Lawmakers: “A budget is a representation of our priorities and values. It would be both a misallocation of resources and a backsliding for civil rights to restart the China Initiative.”
WASHINGTON, DC – U.S. Senator Mazie K. Hirono (D-HI) and Representatives Grace Meng (D-NY) and Judy Chu (D-CA) led 12 of their House and Senate colleagues in sending a letter to Congressional leadership urging them to prevent House Republicans from reinstating the “China Initiative,” a Trump-era program created in 2018 that purported to combat espionage but in effect targeted and profiled those of Chinese descent.
“This prosecutorial initiative was a blunt instrument wielded against anyone who had ‘some nexus to China,’” wrote the lawmakers. “Chinese American and Chinese researchers and scholars—who have made valuable contributions to science, technology, and academia in this country for decades—reported that they felt targeted by a racial profiling campaign and fearful of conducting research.”
The Department of Justice (DOJ) ended the program in 2022, after several of the alleged espionage and national security cases ended in acquittal, dismissal, or were dropped altogether. However, Republicans are now attempting to restart the program using a provision in a key House spending bill—the Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies (CJS) Appropriations Act (H.R. 5893) which funds the Departments of Commerce, Justice and other science-related programs.
“The Trump-era China Initiative fostered bigotry and discrimination against Asian Americans, particularly those with connections to China, while doing little to actually advance national security interests,” said Senator Hirono. “While it is crucial that we protect our national security and intellectual property, codified discrimination is not the answer. At a time when anti-Asian hate and violence is still rampant across the country, we must do everything we can to prevent programs like this—founded in racism and xenophobia—from happening again.”
In the letter to Senate and House leaders, Senator Hirono and Representatives Meng and Chu—joined by a dozen other lawmakers—called for the provision to be removed.
In addition to Senator Hirono and Representatives Meng and Chu, the letter was signed by Senators Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Raphael Warnock (D-GA) and Peter Welch (D-VT), as well as Representatives Jake Auchincloss (D-MA), Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR), Andy Kim (D-NJ), Barbara Lee (D-CA), Katie Porter (D-CA), Linda Sánchez (D-CA), Adam Schiff (D-CA), Brad Sherman (D-CA) and Jill Tokuda (D-HI).
The full text of the letter is available here and below:
Dear Majority Leader Schumer, Minority Leader McConnell, Speaker Johnson, and Democratic Leader Jeffries,
We write to you to express our strong concern about language directing the Department of Justice (DOJ) to reinstate the National Security Division (NSD)’s “China Initiative” that was included in the explanatory materials for H.R. 5893, Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies (CJS) Appropriations Act, 2024.
As you begin the conference process to reconcile the Senate and House versions of the bill, we strongly urge you to strike the following language from the explanatory materials to H.R. 5893 in the Joint Explanatory Statement (JES):
“Countering espionage by the People’s Republic of China.—The Committee believes it was deeply irresponsible for the Department to end its China Initiative. The Committee understands that the Department established the China Initiative in 2018 in response to troubling trends indicating 80 percent of all economic espionage prosecutions brought by the Department allege conduct that would benefit the Chinese state, and that there was at least some nexus to China in around 60 percent of all trade secret theft cases. The initiative’s goal was to identify and prosecute those engaged in trade secret theft, hacking, and economic espionage as well as protecting our critical infrastructure against external threats through foreign direct investment and supply chain compromises. Additionally, the initiative aimed to combat covert Chinese efforts to influence the American public and policymakers. Within funds provided, the Committee directs the National Security Division to reestablish an office dedicated to countering espionage and influence efforts against American businesses, research institutions, and academia emanating from the PRC.”
Subsequently, we urge you to strike all other references to reinstating the China Initiative in the “Highlights of the Bill” section of the explanatory materials for H.R.5893 from the JES. This section describes the decision to dismantle the China Initiative as “unwise.” We object to this characterization.
The DOJ first launched the China Initiative in November 2018. The stated goal of the China Initiative “was to identify and prosecute those engaged in trade secret theft, hacking, and economic espionage as well as protecting our critical infrastructure against external threats through foreign direct investment and supply chain compromises.” In the more than three years that this program existed, federal prosecutors charged dozens of individuals with various types of fraud and conspiracy, acting as an agent of a foreign government, unlawful export, money laundering, and other charges.
Prosecutors pursued criminal charges in all of these cases rather than utilizing civil penalties or administrative remedies. Meanwhile, the DOJ never provided a formal explanation of why or how it labeled cases as part of the China Initiative. It also never made publicly available data on these cases.
This prosecutorial initiative was a blunt instrument wielded against anyone who had “some nexus to China.” An unacceptably high number of the aforementioned cases ended in dropped charges, dismissals, and acquittals because prosecutors could not prove allegations. Moreover, over the course of this program, an increasing number of cases had to do with false statements and the failure to make disclosures—not espionage, theft, or spying—specifically by academics and researchers of Chinese descent. Chinese American and Chinese researchers and scholars— who have made valuable contributions to science, technology, and academia in this country for decades—reported that they felt targeted by a racial profiling campaign and fearful of conducting research. Several of the most high-profile cases not only had dramatic consequences for individuals personally and professionally, they also cast a chilling effect on scientific inquiry and academic freedom in the United States.
To be clear, we recognize the utmost importance of national security and the threats to it. The ending of the China Initiative was not the end of federal law enforcement efforts to counter such threats from the Chinese Communist Party and other regimes. Following the Department’s strategic review of the China Initiative, United States Assistant Attorney General for National Security Matthew Olson announced in February 2022 the NSD’s new Strategy for Countering Nation-State Threats. This strategy takes “a comprehensive approach” and allows the NSD greater flexibility as it “work[s] with the FBI and other investigative agencies to assess the evidence of intent and materiality, as well as the nexus to our national or economic security” of specific threats. In spite of suggestions otherwise, federal agencies have not stopped working to counter espionage and other threats by adversarial governments.
A budget is a representation of our priorities and values. It would be both a misallocation of resources and a backsliding for civil rights to restart the China Initiative. We appreciate your support for forward-looking solutions to the problems our nation faces, as well as our shared commitment to American values of freedom and fairness. We urge you to strike this language from the final text in the JES accompanying the FY24 CJS Appropriations Bill.