The DOJ China Initiative and the Shifting Policy Goals for the FCPA

Last November, then-US Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the creation of a new Department of Justice (DOJ) “China Initiative.” The main focus of this initiative is not corruption, but rather the theft of intellectual property by Chinese corporations, as detailed in a 200-page report published by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative in March 2018, as well as a subsequent report from the White House Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy. But while most of the DOJ’s China Initiative focuses on this issue, the memorandum describing the initiative listed a number of additional goals, one of which caught the attention of the anticorruption community: “Identify Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) cases involving Chinese companies that compete with American businesses.”

This reference to enforcing the FCPA against companies from a particular country is quite unusual. According to Eric Carlson at the FCPA Blog, “No one with whom I have spoken can recall another situation where the DOJ has announced that it would target companies headquartered in a specific country for FCPA enforcement.” This aspect of the China Initiative has provoked a strong and generally negative response from members of the anticorruption community. For example, former State Department attorney Kate Hamann worried that the China Initiative exposed the US government to the accusation of “unfairly targeting Chinese individuals and companies.” This concern was echoed by Professor Stephenson, who argued that the project sets a “bad precedent” by explicitly using the FCPA as a tool to protect U.S. companies from foreign competition.

One largely overlooked aspect of the FCPA component of the China Initiative is the degree to which it contradicts one of the main policy goals of the Congress that enacted the FCPA back in 1977. That Congress viewed the FCPA as a way to improve relations with foreign countries, a policy goal that has largely disappeared in subsequent decades. In its place, enforcement agencies (and Congress, in amendments to the FCPA) have developed a theory in which the primary purposes of the FCPA are to protect businesses that “play fair,” and to promote good business practices more generally. (This shift in policy goals was largely made possible by a revision in the text of the FCPA which allowed US enforcement agencies to bring enforcement actions against a wider range of foreign entities.)

In this post, I trace the changing policy objectives of the FCPA to demonstrate the degree to which the Act has historically served a wide range of sometimes contradictory policy goals. I then draw upon that history to suggest two reasons that the China Initiative’s combative posture may be cause for concern.

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