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DOJ Terminates ‘China Initiative’ Targeting Beijing’s Economic Espionage

A native of New York, Alina has a Bachelors degree in Corporate Communications from Baruch College and writes about human rights' related issues, politics, tech and society.
Published: March 2, 2022
The U.S. Justice Department building pictured on a foggy morning in Washington, DC on December 9, 2019 (Image: Samuel Corum via Getty Images)

On Feb. 23, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that it would be ending its China Initiative that aimed to root out suspected Chinese economic espionage, trade theft and technology transfer. The intent of the initiative was to prevent China’s intelligence apparatus from stealing U.S. technology — specifically from research and academic institutions.

The program, which launched in 2018 under the Trump administration, was conducting roughly 1,000 investigations by February 2020 across 56 regional offices into China’s attempted theft of trade secrets, FBI Director Christopher Wray said at the time.

When asked about the program being terminated, former President Donald Trump said it was a “big mistake.” Trump also made remarks about the invasion of Ukraine during a press conference held on Feb. 26 at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). 

“I’m surprised to see that. I don’t think we should be doing that … I think it’s a big mistake,” Trump said of the DOJ’s decision to end the program, in response to a question from Epoch Times senior editor Jan Jekielek. “China, as you know, is a very big player, but it can be a very dangerous player in so many different ways.”

Olsen: DOJ will pursue other ways to tackle China

DOJ National Security Division Chief Matthew Olsen stated the initiative “fueled a narrative of intolerance and bias” and had a negative effect on scientific collaboration and recruitment by U.S. research institutions. Olsen’s comments and the policy change concludes a review that Olsen ordered shortly after his confirmation by the Senate.

Olsen added that there had been a number of growing concerns from civil rights groups that the program was fielding “a narrative of intolerance and bias,” adding that the department’s prosecutions of certain fraud cases involving research grants alleged that the prosecutions could ultimately “lead to a chilling atmosphere for scientists and scholars” and threaten academic research and economic development in the long term.

However, Olsen said that China is indeed a threat to U.S. research security and said the DOJ will pursue a broader plan called the Strategy for Countering Nation-State Threats to tackle the increasingly “aggressive” and “nefarious” activity of what he called “hostile nations” in addition to China, and would also include Russia, Iran and North Korea.

“Make no mistake – we will be relentless in defending our country from China,” Olsen said. “But our review convinced us that a new approach is needed to tackle the most severe threats.”

China connected to 60 percent of all U.S. trade-secret theft cases

Under the Initiative, the FBI determined that China had been implicated in about 80 percent of all economic espionage charges brought forward by the DOJ, and was connected to 60 percent of all trade-secret theft cases in the world. The initiative has led to dozens of prosecutions since its inception, according to the DOJ’s 2021 year-end report.

Matthew Whitaker, who served as acting attorney general under the Trump administration, said the recently terminated program wasn’t targeting Chinese Americans, but rather the Chinese regime and its constituents.

“It is targeted specifically at the Chinese Communist Party [CCP], that has been destabilizing our country,” Whitaker said in an interview with EpochTV’s “China Insider” program on Feb. 25.

“Intellectual property theft is costing us hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars.China is not an honest partner on the world stage. They’re just not, and they shouldn’t be trusted,” Whitaker said.

Estimates have put losses incurred by the U.S. as a result of IP theft at approximately US$600 billion per year.

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China’s talent programs would hide top recruits from FBI

“I certainly know that the Department of Justice during the Trump administration was very aware of the efforts of the Communist Party in China to advance this, whether it’s through the ‘Thousand Talents Program,’ or other ways to put individuals in our research areas, and then to learn that information and then bring it home to their country,” Whitaker said.

The Thousand Talents Program (TTP) is one of many talent recruitment programs the Chinese regime has maintained for decades in an effort to attract overseas Chinese and foreign experts and recruit them to work for China’s science and tech sectors. Through these programs, Beijing has hopes to quickly transform China into an industrial and innovation powerhouse and ultimately outperform Western countries.

Since its inception in 2008, the program has brought over 7,000 people to China — most of them overseas Chinese studying or working in foreign universities and companies. The majority of recruits returned to China from the U.S., and some high-profile individuals have kept their partnerships with U.S. institutions.

The U.S. State Department warned about the TTP on its website, stating that the talent recruits were asked to sign legally binding contracts that often compel them to do things such as “facilitate the illicit movement of intellectual capital to duplicate ‘shadow labs’ in China” and “engage in activities abroad that would violate export control regulations.”