The US government is ending the China Initiative. Now what?

Ending the initiative 

An MIT Technology Review investigation published in December found that the China Initiative had strayed far from its initial mission. Instead of focusing on economic espionage, the initiative appeared to be an umbrella for cases with some connection to China. Defendants were often charged with lesser infractions like grant fraud, visa fraud, or lying to investigators. But even when defendants were not being accused of espionage, federal prosecutors still painted them as national security threats.  

Concerns about Chinese economic espionage have been growing among US government officials for years. During the Obama administration, Justice Department officials brought a record number of cases under the Economic Espionage Act, including many against Chinese entities. It was this department that filed cyber-espionage charges against five hackers affiliated with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army—the first time that state actors had ever been indicted for hacking. 

But the China Initiative, announced by the Trump administration on November 1, 2018, was the first country-specific initiative in Justice Department history. The announcement followed months of confrontational rhetoric by Trump and administration officials that portrayed China as a threat requiring a “whole-of-society” response and cast all Chinese students in American universities as potential spies.  

“While I remain focused on the evolving significant threat that China poses I have concluded that this initiative is not the right approach. And instead, the current threat landscape, demands a broader approach.” 

Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen

Our investigation involved compiling and reviewing a list of cases known to be part of the initiative, based primarily on Justice Department press releases highlighting activities and successes—although the department’s lack of transparency made it impossible to pull together a complete list. 

We found some cases that aligned squarely with the stated purpose of the initiative, such as the indictments of hackers linked to Chinese state security who are believed to be behind the massive Equifax data breach, or the prosecution of a Taiwanese company and three individuals for stealing trade secrets from an American semiconductor company to benefit a Chinese state-owned enterprise. 

But the review found that prosecutors increasingly focused on research integrity issues like grant fraud or “double-dipping”—seeking funding for the same research from both American and Chinese sources—even though most of the academics involved worked on foundational research intended to be published openly.  

Our data also showed that almost all the defendants—88%—were ethnically Chinese, including many American citizens or people who had been living and working in the US for many years. 

After MIT Technology Review published its findings, Andrew Lelling, a former federal prosecutor who helped shape the initiative as a member of its steering committee, wrote in a LinkedIn post that the initiative “was sound policy“ but “has drifted and, in some significant ways, lost its focus.” He continued, “DOJ should revamp, and shut down, parts of the program, to avoid needlessly chilling scientific and business collaborations with Chinese partners.”

A country-specific policy

In his 2018 announcement of the initiative, Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke about “non-traditional collectors,” pointing to researchers in labs, universities, and the defense sector who were being co-opted to transfer technology contrary to US interests.

“‘Non-traditional collectors’ has been used as a euphemism for ‘spies,’” Gisela Kusakawa, a staff attorney for Asian Americans Advancing Justice, said in an email. 

“It blurs the line between China’s government and people of Chinese descent. Essentially, the fixation on ‘non-traditional collectors’ has the effect of focusing on people of Chinese descent, rather than on those committing State-sponsored acts of espionage,” she added. 

Our investigation found that by 2021, cases classified by the federal government as “China Initiative cases” had become a mishmash of prosecutions accusing defendants of a wide range of offenses. The only throughline was what Justice Department officials have described vaguely as a “nexus to China.” 

Many of the groups and individuals who have advocated for the end of the initiative have said that they do see some of the actions of the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party as posing legitimate economic or security threats. 

But those same groups and individuals have said that the government can tackle these concerns without targeting Asian-Americans.

Moving toward clarity

Part of the issue, in many of the academic cases, was that guidelines for disclosing foreign affiliations and other sources of funding were not always clear. Participating in a Chinese talent program, for example, is legal–although that participation has been a cause for suspicion and a factor in several China Initiative cases. 

Collaboration with researchers at foreign institutions has long been an accepted and encouraged part of academic life. But the tense political relationship between the US and China, and the prosecutions of academics under the China Initiative, has created uncertainty about what the future of cooperation between American and Chinese researchers holds.

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy’s (OSTP) new guidelines on strengthening US research security, released in early January, provide some new clarity on what kinds of international collaboration are allowed. 

The guidelines are meant to clarify requirements for federally funded researchers and develop best practices for federal research agencies. 

