ACLU Commends Biden Administration for Ending Discriminatory “China Initiative,” But Fundamental Reforms Are Still Needed

February 23, 2022 5:15 pm

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WASHINGTON — The Department of Justice today announced changes to its “China Initiative,” a wide-ranging government effort to scrutinize, investigate, prosecute, and take other measures against U.S.-based scientists and researchers believed to have connections to China. The Biden administration’s announcement comes after this biased initiative cast broad, unjustified suspicion on scientists of Chinese descent, led to failed prosecutions around the country, and had horrific consequences for the lives of those affected.

In its announcement, the Justice Department said it was eliminating the “China Initiative” in favor of a “strategy for countering nation-state threats.” It also said the Justice Department’s National Security Division would take an active role in supervising investigations and prosecutions involving research integrity, and would consider whether to pursue criminal, civil, or administrative penalties in individual cases.

“After years of biased profiling of Asian American scientists, the Justice Department has rightly disavowed its ‘China Initiative’ at long last,” said Patrick Toomey, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s National Security Project. “Though today’s announcement is a welcome step, it won’t prevent discrimination from seeping into the FBI’s investigations of Asian Americans and others going forward. Getting rid of the name is not enough. To ensure this discriminatory program comes to an end once and for all, the Biden administration must fundamentally reform the longstanding Justice Department policies that enable racial profiling in the name of national security.”

The ACLU currently represents multiple scientists who have been harmed by the FBI’s discriminatory profiling and surveillance of Asian American researchers, which stretches back more than a decade. Even before the Trump administration formally launched the China Initiative in 2018, Professor Xiaoxing Xi and hydrologist Sherry Chen were wrongly investigated by the FBI, arrested on the basis of fabricated evidence, and charged with crimes that could have sent them to prison for years, only to have the Justice Department eventually drop all charges. The consequences have been devastating for them and their families, but today’s announcement provides no accountability for the injustices that they and countless others have experienced.

The baseless prosecutions of Professor Xi and Ms. Chen are part of a broader pattern of government discrimination against Asian American scientists that has roots in longstanding Justice Department policies. These policies predate the “China Initiative” and include the Department’s guidance on the use of race by law enforcement, which contains loopholes permitting bias-based profiling in the national security and border contexts, and expansive claims of authority under the FBI’s Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide.

“Today’s announcement still fails to address the underlying problem of DOJ policies permitting racial and ethnic profiling in the national security context,” said Ashley Gorski, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s National Security Project. “Until these policies are overhauled, the standards governing FBI investigations will continue to leave space for bias and discrimination — rather than facts or evidence — to dictate whom the FBI pursues with some of its most intrusive investigative tools.”

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