An investigation published by Axios into the activity of a suspected Chinese spy in California has refocused the spotlight on China’s espionage activity in the United States. On Tuesday, Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian and Zach Dorfman reported for Axios the story of Christine Fang, a suspected Chinese intelligence operative who developed extensive ties with local and national politicians primarily around California’s Bay Area:
The woman at the center of the operation, a Chinese national named Fang Fang or Christine Fang, targeted up-and-coming local politicians in the Bay Area and across the country who had the potential to make it big on the national stage.
Through campaign fundraising, extensive networking, personal charisma, and romantic or sexual relationships with at least two Midwestern mayors, Fang was able to gain proximity to political power, according to current and former U.S. intelligence officials and one former elected official.
Even though U.S. officials do not believe Fang received or passed on classified information, the case “was a big deal, because there were some really, really sensitive people that were caught up” in the intelligence network, a current senior U.S. intelligence official said.
[…] U.S. counterintelligence officials said they believe Fang acted at the direction of China’s Ministry of State Security (MSS), the country’s main civilian spy agency. [Source]
The article is the latest report related to China’s espionage activity in the United States, which has gained increased attention under the Trump administration. Since 2017, the U.S. intelligence community and Department of Justice has increased its scrutiny of Chinese economic espionage activity, including controversially, scrutinizing links between U.S. academics and China, and the alleged infiltration of Chinese surveillance and influence at U.S. universities. Last week, The Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. government intended to increase the portion of its spying budget devoted to China by 20% for the forthcoming financial year.
Allen-Ebrahimian and Dorfman reported that Fang enrolled as a student at California State University East Bay, where she served as president of the college’s Chinese Student Association. Chinese Students and Scholars Associations, or CSSAs, have come under increased scrutiny, with the Trump Administration examining their potential role in surveilling Chinese international students or mobilizing them for political causes. Others have criticized the focus on CSSAs as misguided at best, and harmful to the hundreds of thousands of Chinese international students in the U.S. at worst by inviting racism and xenophobia. In a 2019 New York Times op-ed titled “The World’s Lamest Trojan Horse,” journalist Shen Lu wrote about her own experience with CSSAs as a undergraduate at the University of Iowa:
The current narrative posits a close relationship, shrouded in secrecy, between the C.S.S.A. and Chinese consulates. In fact, this affiliation is not much of a secret. C.S.S.A. leaders may meet occasionally with consular officials for briefings on employment laws or safety issues. Some C.S.S.A.s receive funding from consulates for things like new student orientations or galas.
And yes, some of their contact with consulates is indeed political. But C.S.S.A.s recruiting students to welcome visiting Chinese officials is hardly proof of government manipulation. Students may sign on for these events out of genuine patriotism or curiosity or boredom, or they may ignore the invitations, as most do. For many students like Vivian, welcoming Mr. Xi was hardly different from attending former President Barack Obama’s speech on campus later that same year. Even those who turn up to protest against the Dalai Lama may well do so out of a sense of patriotism, not because they were mobilized by the C.S.S.A.
[…] Do C.S.S.A.s make some Chinese students studying overseas uncomfortable? Yes, sometimes. A growing number of Chinese students avoid the organization out of concern that it does harbor informants and spies (and there are almost certainly some on U.S. campuses). Or, they simply keep it at arm’s length because they worry about coming under suspicion of being spies or infiltrators themselves. Caught in the crosscurrents between their host country and their home country, such students are trapped in a Catch-22, where they have no spaces where they feel they truly belong.
[…] The uproar over C.S.S.A.s speaks to a larger issue in U.S.-China relations, however. Some 360,000 Chinese students currently study in the United States. The assertion that the Communist Party is somehow exerting control over this vast number from afar denies these students their individual agency, their independent thought and their own complex emotions and motives. This denial is dehumanizing — and further dehumanization is the last thing we need at a time of increasingly fraught relations between the U.S. and China. [Source]
Fang’s case has also renewed discussion about the alleged pervasiveness of Chinese espionage activity in the Bay Area. With its concentration of tech companies and its open start-up culture, the Bay Area has been an apparent focus for Chinese spies, particularly as China seeks to compete with the U.S. in high-tech innovation. While the latest report focused on Fang’s apparent infiltration of local politics, other reporting has examined the role of Chinese intelligence operatives in economic espionage activity in Silicon Valley. In 2018, Zach Dorfman reported for Politico about how Silicon Valley had become a locus of espionage for Chinese agents:
Political espionage happens here, too. China, for example, is certainly out to steal U.S. technology secrets, noted former intelligence officials, but it also is heavily invested in traditional political intelligence gathering, influence and perception-management operations in California. Former intelligence officials told me that Chinese intelligence once recruited a staff member at a California office of U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, and the source reported back to China about local politics. (A spokesperson for Feinstein said the office doesn’t comment on personnel matters or investigations, but noted that no Feinstein staffer in California has ever had a security clearance.) At the Aspen Security Forum last week, FBI director Chris Wray acknowledged the threat Chinese spying in particular poses, saying, “China from a counterintelligence perspective represents the broadest, most pervasive, most threatening challenge we face as a country.”
