The Justice Department itself was not very accommodating. As we explain in our main article, DOJ officials have not yet given a clear definition of what is a China Initiative case or how many cases there have been in total. This lack of transparency has made it impossible to understand exactly what the China Initiative is, what it has achieved and what the costs have been for those disproportionately affected.
“I’d like to take stock,” said Jeremy Wu, who held senior positions in the US government on civil rights and ethics before co-founding the APA Justice Task Force, one of the groups that independently pursue the China Initiative. “What did we win? How many spies have we caught compared to the damage it did? [been] not just interested in individuals but also in the future of American science and technology? “
Our database is not this record. But it’s an important step in answering some of the questions Wu is asking – questions the US government has not yet answered. In fact, it only added to the confusion: two days after we filed a request for comment, the Justice Department extensively updated its website and removed cases that did not support its story of successful counter-espionage.
How we did it
That spring, we began searching through all of the press releases that were then linked on the Justice Department’s China Initiative website, followed by another digest of the data in August. Then we pulled up thousands of pages of federal court records on each case and used that information to build our database.
We also searched additional court documents and public statements from FBI and DOJ officials to find cases that were removed from the website or never added. We then supplemented this information with interviews with lawyers, family members of the defendants, collaborating researchers, former US attorneys, civil rights activists, lawmakers, and outside academics who investigated the initiative. We found other cases that were removed from the DOJ’s public list but were either publicly described as part of the initiative or fit the general pattern of facts of academics accused of links to Chinese institutions, hackers allegedly for the Chinese government worked in hiding or people accused of illegal technology transfer.
Our goal was to create the most comprehensive database possible on the prosecutions of the China Initiative. We know there could be more, and our database could grow as we confirm the existence of more cases. For more information on China Initiative cases, please contact us at email@example.com.
Our follow-up efforts were hampered in June when the Justice Department stopped updating its China Initiative website. That timeframe roughly coincides with the resignation of John Demers, the assistant attorney general in charge of the national security division that oversaw the initiative.
After building a rough database and analyzing the data, we compared notes with Wu of the APA Justice Task Force and with Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AJC, another civil rights group that is tracking cases, and we have shared our initial findings with a small group of lawmakers, civil rights representatives and academics for their comments.
What the Justice Department changed
On November 19, two days after the MIT Technology Review reached out to the Justice Department with questions about the initiative, including a number of cases that we believed had been left out or mistakenly included, the department took down the China website Fundamentally revised initiative.
These changes were extensive, but they didn’t remove much of the confusion surrounding the initiative. In fact, in a way, they made it worse.
Although he did not answer our specific questions, Wyn Hornbuckle, spokesman for the DOJ’s National Security Division, emailed that the staff “were in the process of updating our website to reflect some of the changes, updates and layoffs. ”
It also shared the department’s own numbers. “Since November 2018, we have initiated or settled nine cases of industrial espionage and seven cases of theft of trade secrets relating to the PRC. We have also brought 12 cases of fraud against universities and / or funding institutions, ”he wrote.
We found well over 12 research integrity cases – but only 13 of the 23 research integrity cases that are in our database are currently on the website. (One of these cases was settled before charges could be brought.) Six of these cases resulted in an admission of guilt. Seven are still outstanding.
Seven of the eight cases of research integrity that ended in layoffs or acquittals were previously on the site, but the DOJ has now removed them from its list.
Our analysis revealed 12 cases of either trade secret theft or industrial espionage charges since November 2018. Ten are listed on the Justice Department website. (Two were related charges, although they were charged separately.) Of those 10, seven were charged only Theft of trade secrets rather than the more serious allegation of industrial espionage. One accused both industrial espionage and theft of trade secrets. The other two cases were hacking – one involved an industrial espionage quote and one involved the theft of trade secrets.
The Justice Department did not respond to several requests for a more detailed breakdown of its numbers.
Our subsequent analysis showed that the DOJ removed 17 cases and 39 defendants from its China Initiative side, two cases[mit insgesamt fünf Angeklagten]added and updated existing cases with information on judgments and legal proceedings, where available.[withatotaloffivedefendantsandupdatedexistingcaseswithsentencingandtrialinformationwhereavailable[withatotaloffivedefendantsandupdatedexistingcaseswithsentencingandtrialinformationwhereavailable
Hornbuckle didn’t respond to a follow-up request to comment on what these distances say about transparency.