the first time that the United States had leveled such criminal charges against a foreign country. More cases followed.
So when Sessions launched the initiative in 2018, “my first impression was that it was a gimmick to create a classic DOJ moniker” to bring more public attention to the effort, said David Laufman, who from 2014 to early 2018 headed the division’s counterintelligence and export control section. “I was surprised because it seemed to me we were already administering a China initiative, and we just hadn’t named it.”
Over time, Laufman said, he worried the name “caused apprehension in the Asian American community and concerns that it was racial profiling.” Like Olsen, he said there was no evidence that prosecutors were motivated by bias.
Dropping the name, Laufman added, won’t “make one whit of difference in the intensity brought to bear” by the department in countering malign foreign activities that threaten national security.
Olsen said that to the extent the Justice Department trains its sights on Beijing, it focuses on actions by the Chinese government, Communist Party and their agents — “not the Chinese people and not Chinese Americans.”