They set out a goal of standardized disclosure requirements and forms for researchers seeking federal funding, and give more information for when researchers should disclose potential conflicts of interest and participation in foreign programs like the Chinese talent plans. The guidelines also lay out the potential consequences for violations, including the possibility of criminal charges. 

And while the guidelines do create more clarity, it’s unclear exactly what impact they will have.

The OSTP explicitly denounced xenophobia and called for the guidance to be implemented without negatively impacting scientific collaboration and recruitment. 

“The research security challenges we face are real and serious: some foreign governments, including China’s government, are working hard to illicitly acquire our most advanced technologies. This is unacceptable,” former OSTP Director Eric Lander wrote in the report introducing the guidelines.  

“At the same time, if our policies to address those actions significantly diminish our superpower of attracting global scientific talent — or if they fuel xenophobia against Asian Americans — we will have done more damage to ourselves than any competitor or adversary could. So we need a thoughtful and effective approach.”

Many experts who offered written input into the rules recommended that the guidelines contain some mechanism for “amnesty,” a way for people who have been involved in talent programs and other affiliations to disclose those ties without fear of punishment—though when this idea was first floated early in 2021, Republican lawmakers quickly shot it down. 

When asked how researchers should proceed in the absence of an amnesty provision, an OSTP official pointed toward language in the guidelines instructing research agencies to “ensure that mechanisms for correcting disclosures exist, are communicated clearly, and are simple and straightforward.” The OSTP’s rules encourage researchers to come forward to disclose past violations–but the language may not be enough to reassure researchers after three years of the China Initiative. 

“The China Initiative was going after problems in academia that academia hadn’t even realized were issues yet,” says Emily Weinstein, a China policy analyst at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology, who was one of the experts recommending some form of amnesty. 

“There needs to be some type of olive branch,” she says. “Just fixing the disclosure requirement is just slapping a bandaid on it.” 

A moment of celebration, and a need for reflection

But even with the end of the initiative, there is a “palpable fear” in the academic community, says Rory Truex, a Princeton University professor who has written about the initiative’s effect on American science. 

It’s notable that hundreds of people in the academic community have come together to push back against the government’s actions—including many researchers who are not ethnically Chinese, Truex says. 

“Scientists and academics in general rarely act collectively,” Truex says.

The changes to the initiative may not fully address the concerns in the Asian American community. 

“The end of the DOJ’s China Initiative is a huge step towards stopping the racial profiling of Chinese scientists,” Jenny J. Lee, a professor in the University of Arizona’s Center for Educational Policy Studies and Practice, wrote in an email to MIT Technology Review before Olsen’s announcement. 

“However, antagonistic views of China, including those associated with China, will likely continue,” she added. “Negative stereotypes and discrimination against the Asian community extend well beyond the courtroom.”

“The China Initiative and the broader rhetoric around it has harmed our nation’s competitiveness, ruined the careers of innocent scholars, and severely damaged the government’s relationship with Asian American communities,” Linda Ng, national president of OCA-Asian Pacific American Advocates’, said in an emailed statement after the announcement.. “While we are cautiously optimistic about the Justice Department’s review of the program, it should not be a rebranding exercise. Attorney General Garland and Assistant Attorney General Olsen must commit to implementing reforms that are substantive and focused on preventing unfair racial targeting. National security interests should never be used as an excuse to systematically strip Asian Americans and Asian immigrant scientists of their civil liberties.”

And for the scientists who have been prosecuted by the government, the ordeal also continues—sometimes for years—after they are exonerated. 

The cases of hydrologist Sherry Chen and Xi Xiaoxing, a physics professor, both pre-date the China Initiative—charges against them were brought in 2014 and 2015, respectively.  But they followed similar trajectories, with prosecutors dropping charges before trial. Years later, both are still pursuing legal actions and damages against the federal government. 

Meanwhile, MIT professor Gang Chen, who was accused of wire fraud, making a false statement on a tax return, and failing to disclose a foreign bank account, ultimately had his charges dismissed before trial because the government could not meet its burden of evidence. 

He is back in his laboratory and back in the classroom. He’s adamant that he will continue his work, but will not apply for federal grants in the future–even though government grants make up a significant portion of the money available to fund research. ”I don’t know how I’ll do that yet,” he told MIT Technology Review in an interview days after his dismissal. “I’ll have to figure it out.”