DOJ scraps divisive China Initiative that swept up prominent scientists — but vows to keep guarding against academic espionage
The China Initiative, the controversial Trump-era program designed to crack down on perceived spying and theft of American academic research for Beijing’s benefit, is coming to an end.
In the wake of complaints that the campaign unfairly targeted Asian scientists — and following several high-profile cases of prosecutors dropping their charges against researchers — the US Justice Department decided to do away with the three-year-old initiative, Matthew Olsen, assistant attorney general for national security, announced Wednesday.
A “whole-of-government” approach over the past years swept up dozens of scientists accused of hiding or lying about their China ties, including a number of prominent names in the biomedical sphere, both of Chinese descent and Western heritage. Starting at MD Anderson, the purges later extended to Emory and Moffitt — culminating in the arrest of Harvard’s Charles Lieber, who was recently found guilty. And there were many more in between, sparking fears and outcry from the scientific community.
Scrapping the name doesn’t mean giving up on investigating academic espionage entirely, he noted. Rather, his department is shifting from a singular focus on China to paying attention to “the most severe threats from a range of hostile nation-states.”
“I have concluded that this initiative is not the right approach,” he said in prepared remarks at a national security event. “Instead, the current threat landscape demands a broader approach.”
He cites Russia, Iran and North Korea as nations that have also become more aggressive in their “nefarious” activities.
“I want to emphasize my belief that the department’s actions have been driven by genuine national security concerns,” he added. “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.”
Throughout his speech, Olsen insisted there is good reason to be vigilant against threats from the Chinese government because they are “more brazen” and “more damaging than ever before.” Among them are efforts to steal critical and emerging technologies from US companies — “everything from cutting-edge semiconductor technology to actual seeds that had been developed for pharmaceutical uses after years of research and the investment of millions of dollars.”
“Safeguarding the integrity and transparency of research institutions is a matter of national security,” he said. “But so is ensuring that we continue to attract the best and the brightest researchers and scholars to our country from all around the world — and that we all continue to honor our tradition of academic openness and collaboration.”
Moving forward, he vowed to use all legal tools at his department’s disposal to combat these hostile threats, suggesting that investigations and prosecution will very much still be part of the toolkit.