DOJ scraps the China Initiative

Foreign Affairs

The United States Justice Department is ending its contentious Trump-era initiative, with plans to include other nations in its anti-espionage strategy. For many academics and activists, it’s a relief.

Illustration for SupChina by Derek Zheng

The United States Justice Department is ending its China Initiative, the Trump-era anti-espionage effort aimed at fighting Chinese national security threats. The agency announced on Wednesday it will instead opt to broaden its strategy to address threats from other hostile nations.

  • “We see nations such as China, Russia, Iran and North Korea becoming more aggressive and more capable in their nefarious activity than ever before,” Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen said per Politico. “Our new strategy is threat-driven.”

The initiative has a controversial track record, tainted by a number of high-profile losses and multiple concerns from activists, academics, and businesses that the program had chilled scientific research and unfairly targeted professors of Asian descent.

  • The DOJ dropped its cases against Chén Gāng 陈刚, the MIT professor who was accused of concealing his ties to China, and Ānmíng Hú 胡安明, a University of Tennessee scientist who was accused of wire fraud and making false statements.
  • Charles Lieber, a Harvard professor, was one of the few people indicted because he was “specifically asked about his participation in the Chinese program, and denied it,” per the New York Times.
  • Nearly 90% of those charged were of Chinese heritage, according to the MIT Technology Review. “The reason people like Lieber lie is because they are afraid,” said Peter Zeidenberg, a lawyer who represented around a dozen researchers under investigation.

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“We have heard concerns from the civil rights community that the China Initiative fueled a narrative of intolerance and bias,” Olsen said. “To many, that narrative suggests that the Justice Department treats people from China or of Chinese descent differently.”

Nadya Yeh