How the China Initiative Went Wrong

FBI Director Christopher Wray speaks at a press conference about Chinese hacking at the Justice Department in Washington, DC, on December 20, 2018. NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

Anti-Espionage China Initiative Accused of Racism, Bad Cases, Discouraging Science (

A key anti-espionage effort is mired in accusations of racism and overzealous prosecutions.

FEBRUARY 13, 2022, 7:00 AM By Matt Schiavenza, the senior content manager at Asia Society.

On Nov. 1, 2018, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the launch of a new initiative designed to combat Chinese economic espionage, which he said had been increasing rapidly against the United States. Pulling together resources from across the federal government, the China Initiative sought to protect against “new and evolving threats to our economy, not only defense and intelligence targets, but also universities and research institutions.”

“We are here today to say: Enough is enough,” Sessions said. “We’re not going to take it anymore.” Little over three years later, the Justice Department remains committed to repelling the threat from China, which in a recent speech FBI Director Christopher Wray characterized as “more brazen” than ever before. But the China Initiative itself now appears to be on life support.

Last month, federal prosecutors dropped charges against Gang Chen, a professor of mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who was arrested last year for, among other charges, failing to disclose an affiliation with a Chinese university on a grant application he filed with the Energy Department. The government’s retreat from the case followed the September acquittal of Anming Hu, a Chinese-born nanotechnology expert at the University of Tennessee, who had been indicted for fraud and making false statements under the China Initiative in 2020.

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