Department of Justice Announces the End of the China Initiative

Marina Ziemnick

As the world’s attention turned to Ukraine and the then-pending invasion by Russia, the United States Justice Department (DoJ) took the opportunity to make a quiet announcement of its own: the DoJ is officially ending the China Initiative. The announcement came on Wednesday, February 23, 2022, following a multi-month review initiated by Matthew G. Olsen, the Biden administration’s Assistant Attorney General for the DoJ’s National Security Division. 

For those of us who have been following the China initiative, the Biden administration’s decision to cancel the program comes as no surprise. Biden felt the pressure to end the program even before he took office. In January 2021, a full two weeks before the inauguration, Asians Advancing Justice, the Brennan Center for Justice, and APA (Asian Pacific American) Justice issued a joint letter to Biden to express their “deep concern” with what they referred to as the federal government’s “racial, ethnic, and national origin profiling and discriminatory investigations and prosecutions of Asian Americans and Asian immigrants.” (NAS Communications & Research Associate David Acevedo published a detailed rebuttal to the letter several days later that is very much worth reading.) The pressure mounted as concerns over anti-Asian hate grew in the summer of 2021 (though the Biden administration has been entirely unfazed by the blatant discrimination against Asian Americans in admissions offices across the country). 

As a refresher, the China Initiative was launched in 2018 by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions as part of a concerted effort to counter Chinese national security threats on American soil. The China Initiative enabled the DoJ to track down American researchers and academics who maintained illegal ties to China, often after being recruited through Chinese Communist Party initiatives such as the Thousand Talents Program. Over the course of three years, the China Initiative led to the prosecution and eventual conviction of notable academics who had smuggled information to China, including renowned chemist and nanotechnologist Charles Lieber

According to Olsen, the Department of Justice decided to end the China Initiative because it believed that the program “helped give rise to 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.” He stated that the DoJ would continue to investigate academics and researchers who lie to the government about their affiliation with the Chinese government, but that it would do so as part of a “broader strategy” intended to counter threats from an assortment of hostile nations (the list included Russia, Iran, and North Korea). 

Of course, Olsen’s statement is a red herring: the DoJ does not have to end the China Initiative in order to counter threats from other hostile nations. Make no mistake, the DoJ’s decision to end the China Initiative is a capitulation to those who believe that promoting “tolerance” is more important than countering espionage (never mind that Olsen’s review found no evidence of bias or prejudice underlying China Initiative cases). If China poses a unique threat to the United States—which Olsen himself admits—then we shouldn’t shy away from naming that threat. If we can’t even bring ourselves to speak China’s name for fear of offending the powers that be, what hope do we have of countering its attacks? 


Marina Ziemnick is a Communications Associate at the National Association of Scholars.

Image: Alejandro Luengo, Public Domain

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