After a months-long review, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced on Wednesday that it is ending the Trump-era “China Initiative,” an anti-espionage program that has faced criticism of stoking anti-Asian hate.
The program, which launched in 2018 under former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, sought to counter Chinese national security threats such as hacking, trade secret theft and economic espionage.
Matthew Olsen, assistant attorney general of the DOJ’s National Security Division, ordered a review of the program last November in response to reports that it was fueling anti-Asian sentiment. Since the onset of COVID-19, at least 10,370 Asian Americans have become victims of hate and violence, according to Stop AAPI Hate.
Critics have also blamed the program for impeding academic research. Since its launch, multiple Chinese researchers in U.S. universities have faced prosecution over alleged ties to the Chinese government, but “a significant number” of such cases were dropped or dismissed, according to an investigation by MIT Technology Review.
Among those cases was one involving MIT professor Gang Chen, a naturalized U.S. citizen accused of grant fraud and colluding with China. More than 170 colleagues rallied behind him, and the DOJ ultimately dismissed all charges.
In a speech on Wednesday, Olsen said he believes the China Initiative was “driven by genuine national security concerns”; however, he also acknowledged that it had affected people’s trust in the DOJ, including those it was supposed to protect.
“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,” Olsen said.
“This erosion of trust in the department can impair our national security by alienating us from the people we serve, including the very communities the PRC government targets as victims.”
Olsen said the China Initiative was too limited and failed to reflect the overall threat landscape. In lieu of the program, the department will be launching the “Strategy for Countering Nation-State Threats,” a “comprehensive approach that draws on the full extent of our tools and authorities to address the alarming rise in illegal activity from hostile nations.”
“We see nations such as China, Russia, Iran and North Korea becoming more aggressive and more capable in their nefarious activity than ever before,” Olsen said. “Our new strategy is threat-driven.”
Asian American officials who had lobbied to end the program welcomed the DOJ’s decision.
“There are serious national security concerns facing our country from all across the world, but our response must be based on evidence, not racism and fear,” said Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), as per the Associated Press.
“This change is going to result in less racial profiling of Asians and Asian Americans, and that is a good thing,” Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) said, according to Reuters. “Now we need to monitor it and see what actually comes of the change.”
While the DOJ is adopting a broader approach, Olsen affirmed that China remains a top priority. Last month, FBI Director Christopher Wray reported that the Bureau has over 2,000 China-related cases – accounting for almost half of its active cases— with a new one opening approximately every 10 hours.
“Make no mistake, we will be relentless in defending our country from China. The Department will continue to prioritize and aggressively counter the actions of the PRC government that harm our people and our institutions,” Olsen said.
The China Initiative resulted in the conviction of Harvard professor Charles Lieber, who was found guilty of concealing his affiliation with the Wuhan University of Technology and his participation in the Chinese government’s Thousand Talents program.