Posted on February 24, 2022

DOJ Shuts Down China-Focused Anti-Espionage Program

Josh Gerstein, Politico, February 23, 2022

The Biden administration is shutting down a Justice Department program that focused on countering Chinese espionage, following stumbles in a series of criminal cases and accusations that it amounted to racial profiling.

Officials said Wednesday that the three-year-old effort, known as the China Initiative, was being cast aside largely because of perceptions that it unfairly painted Chinese Americans and U.S. residents of Chinese origin as disloyal.

“By grouping cases under the China Initiative rubric, 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 familial ties to China differently,” Assistant Attorney General for National Security Matthew Olsen said in remarks prepared for delivery at George Mason University in Virginia.

However, Justice’s top national security official insisted that the decision amounted to a reframing and recalibration — not an abandonment — of a muscular law enforcement response to the national security threat posed by the People’s Republic of China.


Olsen said department officials had concluded that the enforcement program singling out China was ill-advised and better reframed as part of a more wide-ranging effort to counter threats posed by Russia, Iran and other countries.


Olsen said that abandoning the organizational framework of the China Initiative should not be seen as minimizing what the Justice Department still views as determined and nefarious efforts by the Chinese government to acquire high-tech secrets by illegal means and to intimidate dissidents and critics abroad.


Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the initiative on Nov. 1 2018, just a few days before former President Donald Trump ousted him. DOJ headquarters encouraged U.S. attorneys around the country to invest time and resources in building cases against espionage conducted for the Chinese government.

Some of the initiative’s most high-profile and troubled cases have involved criminal charges against professors and researchers working in the U.S. over accusations that they illegally hid their involvement in Chinese government scientific development programs known as “Thousand Talents” or by similar names.

The cases have typically involved allegations that the targets lied or omitted information on disclosure forms accompanying grant applications.


Olsen said he met with a variety of Asian American groups who have complained about the program. He said he agreed with them that the effort was in some ways harming U.S. national security by discouraging skilled experts of Chinese origin from pursuing their work in the U.S.