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Justice Department set to modify Trump-era program aimed at fighting Chinese threats

The Department of Justice building in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 9.STEFANI REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department will soon announce changes to the China Initiative, a Trump-era effort to combat Chinese national security threats, after civil rights proponents, business groups, and universities told the Biden administration that the program had fostered suspicion of Asian professors working in the United States, chilled scientific research, and contributed to a rising tide of anti-Asian sentiment, according to people briefed on the matter.

The likely changes, including retiring the China Initiative name, are the result of a three-month evaluation undertaken by Matthew G. Olsen, head of the Justice Department’s national security division.

The modifications to a program that brought espionage, trade-secrets theft, and cybercrime cases under a single banner come as Beijing continues to use spies, cyberhacking, theft, and propaganda to challenge America’s standing as the world’s preeminent economic and military power — activity that has only grown more acute.

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The FBI has more than 2,000 open investigations into Chinese efforts to steal US information and technology, and it is opening new cases related to Chinese intelligence operations about every 12 hours, Christopher Wray, the bureau’s director, said last month. “There is just no country that presents a broader threat to our ideas, our innovation, and our economic security than China,” he said.

Republicans have argued that changing the program would indicate that the Biden administration was going soft on Beijing. But Olsen has told the leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee and White House officials that the department’s work will not be hampered.

The modifications will most likely focus on the department’s efforts to root out academics and researchers who lied to the government about Chinese affiliations, according to the people briefed on the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose private conversations about the forthcoming changes. Such prosecutions were meant to deter people from hiding foreign affiliations, as national security officials worry that researchers who hide foreign government ties can be more easily groomed to share valuable information.

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But critics say that prioritizing such cases as part of a program to combat serious national security threats incentivizes investigators to unfairly target Asian professors and lumps financial disclosure cases with more serious crimes, like espionage and trade-secret theft, wrongly giving the impression that everyone who hid Chinese affiliations was a spy.

While the China Initiative has resulted in numerous pleas and convictions, several cases against academics have ended in acquittal or dismissal. In one high-profile failure, prosecutors withdrew charges against Gang Chen, a mechanical engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, after the Energy Department said that his undisclosed affiliations with China would not have affected his grant application.

Such losses often fuel the Chinese propaganda machine and hurt US interests. “Every case that goes south, especially one that concerns a minority community, discredits the Justice Department in the minds of the American people,” said David H. Laufman, an official in the department’s national security division during the Obama administration.

In announcing changes to the China Initiative, Olsen is expected to say that the Justice Department will treat some grant fraud cases as civil matters going forward, reserving criminal prosecution for the most egregious instances of deception, according to the people briefed on the matter.

He is expected to note that China is not the only foreign nation that has tried to secure financial and other ties to American researchers in the hopes of obtaining valuable information, so the problem is broader than the China Initiative name conveys. In addition, the Justice Department will have a revamped process for evaluating whether a researcher has adequately disclosed foreign affiliations, which will take into account recently released guidance from the White House that describes what researchers must disclose.

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It is unclear whether the Justice Department will rename the program, or whether it will investigate espionage and corporate fraud crimes committed by foreign nations as it always has, but with no moniker. A Justice Department spokesperson declined to comment.

Various Asian American business and civil rights groups as well as the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus told the White House and the Justice Department last spring that the China Initiative gave the impression that prosecutors were more intent on cracking down on Chinese people, rather than the Chinese government. The cases involving researchers exacerbated that perception.

“Most failed to uncover espionage, and the government instead fell back on paperwork mistakes to bring charges,” said Ben Suarato, a spokesperson for the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. “There are real national security concerns. We’re just saying that the China Initiative was the wrong way to address them.”

Republican and Democratic administrations have long worried about efforts by Beijing to steal valuable secrets from the United States, including by using research collaborations like China’s Thousand Talents program to siphon away information. Wray said in a speech in 2020 that the Chinese government used those “talent recruitment programs” to “entice scientists to secretly bring our knowledge and innovation back to China.”

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Beijing’s contact with academics and universities became a bigger concern in 2018 when the National Institutes of Health warned that foreign nations had “systematic programs” to influence researchers and peer reviewers and that failures by some researchers to disclose “substantial resources” from foreign governments had become a concern.

Those worries resonated with Jeff Sessions, President Donald Trump’s first attorney general and a former Republican senator from Alabama. While serving on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sessions came to believe that some Chinese students attended American universities to gather information valuable to Beijing, according to former government officials who worked on the China Initiative.

Sessions emphasized the risks posed by research and academic collaborations with China when he unveiled the initiative in 2018.

“Today, we see Chinese espionage not just taking place against traditional targets like our defense and intelligence agencies, but against targets like research labs and universities,” Sessions said in his speech announcing the program.

As the Justice Department prepares to reposition the initiative and take a new approach to cases involving researchers, current and former officials say that the work done under the Trump administration has had the deterrent effect that Sessions had sought.

Universities have improved their compliance programs to make sure they know which employees have taken foreign money, and they have put in place training programs to codify best practices. The grant-making agencies have increased their requirements for people seeking grants.

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Andrew E. Lelling, who was on the working group that led the China Initiative when he was the US attorney in Boston, was one of the program’s strongest backers. His district was filled with institutes, universities, and high-tech companies whose researchers were taking money from foreign governments, and he oversaw the case against Chen, as well as the successful prosecution of a chemistry professor at Harvard University who hid his affiliations and payments from China.

Lelling said his thinking on the program had changed, in part because researchers were less of a concern. “We’re now in a different place from where we were four years ago,” he said. “Deterrence has been achieved.”