Background

The Department of Justice is ending an initiative targeting trade secret theft by China over concerns about discrimination but said it will continue to “use all the legal tools in our arsenal” to combat this threat.

Then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in November 2018 that the so-called China Initiative would identify priority Chinese trade theft cases, ensure that the DOJ has enough resources dedicated to those cases, and make sure the cases are brought to an appropriate conclusion quickly and effectively. Sessions said the initiative would focus on the fact that Chinese espionage is being directed against not only traditional targets like U.S. defense and intelligence agencies but also research labs and universities.

However, in a Feb. 23 speech, Assistant Attorney General for National Security Matthew Olsen acknowledged that this initiative has “engendered growing concerns that we must take seriously.” In particular, Olsen said, “by grouping cases under the China Initiative rubric, we helped give rise to a 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.” There have also been concerns that the DOJ’s prosecution of certain research grant fraud cases has harmed what a CNN article called “efforts to attract top talent and to pursue cutting-edge research.”

Having concluded that the China Initiative is “not the right approach,” Olsen said “the current threat landscape demands a broader approach” that will be informed by three strategic imperatives: (1) continuing to aggressively investigate and prosecute espionage, export control and sanctions violations, and interference with U.S. critical infrastructure, (2) using regulatory and criminal processes to prevent and mitigate harms from economic espionage, hostile manipulation, and cyber-enabled malicious activity, and (3) defending democratic institutions and values. In addition to its criminal enforcement work, the DOJ will also use its civil and administrative tools to mitigate threats from foreign investment activity.

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