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By Mitch Ambrose
This February, the Department of Justice retired the “China Initiative” label for its efforts to counter economic espionage and malign influence by the Chinese government and raised the bar for prosecuting cases involving academic research. DOJ indicated it will exert more oversight of investigations and criminal prosecutions for such cases and will consider seeking civil or administrative penalties for those that lack clear national or economic security implications.
The changes result from a review of the China Initiative conducted by DOJ National Security Division head Matt Olsen, who the Senate confirmed to the role late last year. Olsen explained in a Feb. 23 speech that he concluded DOJ’s prosecutions of university scientists through the initiative had created a “chilling atmosphere” that is damaging the U.S. research system. While avowing he detected no racial bias in DOJ’s work, he said the exclusive focus on China fueled a “harmful perception” that the department applies a lower standard to cases involving China or people of Chinese descent.
DOJ will now pursue a broader framework that addresses threats presented by a range of countries, though Olsen stressed that the department continues to regard the Chinese government as posing unique challenges beyond those presented by other rivals such as Russia or Iran.
Describing how DOJ will handle research security cases going forward, Olsen said it will assess “evidence of intent and materiality, as well as the nexus to our national or economic security.” He also said the department will be less likely to pursue prosecutions in cases where individuals “voluntarily correct prior material omissions and resolve related administrative inquiries.”
DOJ launched the China Initiative in 2018 to focus resources on cases involving either overt or “non-traditional” espionage by the Chinese government, and many cases pursued through the initiative have been uncontroversial. However, cases involving academics have sparked outcry because few involve allegations of theft or espionage, resting instead on charges that researchers’ nondisclosure of ties with institutions in China were tantamount to criminal schemes to exploit federal funding agencies.
While DOJ secured a conviction against Harvard chemist Charles Lieber for lying to investigators and failing to report income he received from a Chinese university, pressure on the initiative has mounted as other nondisclosure cases have fallen apart. Some scientists charged by DOJ but later exonerated have called for the government to be held accountable for upending their lives, including MIT engineering professor Gang Chen and University of Tennessee nanotechnology researcher Anming Hu.
Chen has argued that DOJ failed to seek and turn over evidence that he did not violate disclosure policies on a 2017 grant application he submitted to the Department of Energy. He has also criticized DOE for not questioning the premise of DOJ’s charges against him sooner, stating, “The DOE should have spoken up when it counted. That is a lesson for all federal agencies.”
Reactions in Congress to DOJ discarding the China Initiative label have split along party lines.
Members of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, all Democrats, welcomed the move, as did House Science Committee Chair Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX). Johnson called the initiative the “wrong solution to a real problem” and a “harmful distraction that has stoked hostility against and suspicion of Asian American and Asian immigrant scientists.”
Meanwhile, several Republicans in Congress blasted the decision. Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Chuck Grassley (R-IA) has asked DOJ to reconsider, arguing the department had acted unnecessarily to “accommodate unfounded perceptions.”
The author is Director of FYI.
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