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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."

Go deeper: Trump intel chief John Ratcliffe's long-term China play

Go deeper

Jan 29, 2021 - World

WHO team visits China hospital that treated first COVID-19 patients

Members of the WHO team investigating the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images

A World Health Organization team of researchers on Friday visited a hospital in Wuhan where China says some of the first coronavirus patients were treated, AP reports.

Why it matters: Friday marks the first in-person day of the team's investigation into the origin of the coronavirus pandemic, almost a year since the first cases were reported.

3 hours ago - Health

FDA advisory panel recommends Pfizer boosters for those 65 and older

A healthcare worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine at the Key Biscayne Community Center on Aug. 24, 2021. Photo: Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A key Food and Drug Administration advisory panel on Friday overwhelmingly voted against recommending Pfizer vaccine booster shots for younger Americans, but unanimously recommended approving the third shots for individuals 65 and older, as well as those at high-risk of severe COVID-19.

Why it matters: While the votes are non-binding, and the FDA must still make a final decision, Friday's move pours cold water on the Biden administration's plan to begin administering boosters to most individuals who received the Pfizer vaccine later this month.

4 hours ago - World

France recalls ambassadors from U.S. and Australia over submarine deal

Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L), French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian (C), and French ambassador to the U.S. Philippe Etienne. Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

France has taken the extraordinary step of recalling its ambassadors to the U.S. and Australia after both countries blindsided their French allies with a new military pact and submarine contract, the French Foreign Ministry announced on Friday.

The backstory: While sealing an agreement with the U.S. and U.K. to acquire nuclear submarines, Australia ripped up an existing $90 billion submarine deal with France. That led senior French officials to accuse the U.S. of a "stab in the back."