National Security

DOJ scraps Trump-era China Initiative for broader national security program

The Department of Justice seal is seen in Washington, D.C.
Associated Press/Jose Luis Magana

The Department of Justice (DOJ) is scrapping its controversial China Initiative in favor of a broader program to confront diverse national security threats from foreign countries, a pivot the agency said was also needed in the wake of an increase in anti-Asian hate crimes and rhetoric.

The China Initiative was created in 2018 under the Trump administration, quickly wracking up indictments against Chinese companies accused of economic espionage.

But Justice Department leaders said Wednesday the initiative undercuts an increase in threats from Russia, Iran and numerous other countries. They also voiced concerns that the program undercuts the department’s other nefarious efforts to battle a rise in hate crimes against those of Asian descent.

“The department’s actions over the past few years have been driven by genuine national security concerns, but by grouping cases under the China initiative rubric, we help give rise to a harmful perception that the Department of Justice applies a lower standard to its investigation and prosecution of criminal conduct related to that country, or that we in some way view people with racial, ethnic or familial ties to China differently,” Matt Olsen, Assistant Attorney General for National Security, said in a speech at George Mason University.

Olsen said the new program would deal with espionage, cyber attacks and other efforts to undermine U.S. institutions.

“This includes growing threats within the United States to Americans, as well as threats to Americans and our and U.S. interests abroad. We see nations such as China, Russia, Iran, North Korea becoming more aggressive and more capable in their nefarious activity than ever before. These nations seek to undermine our core democratic, economic and scientific institutions and they employ a growing range of tactics to advance their interests and to harm the United States,” Olsen said.

“Focusing on the China initiative didn’t make sense anymore in the context of the array of threats we face.”

The China Initiative was first rolled out by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, designed to target actions backed by the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), including efforts to target university employees Chinese government “talent” programs allegedly pushing them to share technology secrets. 

Under the initiative, DOJ brought indictments against Huawei for allegedly trying to steal trade secrets and brought charges against nine individuals to pressure U.S. residents to return to China.

But the program led to complaints from the civil rights communities that the DOJ was unfairly targeting academics of Asian descent when prosecuting academics.

“This erosion of trust in the department can impair our national security. It alienates us from the people we serve, including the very communities the PRC often targets as victims,” Olsen said. 

But advocates for the Asian American community said the new program must be more than a “rebranding exercise.” 

​​“The China Initiative and the broader rhetoric around it has harmed our nation’s competitiveness, ruined the careers of innocent scholars, and severely damaged the government’s relationship with Asian American communities,” Linda Ng, president of ​​OCA-Asian Pacific American Advocates, said in a statement.

“While we are cautiously optimistic about the Justice Department’s announcement, it cannot be a rebranding exercise and more needs to be done to combat racial profiling, especially when we continue to see academics step forward with stories about being targeted.”

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which has represented some of the academics targeted under the initiative, said DOJ will still need to reform its own guidance on how race is considered during investigations.

“Today’s announcement still fails to address the underlying problem of DOJ policies permitting racial and ethnic profiling in the national security context,” Ashley Gorski, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s National Security Project, said in a statement. 

“Until these policies are overhauled, the standards governing FBI investigations will continue to leave space for bias and discrimination — rather than facts or evidence — to dictate whom the FBI pursues with some of its most intrusive investigative tools,” Gorski continued.

Still Olsen said the PRC remains a top threat, pointing to testimony from FBI Director Christopher Wray, who has repeatedly told lawmakers that the bureau opens an investigation into China every 10 hours.

“Our new strategy reflects this reality. There is no one threat that is unique to a single adversary. But at the same time it’s also clear to me that the government of China stands apart,” he said.

“The threats from the PRC government are more brazen, and more damaging than ever before. …The PRC government threatens our security through its concerted use of espionage, theft of trade secrets, malicious cyber activity, transnational depression and other tactics to advance its interests against ours.”

Updated at 5:44 p.m.

Tags China Initiative Christopher Wray Department of Justice Jeff Sessions National security Program
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