Justice Department ends Trump-era China Initiative The initiative aimed to counter China's theft of American secrets and technology, but critics said it created a climate of fear among Asian Americans.

Law

The Justice Department is ending its controversial China Initiative

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1082593735/1082630202" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

All right. We turn now to news on a different national security front. The Justice Department says it's ending its controversial China Initiative. Now, the program began under the Trump administration, and it was aimed to counter China's theft of American trade secrets and technology. But it's come under growing criticism from civil rights groups who say the program created a climate of fear among Asian Americans.

NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas has been following all of this and joins us now. Hi, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Hi there.

CHANG: All right. So before we get into the Justice Department's decision to scrap this program, can you just explain in more detail what this China Initiative was originally designed to do?

LUCAS: Well, the U.S. for years has accused China of waging a relentless campaign, really, to steal U.S. trade secrets, government secrets, technology, cutting-edge research, intellectual property - all of those things. And China's goal, American officials say, is to use that knowledge to leapfrog the U.S. and supplant it as the world's preeminent power.

So in 2018, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced this China Initiative, and the goal of it was to focus Justice Department efforts and resources to counter this theft and protect America's economic and national security. Fast-forward three years, here is how FBI Director Christopher Wray sums up the situation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHRISTOPHER WRAY: There is just no country that presents a broader threat to our ideas, our innovation and our economic security than China.

LUCAS: In fact, Wray says the bureau has more than 2,000 open cases related to China, and it opens a new China-related case every 12 hours, he says.

CHANG: Wow. OK, if that's the reality, why is the department ending this program now?

LUCAS: Well, the new head of the department's National Security Division, Matthew Olsen, ordered a review of the China Initiative back in November in response to this mounting criticism about the program. Some of that criticism has come from the civil rights community, which has said that the China Initiative fed into this anti-Asian sentiment that's been growing in the U.S. and that it amounts to racial profiling of Asian Americans since most of the people who have been charged have been of Asian descent. And Olsen acknowledged today that that impression among Asian Americans - that feeling that they're being targeted - is a problem.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MATTHEW OLSEN: This erosion of trust in the department can impair our national security. It alienates us from the people we serve, including the very communities the PRC often targets as victims.

LUCAS: And he's acknowledging there that the program has led some people to believe that the department treats people from China or people of Asian descent differently.

CHANG: So interesting. Well, you know, a lot of the criticism of this program has focused on cases brought against particular academics and researchers. And I'm curious - did Olsen address that piece of this?

LUCAS: He did. He did. And you're right, the department has prosecuted a number of academics, researchers, scientists for failing to disclose ties to China on U.S. government grant applications. Here's what Olsen said again.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OLSEN: We have heard that those prosecutions and the public narrative around those cases can lead to a chilling atmosphere for scientists and scholars that damages the scientific enterprise in the United States.

LUCAS: And so he said that, going forward, the Justice Department would closely examine the evidence in these sorts of cases to look at, among other things, whether there's a connection to U.S. national security and economic security. And the department will then decide whether civil or administrative penalties would be a better option than the sort of heavy-handed criminal prosecution.

CHANG: Oh. You'd think that level of inquiry would have already existed. But anyway, what has the reaction been so far from civil rights groups to this decision to end the China Initiative program?

LUCAS: It's been positive. Some expressed an appreciation that the Justice Department acknowledged and listened to the community's concerns, although there is a desire to ensure that this isn't just a sort of cosmetic change. I will say Olsen made clear that the Justice Department still views China as a significant threat and will continue to focus on countering its cyberattacks and economic espionage, but the message today is that the China Initiative wasn't the right way to do so.

CHANG: That is NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas. Thank you, Ryan.

LUCAS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOUND TRIBE SECTOR 9'S "TOKYO")

Copyright © 2022 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.