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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A legal scholar is raising concerns about the Department of Justice's China Initiative, which is aimed at countering economic espionage, theft of intellectual property and other national security concerns related to China, and its possible implications for civil rights.

Why it matters: Amid the U.S. government's new emphasis on countering threats from China, there is growing concern about the potential for over-zealous or discriminatory investigations.

What's new: Maggie Lewis, a law professor at Seton Hall University School of Law who focuses on criminal justice law in China and Taiwan, argues in a new draft paper in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology that the use of "China" as a frame doesn't sit well with the Department of Justice's own principles.

  • "[U]sing 'China' as the glue connecting cases under the Initiative’s umbrella creates an over-inclusive conception of the threat, and attaches a criminal taint to entities that have an even tangential nexus to 'China.'"
  • A clear threat does exist, writes Lewis. But lumping investigations together under a "China" label suggests "threat by association," which goes against the spirit of the department's commitment to pursuing cases individually.

The solution: Lewis said the U.S. government should explore measures such as enhanced audits and tightened regulation before resorting to a criminal law response.

  • Lewis also suggests "adopting a country-neutral framing and only connecting cases when there is a compelling reason to do so, not because they have been categorized as part of a larger China threat."

The bottom line: "You don’t want to be a Pollyanna and deny that there is a threat," Lewis told Axios in an interview. "But you don’t also want to have over-deterrence. You want to find the sweet spot. I’m not convinced that the China Initiative is currently doing that."

Go deeper:

Go deeper

Aug 26, 2020 - World

U.S. presses Israel to cool ties with China over support for Iran

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Aug. 24. Photo: Kobi Gideon/GPO/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pressed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their meeting in Jerusalem on Monday to further cool relations with China and limit Chinese investments in Israel over the new strategic partnership agreement China signed with Iran, Israeli and U.S. officials said.

Why it matters: The Trump administration has been lobbying Israel for two years to scale back its relations with China. Until now, those efforts have had very little success.

Pakistan PM will "absolutely not" allow CIA to use bases for Afghanistan operations

Pakistan will "absolutely not" allow the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency to use bases on its soil for cross-border counterterrorism missions after American forces withdraw from Afghanistan, Prime Minister Imran Khan tells "Axios on HBO" in a wide-ranging interview airing Sunday at 6 pm ET.

Why it matters: The quality of counterterrorism and intelligence capabilities in Afghanistan is a critical question facing the Biden administration as U.S. forces move closer to total withdrawal by Sept. 11.