Updated Feb 23, 2022 - Politics & Policy

DOJ ends China Initiative after racial profiling accusations

Photo of the Department of Justice building with American flags hanging at the top of the front entrance
Photo: Stefani Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

The Justice Department is ending the Trump-era China Initiative following allegations of racial profiling and an internal review, assistant attorney general for national security Matt Olsen announced Wednesday.

Why it matters: The program, which was launched to combat Chinese espionage in the U.S., has faced criticism from Asian Americans, academics and lawmakers for largely targeting Asian scientists in minor fraud cases that often fall apart.

  • Many of the charges brought under the initiative involved a failure to disclose affiliations to Chinese universities or state-sponsored programs on federal funding applications.

What he's saying: In a speech delivered at George Mason University, Olsen said the DOJ's actions have been "driven by genuine national security concerns" according to prepared remarks.

  • "But 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 later in a Q&A that he found no indication of bias in his review but noted in his speech that "we have heard concerns from the civil rights community that the 'China Initiative' fueled a narrative of intolerance and bias. ... The rise in anti-Asian hate crime and hate incidents only heightens these concerns."
  • He also acknowledged the academic and scientific community's concerns about the DOJ's pursuit of research grant fraud causes, which they've warned could lead to a chilling atmosphere for research.
  • “To be clear, we are no longer going to have a China Initiative," Olsen said during the Q+A portion of the event. "Having listened to the concerns and most importantly also having understood the nature of the threat we face today, I think a better strategy, a more effective, appropriate strategy is to look at all the threats we face from nation-state actors.”

Moving forward: The National Security Division (NSD) will take an "active supervisory role" in research security investigations, and work with other agencies "to assess the evidence of intent and materiality, as well as the nexus to our national or economic security," Olsen said.

  • "These considerations will guide our decisions — including whether criminal prosecution is warranted or whether civil or administrative remedies are more appropriate."
  • New guidance for federal funding agencies also includes procedures for correcting inaccurate or incomplete prior disclosures. "Where individuals voluntarily correct prior material omissions and resolve related administrative inquiries, this will counsel against a criminal prosecution," Olsen announced.
  • "Make no mistake, we will be relentless in defending our country from China," he added. But "we are focused on the actions of the PRC government, the Chinese Communist Party, and their agents — not the Chinese people or those of Chinese descent. As we talk about the threats that the PRC government poses to the United States, we must never lose sight of that fundamental distinction."

Worth noting: The DOJ declined to comment on what will happen to ongoing initiative cases and whether the agency would consider dropping those charges.

The big picture: Asian American lawmakers and advocates called the move long overdue but said they'd watch the DOJ closely to ensure its new strategy doesn't become a "rebranded" version of the China Initiative.

Go deeper: DOJ's China Initiative under scrutiny as cases fall apart

Editor's note: This story has been updated with more information from Olsen on ending the China Initiative.

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