Jan 19, 2021 - World

Top DOJ official John Demers on the agency's China Initiative

Assistant Attorney General for the National Security Division John Demers speaks at a news conference

Assistant Attorney General John Demers speaks at a press conference on Oct. 19, 2020. Photo credit: Andrew Harnik/Getty Images.

John Demers, the assistant attorney general at the Department of Justice's National Security Division who leads the department's China Initiative, spoke with Axios about his view on the initiative's progress since its launch in 2018 and what he hopes to see in the coming year as Biden assumes office.

The big picture: The China Initiative made headlines with dozens of major indictments but also sparked controversy over its targeting of scientists with links to the Chinese government.

Background: Amid rising concern about China's economic espionage and intelligence activities, the Trump administration's newly declassified Indo-Pacific strategy, approved in February 2018, called for the U.S. to "expand and prioritize U.S. intelligence and law enforcement activities that counter Chinese influence operations."

  • The Justice Department launched the China Initiative in November 2018.
  • Trump appointed Demers to lead the National Security Division, and then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions tapped him to lead the China Initiative.
  • The initiative aimed to disrupt these activities and to help educate the American public regarding the extent of China's covert activities in the U.S.
  • Five years ago, there was a large gap between what was known within the U.S. government regarding China's covert activities in the U.S. and what the American public knew. That gap has now narrowed considerably.

What Demers sees at the China Initiative's successes:

  • “I think we’ve been most successful in terms of economic espionage, theft of intellectual property and the university side. I think we’ve made the most difference in terms of educating the public in those areas."
  • Demers also says the initiative has been successful in "showing the plethora of malign Chinese activity in the U.S," including political, economic and cyber espionage; Operation Fox Hunt; and the Thousand Talents program.

What Demers believes still needs to be done:

  • "The piece where I still think we have work to do ... is on the foreign influence side. That’s where we need to start bringing some cases."
  • Specifically, that means bringing "FARA [Foreign Agents Registration Act] and 951 cases that involve individuals here in the U.S. who are promoting Chinese bullet points on behalf of China without saying that that’s what they are doing."
  • "We’ve been talking about Chinese foreign influence, but again, we lack some stories to tell on that to drive home to the public and to disrupt" those activities.

What Demers hopes to see from the Biden administration:

  • Demers said he hopes Biden will support the Department of Justice in continuing to pursue the goal of "confronting malign Chinese behavior here in the U.S."
  • "To the extent that I’ve talked on the Hill or testified, I find bipartisan support for what the department has done. I don’t think this has been, on the law enforcement side, a particularly partisan issue."

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