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US Justice Department revamps China Initiative

Agency drops the controversial name and says it will focus on espionage, not academic researchers

by Andrea Widener
March 3, 2022 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 100, Issue 9


Matthew Olsen sitting at a desk during a congressional hearing.
Credit: Rod Lamkey - CNP/Sipa USA/Newscom
Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen said the Department of Justice would change the China Initiative.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) will drop its controversial China Initiative and adopt a broader strategy to address economic espionage. Many in the Asian American community met the move with cautious optimism.

The DOJ has been criticized for using the initiative to charge many academic researchers not for stealing secrets but for failing to report connections to China. Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen said in a speech Feb. 23 that after reviewing the program, he had “concluded that this initiative is not the right approach.” Instead, he said, the department will examine the espionage efforts of a number of nations, including Russia, Iran, and North Korea.

Asian American advocacy groups were happy about the shift but worry that Chinese scientists could still be targeted. “Having thousands of professors and scientists sign on to a petition asking to end the China Initiative made a difference,” John C. Yang, executive director of Advancing Justice–AAJC, said in a webinar on the change. “We’re going to ask for all of your help, again, in making sure that DOJ lives up to its promises.”

In his speech, Olsen recognized that the initiative “fueled a narrative of intolerance and bias” that had a chilling effect on researchers, especially those of Chinese descent, and damaged the scientific community. He also vowed that the DOJ would take a more active role in reviewing cases against academics to ensure that people are not improperly charged.

Attorney Peter R. Zeidenberg of the firm ArentFox Schiff says he is concerned that the DOJ is not reexamining the cases already brought under the China Initiative, including that of University of Kansas chemical engineering professor Feng “Franklin” Tao, whose trial is scheduled to start March 21. “If they’re not appropriate going forward, they shouldn’t be continued,” Zeidenberg says.

American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Patrick Toomey, who has represented several scientists charged before the China Initiative began, also says the DOJ isn’t going far enough. “The Biden administration has to fundamentally reform these long-standing Justice Department policies that permit racial profiling in the name of national security,” he says.



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