We built a database to understand the China Initiative. Then the government changed its records.

The Justice Department itself has not been very forthcoming. As we explain in our main piece, DOJ officials have so far failed to provide a clear definition of what constitutes a China Initiative case, or how many cases in total it has brought. 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 see a balance sheet,” said Jeremy Wu, who held senior civil rights and ethics positions in the US government before co-founding the APA Justice Task Force, one of the groups that is independently tracking the China Initiative. “What did we gain? How many spies did we catch, compared to how much damage that has [been] done not only to individuals, but also to the future of American science and technology?” 

Our database is not that balance sheet. But it is an important step toward answering some of the questions Wu poses—questions that, to this point, the US government has not answered. Rather, it has added to the confusion: two days after we reached out with a request for comment, the Justice Department made major updates to its webpage, removing cases that do not support its narrative of a successful counterintelligence effort.

How we did it

This spring, we began searching through all the press releases then linked on the Department of Justice’s China Initiative webpage, followed by another scrape of its data in August. Then we pulled thousands of pages of  federal court records pertaining to each case and used this information to build our database.

We also combed through additional court documents and public statements by FBI and DOJ officials to find cases that had been removed from the webpage or that had never been included. Then we supplemented this information with interviews with defense attorneys, defendants’ family members, collaborating researchers, former US prosecutors, civil rights advocates, lawmakers, and outside scholars who have studied the initiative. We found more cases that had been left out of the DOJ’s public list but either were publicly described as part of the initiative or fit the general fact pattern of academics charged with hiding ties to Chinese institutions, hackers alleged to be working for the Chinese government, or those accused of illicit technology transfers. 

Our goal was to create as comprehensive a database of China Initiative prosecutions as possible. We know there may be more, and our database may grow as we confirm the existence of additional cases. If you have more information on China Initiative cases, please reach out to us at [email protected].

Our tracking efforts were made harder in June, when the Department of Justice stopped updating its China Initiative webpage. That timeframe roughly coincides with the resignation of John Demers, the assistant attorney general who had been in charge of the national security division overseeing the initiative.

Once we had built a rough database and analyzed the data, we compared notes with Wu, of the APA Justice Task Force, and with Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AJC, another civil rights group tracking cases, and we shared our initial findings with a small group of lawmakers, civil rights organization representatives, and scholars and asked for their comments.

What the Department of Justice changed

On November 19—two days after MIT Technology Review approached the Department of Justice with questions about the initiative, including a number of cases we believed to have been omitted or erroneously included—the department made major revisions to the China Initiative webpage.

These changes were extensive, but they didn’t really clear up much of the confusion around the initiative. In fact, in some ways they made it worse.

While he did not respond to our specific questions, Wyn Hornbuckle, the spokesperson for the DOJ’s National Security Division, informed us by email that staff “have been in the process of updating our webpage to reflect some of the changes, updates, and dismissals.” 

He also shared the department’s own numbers. “Since November 2018, we have brought or resolved nine economic espionage prosecutions and seven theft of trade secrets cases with a nexus to the PRC. We also have brought 12 matters involving fraud on universities and/or grant making institutions,” he wrote. 

We found significantly more than 12 research integrity cases—but only 13 of the 23 research integrity cases included in our database are currently on the website. (One of those cases was settled before charges could be filed.) Six of those cases ended in guilty pleas. Seven are still pending. 

Seven of the eight research integrity cases that ended in dismissals or acquittals were previously included on the website, but the DOJ has now removed them from its list. 

Our analysis showed 12 cases that charged either theft of trade secrets or economic espionage since November 2018. Ten are listed on the Department of Justice’s site. (Two were related prosecutions, although they were charged separately.) Of those 10, seven charged only theft of trade secrets and not the more severe allegation of economic espionage. One charged both economic espionage and theft of trade secrets. The other two were hacking cases—one included an economic espionage citation, and one included a theft of trade secrets citation. 

The Department of Justice did not respond to multiple requests for a more detailed breakdown of its numbers. 

Our subsequent analysis showed that the DOJ had removed 17 cases and 39 defendants from its China Initiative page, added two cases [with a total of five defendants, and updated existing cases with sentencing and trial information, where available.

Hornbuckle did not respond to a follow-up request to comment on what these removals say about transparency.

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