However, Justice’s top national security official insisted that the decision amounted to a reframing and recalibration — not an abandonment — of a muscular law enforcement response to the national security threat posed by the People’s Republic of China.
“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 Wednesday as he announced the results of a nearly four-month-long review of the China-focused program. “We are ending the China Initiative.”
Olsen said department officials had concluded that the enforcement program singling out China was ill-advised and better reframed as part of a more wide-ranging effort to counter threats posed by Russia, Iran and other countries.
“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,” he said.
Olsen said that abandoning the organizational framework of the China Initiative should not be seen as minimizing what the Justice Department still views as determined and nefarious efforts by the Chinese government to acquire high-tech secrets by illegal means and to intimidate dissidents and critics abroad.
“The Department of Justice is going to continue to aggressively combat threats posed by the PRC government using investigations, prosecutions, the full range of tools at our disposal. I think our actions will speak for themselves,” he said.
Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the initiative on Nov. 1 2018, just a few days before former President Donald Trump ousted him. DOJ headquarters encouraged U.S. attorneys around the country to invest time and resources in building cases against espionage conducted for the Chinese government.
Some of the initiative’s most high-profile and troubled cases have involved criminal charges against professors and researchers working in the U.S. over accusations that they illegally hid their involvement in Chinese government scientific development programs known as “Thousand Talents” or by similar names.
The cases have typically involved allegations that the targets lied or omitted information on disclosure forms accompanying grant applications.
Some such cases have led to convictions and guilty pleas. Last December, a jury found the former chair of Harvard’s Chemistry Department, Charles Lieber, guilty of making false statements to federal officials as well as filing false tax returns.
But other cases have faced resistance or run aground, and several cases have been reined in or abandoned in recent months.
Last month, prosecutors dropped all charges against Massachusetts Institute of Technology mechanical engineering professor Gang Chen, who was indicted last year for allegedly concealing his ties to Chinese universities and programs when applying for Energy Department grants.
Earlier this month, federal prosecutors dropped two of 10 charges against Franklin Tao, a University of Kansas chemical engineering professor. He is set to face trial next month.
Olsen said the review of the initiative encompassed a review of existing cases and that process is now complete.
“We’re comfortable with where those cases are, and we continue to stand behind them,” he said.
Anticipating criticism that the shift is largely cosmetic, Olsen said he does expect prosecutors to take a different approach going forward, especially in so-called “grant fraud” cases.
Prosecutors are now examining more closely whether omissions or false statements by academics were likely to have some concrete impact at grant-making agencies, he said. He added that those cases will be more targeted at technology of national security significance.
“Going forward, we’re going to take a more active supervisory role [with] how we look at these cases,” Olsen told journalists. He said some issues that might have been handled criminally in recent years, could be pursued through civil litigation or administrative action.
Olsen said he met with a variety of Asian American groups who have complained about the program. He said he agreed with them that the effort was in some ways harming U.S. national security by discouraging skilled experts of Chinese origin from pursuing their work in the U.S.
He declined to list the groups he met with or to say whether any represented minorities China is accused of persecuting, such as Uyghurs or Tibetans.
While Olsen portrayed the initiative as an unfortunate and at times counterproductive frame for the department’s efforts towards China, he rejected the notion that it was racist or discriminatory in its conception or in practice.
“These cases were brought by real, sincere, serious concern about national security,” Olsen said. “I did not find any — I have not seen any indication of bias or prejudice in any of the decision making I’ve seen by the Department of Justice. Full stop.”
Betsy Woodruff Swan contributed to this report.