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DOJ abandons Trump-era program aimed at Chinese spying

Asian-American groups criticized the effort, saying it contributed to bias against Chinese immigrants and Americans of Chinese descent.
A vehicle drives past the Department of Justice building in Washington on Feb. 9, 2022.
A vehicle drives past the Department of Justice building in Washington on Feb. 9, 2022.Stefani Reynolds / AFP - Getty Images file

The Justice Department is ending its China Initiative, a program that Asian-American groups said contributed to bias against Chinese immigrants and Americans of Chinese descent and that resulted in some high-profile prosecutorial failures.

Launched under the Trump administration and intended to identify and prosecute Chinese threats to national security, it also led to criminal charges against researchers and academics that collapsed.

“Make no mistake. We will be relentless in defending our country from China,” said Matt Olsen, the assistant attorney general in charge of the national security division. But he said “a new approach is needed to tackle the most severe threats from a range of hostile nation-states.”

Olsen said a three-month review, including discussions with the FBI and other intelligence agencies, research agencies and universities, convinced him that the initiative was too narrowly focused. He said representatives of the Asian-American and Pacific Islander communities said the program contributed to a rise in bias against them.

“We helped give rise to a harmful perception that the department applies a lower standard to investigate and prosecute criminal conduct related to that country or that we in some way view people with racial, ethnic, or family ties to China differently,” he said.

In a speech at George Mason University and in comments to reporters, Olsen said his division is looking at threats from all countries, including not only China, but also Russia, Iran and North Korea, that seek to steal U.S. government secrets and American technological innovations.

The China Initiative led to a series of prosecutions against researchers and academics, accusing them of failing to disclose dealings with China when submitting applications for grants.

In one of the most recent case to fall apart, prosecutors last month dropped all charges against a Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientist, Gang Chen.  

“For 371 days, my family and I went through a living hell,” Chen wrote in an essay published by The Boston Globe, referring to the length of time the charges against him were pending.

“While I am relieved that my ordeal is over, I am mindful that this terribly misguided China Initiative continues to bring unwarranted fear to the academic community and other scientists still face charges,” Chen said in a statement.

Also in the crosshairs was Qing Wang, who spent two decades working at the Cleveland Clinic, where he was leading a research project into the genetic causes of heart disease, funded by more than $3.6 million in federal grants from the National Institutes of Health.

He was accused of failing to disclose that he was part of the "Thousand Talents" program, was dean of a Chinese university, and was receiving nearly half a million dollars in Chinese government grants for research that overlapped with his U.S.-funded work.

Prosecutors dropped the charges, but Wang is now in Shanghai, looking for work.

“They are creating such a fear in the scientific community,” he told NBC News last year. “I’m pretty sure many people will move back to China. So that’s actually they are doing a favor to the Chinese government.”

Olsen said one of the concerns he heard during his review was that “we have undermined our ability to attract the best and the brightest to come to this country to conduct research, study, and teach. That’s also a national security priority.”

FBI Director Christopher Wray as been the federal government’s most outspoken critic of China’s spying. He said the FBI is launching an average of two counterintelligence investigations a day to keep up and has more than 2,000 such cases currently underway.

“There is no country that presents a broader, more severe threat to our innovation, our ideas, and our economic security than China does,” Wray said. 

Olsen said he agreed with Wray’s overall assessment of the Chinese government’s spying efforts but said other countries present different kinds of threats to U.S. national security.