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Biden DOJ ends Trump-era China spy initiative

Donald Trump in Phoenix, Ariz. in Feb. 2020. (Gage Skidmore/Flickr) | Joe Biden in Altoona, Iowa in Aug. 2019. (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)
February 23, 2022

The U.S. Department of Justice under President Joe Biden announced Wednesday it is shutting down a China-focused national security initiative it started under President Donald Trump to counter spying. The department said it will instead take a “broader approach” to countering “nation-state threats.”

In a speech at George Mason University on Wednesday, Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen cited past complaints of the so-called “China Initiative” the DOJ first opened in 2018 and announced it would be replaced by the new “Strategy for Countering Nation-State Threats.” Olsen said the new strategy expands the focus from China to countries like Russia, Iran and North Korea.

“We have heard concerns from the civil rights community that the ‘China Initiative’ fueled a narrative of intolerance and bias,” Olsen said. “To many, that narrative suggests that the Justice Department treats people from China or of Chinese descent differently. The rise in anti-Asian hate crime and hate incidents only heightens these concerns. The Department is keenly aware of this threat and is enhancing efforts to combat acts of hate. These efforts are reflected in the Attorney General’s memorandum issued last year following the enactment of the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act.”

Olsen said efforts the Trump-era China Initiative took to pursue cases against Chinese actors taking part in research grant fraud were also a cause for concern. He said such cases “can lead to a chilling atmosphere for scientists and scholars that damages the scientific enterprise in this country.”

Olsen said protecting against fraud and espionage at U.S. research institutions is still a matter of national security, “But so is ensuring that we continue to attract the best and the brightest researchers and scholars to our country from all around the world — and that we all continue to honor our tradition of academic openness and collaboration.”

A group of 200 Yale professors recently added to the complaints from academia about the China Initiative, sending a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland calling on him to end the initiative.

“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 added.

In light of the complaints about bias from the China Initiative, Olsen said he began a review of the initiative as soon as he took office.

“While I remain focused on the evolving, significant threat that the government of China poses, I have concluded that this initiative is not the right approach. Instead, the current threat landscape demands a broader approach,” Olsen said.

The DOJ’s decision comes even as concerns about the Chinese theft of U.S. secrets remain high.

Last month, FBI Director Chris Wray said his agency has over 2,000 investigations ongoing into Chinese government efforts to steal critical U.S. information and technology.

“The Chinese government steals staggering volumes of information and causes deep, job-destroying damage across a wide range of industries—so much so that, as you heard, we’re constantly opening new cases to counter their intelligence operations, about every 12 hours or so,” Wray said.