Making it even more complicated, said multiple former U.S. intel officials, many foreign intel “collectors” in the Bay Area are not spies in the traditional sense of the term. They aren’t based out of embassies or consulates, and may be associated with a state-owned business or research institute rather than an intelligence agency. Chinese officials, in particular, often cajole or outright threaten Chinese nationals (or U.S. citizens with family members in China) working or studying locally to provide them with valuable technological information.
[…] When it comes to economic espionage in particular, Chinese intelligence employs a more decentralized strategy than Russia does, former intelligence officials told me. China draws from a much larger population pool to achieve its objectives—using opportunistic businessmen, ardent nationalists, students, travelers and others alike. One former intelligence official likened China’s approach to an “Oklahoma land rush”—an attempt to grab as much targeted proprietary technology or IP as possible, as quickly as possible, through as many channels as possible.
Chinese intelligence also undertakes very intentional efforts to recruit insiders placed within organizations whose technologies they are interested in, said the same former intelligence official. “They are very good at softly recruiting people, and taking advantage of vulnerabilities”—including via threats—“and they are very patient in putting different parts of it together. We’ve seen them repeatedly save money and time that the U.S. spends on research and development.” [Source]
But the U.S. intelligence community’s focus on organizational insiders who could be “turned” by Chinese intelligence operatives has also invited criticism. Asian American civil rights groups have decried the FBI’s characterization of Chinese espionage as a “whole-of-society threat,” warning about troubling repercussions relating to racial bias and discrimination. The reference by a “former intelligence official” to China’s approach as an “Oklahoma land rush” in Dorfman’s article alludes to a once pervasive theory inside the U.S. intelligence community known as the “thousand grains of sand” hypothesis. This theory holds that China relies on ethnic Chinese civilians abroad to gather intelligence for the “motherland.” Some intelligence analysts have sought to debunk that theory. Journalist Mara Hvistendahl wrote in her book, The Scientist and the Spy, that the “thousand grains of sand” hypothesis has resulted in race-based targeting of Chinese-American scientists, particularly during the Cold War. Hvistendahl also wrote about the origins of this theory and racist stereotyping in the intelligence community in an article for The Intercept in February of this year:
Nonetheless, stereotyping and bad analysis endured within the FBI. [Paul Moore, a former FBI China analyst], popularized a theory known as “a thousand grains of sand,” which held that China relied on a “human wave” of ethnic Chinese intelligence collectors to pursue bits of information that the government then pieced together. “The myth that Chinese Americans are more susceptible to becoming Chinese agents is persistent,” said former FBI agent Michael German, a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program. He compared it to the tendency in counterterrorism work to blur “important distinctions between nationality, sects, or ambitions of different groups into one Muslim radicalism.” He added: “Prioritizing national security augurs this kind of bias.”
[…] Lieu told me that in his view, institutional racism, not individual bias, is to blame for these encounters. “Most of the people who are doing the investigations are just following the guidance of the top boss,” he said. “Everything is coming down, and they’re just getting their marching orders to do this.” The message from leadership, he said, is that “Chinese Americans are being weaponized as a tool by foreign nationals.” [Source]
The latest report also comes at a time when concerns about Beijing’s influence in the U.S. have become entwined with partisan rancor. After Allen-Ebrahimian and Dorfman’s article reported that Fang targeted congressman and one-time presidential candidate Eric Swalwell, he claimed that the report was the result of a politicized leak by the Trump administration, which Axios has denied. Meanwhile, recent, unrelated claims by a Chinese professor of Beijing’s influence over the “inner circle of power” in the United States have been seized upon by President Trump’s supporters, and even the president himself as part of conspiracy theories about president-elect Biden’s ties to Beijing.