Every week, we learn more about the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) ongoing campaign of economic espionage and covert influence in the United States. In addition to cyberattacks and intellectual property theft, the campaign now includes attempts to discredit opponents of the Chinese agenda and interfere in U.S. politics. Yet despite Beijing’s increasingly brazen activities, the Biden administration decided earlier this year to end the Justice Department’s "China Initiative."
Since the administration pulled the plug on the initiative, 12 Chinese agents have been indicted or charged for conducting or directing operations inside the United States. According to court filings, these agents have: attempted to undermine the campaign of a U.S. congressional candidate; used information illegally obtained from federal law enforcement databases to harass and discredit Taiwanese independence groups, pro-Tibet, and Uyghur human rights activists; spied on pro-democracy activists living in the U.S.; and attempted to coerce Chinese citizens to return to China, so they can face "corruption" charges. Several of these cases involve former or current U.S. law enforcement officers who abused their positions in exchange for cash from Chinese intelligence services. All of these arrests were based on investigations that started well in advance of the administration’s decision to de-prioritize scrutiny of CCP activities in this country.
Despite — or perhaps because of — that decision, FBI Director Christopher Wray and MI5 Director General Ken McCallum earlier this month warned business and academic leaders of the China threat at the agencies’ first-ever joint public event.
That same day, the U.S. National Counterintelligence and Security Center issued a bulletin highlighting how the CCP has escalated its covert campaign to influence U.S. state and local leaders. By "using the local to surround the central," the bulletin said, the CCP seeks to influence, pressure, or coerce state, local and federal officials into taking pro-China policy positions. American officials who support measures that align with the CCP’s policy priorities are rewarded with economic investment and paid trips to China. Those who do not can be blackmailed based on sensitive personal information the CCP has collected or threatened with canceled business deals in their state.
In the face of this increasingly aggressive threat from China, why did the administration cancel the Justice Department’s China Initiative? Apparently, it succumbed to activist groups and a handful of progressive politicians who spun a few fraud prosecutions against Chinese and Chinese-American researchers into a narrative that the entire initiative was an exercise in xenophobia and racism.
This narrative was demonstrably untrue. It overlooked, for example, the conviction of Harvard chemistry department chair Charles Lieber after he was caught smuggling tens of thousands of dollars in his luggage on flights back from China. And it ignored the massive scope of Beijing’s espionage and influence campaign outside of academia.
By ending the initiative, the administration signaled that countering malicious Chinese activities in our homeland is no longer a top priority for federal law enforcement. Instead, Assistant Attorney General Matt Olsen, who heads the National Security Division at Justice, declared that China is just one of many nation-states that threaten U.S. national security. Though correct, his statement fails to account for the outsized threat that the CCP poses to our political and economic system.
In U.S. Attorneys’ offices across the nation, line prosecutors pay close attention to their leaders’ statements and prioritize their limited time and resources accordingly. While truly egregious cases will still be prosecuted, many others will now be left by the wayside, allowing Chinese agents to continue working to subvert our political and economic system.
The Biden administration has also done little to counter the CCP threat to Americans’ personal information. More than a year ago, the president revoked President Trump’s executive order that banned TikTok, WeChat, and other CCP-linked apps. He replaced it with an order that gave the Secretary of Commerce six months to formulate a risk-based approach to evaluating Chinese apps. That deadline has come and gone without any sign of action from the administration.
Likewise, Biden’s Commerce Department has so far made little effort to implement or enforce Trump-era regulations that authorize the agency to prohibit information and communications technology transactions with foreign adversaries like China. Such inaction in the face of the CCP threat itself leaves the American people less safe.
For years, the FBI has described China as the top threat to the economic and national security of the United States. The Biden administration should acknowledge that truth and treat the CCP threat with the seriousness it deserves.