Garland expected to roll back elements of DOJ program to combat Chinese spying

Professors, activists say DOJ's "China Program" unfairly targets those of Chinese heritage, harms U.S. competitiveness

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The Department of Justice is set to make changes to its "China Initiative" very soon, sources tell Fox News, likely rolling back some of the program's efforts to combat Chinese spying in the U.S. after pressure from activists. 

The program was started in 2018 to protect U.S. national security against Chinese snooping on U.S. intellectual property and in academia – a rampant problem Congress is currently trying to address. 

"In addition to identifying and prosecuting those engaged in trade secret theft, hacking, and economic espionage, the Initiative focuses on protecting our critical infrastructure against external threats through foreign direct investment and supply chain compromises," a description of the program on the DOJ website says. 

Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks at the Department of Justice on January 5, 2022 in Washington, DC. Garland addressed the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks at the Department of Justice on January 5, 2022 in Washington, DC. Garland addressed the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol. (Photo by Carolyn Kaster-Pool/Getty Images)

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The description also says the program aims to stymie "covert efforts to influence the American public and policymakers without proper transparency."

A review of the program by the DOJ is currently nearing completion, Fox News is told, and some changes will be made to the program. What those changes will be is not yet clear. 

Attorney General Merrick Garland and the Biden administration are under pressure from activists and faculty at some universities over the effort. They say it is harming U.S. competitiveness in research and disproportionately targeting people based on race. 

Last month, protesters stood outside the DOJ saying the initiative unfairly targets Chinese professors. And nearly 200 Yale professors recently signed a letter to Garland asking him to end the initiative. 

Chinese President Xi Jinping, also general secretary of the Communist Party of China Central Committee and chairman of the Central Military Commission. Xi is said to be China's most authoritarian leader in decades. (Photo by Wang Ye/Xinhua via Getty Images)

Chinese President Xi Jinping, also general secretary of the Communist Party of China Central Committee and chairman of the Central Military Commission. Xi is said to be China's most authoritarian leader in decades. (Photo by Wang Ye/Xinhua via Getty Images) (Wang Ye/Xinhua via Getty Images)

"We just hope that they will end the prosecution of Chinese-American scientists and allow them to go back and do their research, rather than fear for their future," United Chinese Americans president Haipe Shue said. 

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The left-leaning think tank Brennan Center for Justice argued earlier this year for completely ending the initiative. It said the program is harming the U.S. in part because it is making Chinese and Chinese-American scientists afraid to work in the U.S. 

"Scar­ing research­ers is anti­thet­ical to the open and collab­or­at­ive nature of funda­mental research at academic insti­tu­tions, which has histor­ic­ally made the U.S. an attract­ive place for cutting-edge science and scient­ists to flour­ish," Brennan Center authors Michael German and Alex Liang said.   

"To be clear, China poses a legit­im­ate threat of espi­on­age that the Justice Depart­ment and FBI must take seri­ously," they also said. "But too often, the Justice Depart­ment has brought cases under the China Initi­at­ive that have not targeted espi­on­age or intel­lec­tual prop­erty theft by Chinese spies but minor admin­is­trat­ive viol­a­tions by scient­ists of Chinese ances­try who are not suspec­ted of affil­i­ation with the Chinese govern­ment." 

Merrick Garland, U.S. attorney general, speaks during the U.S. Conference of Mayors winter meeting in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Friday, Jan. 21, 2022.

Merrick Garland, U.S. attorney general, speaks during the U.S. Conference of Mayors winter meeting in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Friday, Jan. 21, 2022. (Photographer: Eric Lee/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The program came under increased scrutiny this year after the DOJ dropped a case against an MIT professor with ties to China. According to Politico, the department did not think it could prove its case in court. 

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But China still poses a major threat to the United States' national security and economic security, including through espionage and influence tactics at American universities. Among them are the Confucius Institutes, which function as propaganda arms for the Chinese Communist Party in the U.S.

There are 21 Confucius Institutes in the U.S. currently, according to the National Institute of Scholars, including at Stanford, West Virginia University, University of Utah, and others. 

Congress is currently trying to pass legislation to combat China, though there is significant disagreement between House Democrats and Senate Democrats about what should be included. Congressional leaders are indicating they hope to reach some sort of compromise in the coming months to get the China competition bill to the president's desk.