Update (September 23): On September 19, a federal judge reversed three of the four convictions against University of Kansas chemical engineer Franklin (Feng) Tao, among the first US researchers arrested under the China Initiative. Nature reports that the reversals could mark a new era for scientists with Chinese heritage who have had to grapple with the risk of government surveillance.
The Department of Justice announced yesterday (February 23) that it is ending the China Initiative, a Trump-era program that investigated researchers with financial ties to China.
Matthew Olsen, the DOJ’s Assistant Attorney General for National Security, told reporters that the department decided the China Initiative was a misguided effort to curb national security threats, Politico reports. Going forward, he added, the department will not abandon its efforts to prevent China from stealing sensitive information from American institutions, but will instead take a broader approach to national security, and many workplace issues that would have prompted criminal charges under the China Initiative may be handled through civil litigation instead.
“DOJ will no longer use the framework of the China Initiative to organize or to describe our efforts to counter threats by the PRC government,” Olsen told reporters, per Politico. “We are ending the China Initiative.”
The China Initiative resulted in some high-profile convictions, including, recently, that of Harvard University chemist Charles Lieber, who was found guilty of lying to the US Defense Department and the National Institutes of Health about having received funding from China’s Thousand Talents recruitment program. Lieber also failed to disclose his income from the program as well as the Chinese bank account he used for payments on his tax forms. However, the Justice Department also abandoned several cases against researchers who had been indicted under the China Initiative—including MIT engineer Gang Chen, against whom the Associated Press reports prosecutors could not procure sufficient evidence. Many of the researchers targeted by the program were Chinese or Chinese-American, leading to concerns about racial profiling.
Nature reports that the fallout of the China Initiative will likely have long-term repercussions for researchers as well as international relations within science. Anming Hu, a nanotechnology researcher targeted by the initiative, lost his job at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and was placed under house arrest for longer than a year while he awaited a trial that was deemed a mistrial just days later. While Hu got his job back after being acquitted, Nature reports, his story serves as an example of a culture of “harassment” that Chen described to the publication.
Zhengyu Huang, president of an Asian-American leadership organization called the Committee of 100, tells NPR that the DOJ’s announcement “is an important step forward, but much more work needs to be done to ensure that all cases being prosecuted are based solely on evidence and not on perception.”
The Committee of 100 published a report in October that included a survey in which half of the respondents who were of Chinese descent reported “considerable” fear that the US government was surveilling them.
In the program’s stead, Olsen said that the Justice Department plans to broaden its approach to focus not just on China but also on Russia, Iran, and other nations, according to NPR, and will focus more heavily on the tech industry than on academic researchers.
“I’m convinced that we need a broader approach, one that looks across all of these threats and uses all of our authorities to combat them,” Olsen said on Wednesday.