Top officials from the U.S. Justice Department unveiled a slate of indictments against 13 Chinese nationals accused of spying on behalf of Beijing and seeking to disrupt a U.S. government investigation into Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei. In a broadside against Chinese espionage efforts in the United States, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced indictments in three separate cases in New York and New Jersey on Monday.
The announcement comes as the Justice Department has increasingly cracked down on Chinese intelligence operations in the United States, which have sought to gain access to sensitive technologies, recruit former U.S. officials, and intimidate dissidents into silence. FBI director Christopher Wray noted Monday that the bureau was opening a new Chinese counterintelligence investigation every 12 hours. In 2020, the FBI announced that economic espionage cases linked to China had increased by around 1,300 percent over the past decade.
The indictments come on the heels of the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th National Congress, cemented Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s rule over the country for the coming years, bucking recent tradition by enabling him to stay in power for a third term in office. Under Xi’s tenure, China has forged a more combative and assertive role on the world stage.
In a separate scheme, prosecutors allege that four Chinese nationals engaged in a decade-long scheme to recruit individuals in the US to work as assets to the Chinese government and relay information they deemed helpful to China’s intelligence objectives.
According to the indictment, some Chinese intelligence officers, the defendants, worked under cover of a fake think tank to try and recruit Americans, including university professors, former federal law enforcement, and state homeland security official. The defendants tried to bribe their targets with lavish gifts, prosecutors allege, including an all-expense paid trip to China.
In a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, the Justice Department accused two Chinese intelligence officers, Guochun He, and Zheng Wang, of attempting to obstruct criminal prosecution proceedings against a “global telecommunications company” based in China, which CNN reported refers to Huawei, citing a person familiar with the investigation. (The complaint also referred to a February 2020 press release by the Justice Department announcing a superseding indictment against Huawei, in which the department described its investigation into the company as “ongoing.”)
Ministry Of State Security Invades The US
One of China’s several spy schools is Jiangnan Social University near Shanghai:
The Ministry Of State Security (MSS) is the principal civilian intelligence, security, and secret police agency of the People’s Republic of China, responsible for counterintelligence, foreign intelligence, and political security. The MSS is active in industrial espionage and adept at cyber espionage. Its military counterpart is the Intelligence Bureau of the Joint Staff Department. Described as one of the most secretive intelligence organizations in the world, it is headquartered in Beijing with subordinate branches at the provincial, city, municipality, and township levels throughout China.
As China’s economy, military, and ambition grew, so did the MSS. During the 1980s, it was only beginning a long process of building front groups and networks. During this period, the MSS had already recruited FBI asset Katrina Leung, and several others whom the US intelligence community believed were its informants. Hong Kong, Japan, and France were other priorities for these network-building operations. The agency ramped up its infiltration of Chinese communities in the aftermath of the Tiananmen massacre.
Towards the turn of the millennium, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) influence operations targeting President Bill Clinton’s 1996 re-election campaign, it was the MSS’s turn to show what it could do. Finally, it was allowed to run operations out of Chinese embassies and now had a solid network of bureaus across China to back up its efforts. At the same time, a new generation of experts in the Western world rose into the leadership of the MSS, turning its focus from roughing up dissidents and watching foreign visitors to actively shaping the world. Yet the same Social Investigation Bureau of the MSS led the way with its unrivaled networks in the United States and international Chinese communities, largely independent of any provincial bureaus or diplomatic missions.
In recent years, the US government has blocked deals that would’ve put the dating app Grindr under Chinese control and US chipmaker Qualcomm under Singaporean control (for fear of Chinese influence); it’s pressured multiple Chinese companies to leave the New York Stock Exchange; and Trump attempted to ban WeChat and TikTok, the latter of which is still under investigation by an interagency national security panel.
Guochun He and Zheng Wang were charged in a criminal complaint in federal court in New York with obstruction of justice after allegedly offering bribes to an unidentified U.S. government employee for details about an ongoing criminal investigation.
In separate cases, seven Chinese citizens were charged with participating in a scheme to force a Chinese-born U.S. resident living in New York to return to China. Four Chinese nationals have been charged in the District of New Jersey with conspiring to act as illegal agents on behalf of China by using a “purported” academic center in that country to seek sensitive information from U.S. academic institutions.
According to the complaint, the Chinese agents paid $61,000 in bitcoin to a U.S. law enforcement official for information on the prosecution against Huawei, including witnesses, trial evidence, and potential new charges to be brought against the company. The complaint added that other payments made to the law enforcement official—who was working as a double agent for the United States—included more than $14,000 in jewelry and cash.
“This case exposes the interconnection between [Chinese] intelligence officers and Chinese companies, and it demonstrates once again why such companies, especially in the telecommunications industry, should not be trusted to handle our sensitive personal data and communications securely,” Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said in a press conference Monday.
In New York, seven people alleged to have been working on behalf of the Chinese government were charged with waging a campaign of threats and harassment against a Chinese national resident in the United States, promising to make the victim’s life an “endless misery” unless he returned to China. Garland said in a press conference on Monday that two of the alleged perpetrators were arrested on Thursday.
The pressure campaign, which included surveillance and frivolous legal complaints against the victim and his son, was part of a “global extralegal effort” on the part of the Chinese government known as “Operation Fox Hunt,,” Garland said, referring to a worldwide effort launched by Beijing in 2014 to force fugitives, dissidents, and whistleblowers to return to China.
“The government of China sought to interfere with the rights and freedoms of individuals in the United States and to undermine our judicial system that protects those rights,” Garland said.
In a third case unsealed on Monday, four individuals, including three Chinese intelligence officers, stand accused of having used a fake Chinese academic institute to wage a campaign starting in 2008 that sought to co-opt individuals in the United States from obtaining sensitive technologies and stop protests that could have embarrassed Beijing.
Although the Justice Department has sought to aggressively pursue instances of espionage on the part of the Chinese government, the department has faced criticism from civil rights groups that it has unfairly profiled Chinese and Asian American academics. China has been known to use initiatives, such as its Thousand Talents Plan, to gain access to U.S. intellectual property and research.
The MSS Invention Of China’s Peaceful Rise
A middleman for the MSS’s Invention of China’s Peaceful was none other then John L. Thornton chairman of the board of the Brookings Institution.
Below Thornton speaks during the 2011 Tsinghua Management Global Forum at Tsinghua SEM Auditorium in Beijing on Oct. 25, 2011:
Towards the turn of the millennium, the MSS found its forte. It still lacked the skill of organizations like the CIA or Russian intelligence agencies regarding clandestine operations. Finally, it began to get its head around the US foreign policy system and appreciate the benefits of targeting weak points like think tanks, retired officials, and the business community. After the embarrassing public failure of PLA influence operations targeting President Bill Clinton’s 1996 re-election campaign, it was the MSS’s turn to show what it could do. Finally, it was allowed to run operations out of Chinese embassies and now had a solid network of bureaus across China to back up its efforts. At the same time, a new generation of experts in the Western world rose into the leadership of the MSS, turning its focus from roughing up dissidents and watching foreign visitors to actively shaping the world. Yet the same Social Investigation Bureau of the MSS led the way with its unrivaled networks in the United States and in international Chinese communities, largely independent of any provincial bureaus or diplomatic missions.
Far from the smog and concrete of Beijing, Hainan’s Bo’ao Forum for Asia is the Party’s platform of choice to present itself to foreign notables in painstakingly airbrushed technicolour. Each year, hundreds of world leaders gather at the beachside venue to talk foreign policy. They’re surrounded by marble and red carpets, immaculately groomed topiaries and pedantically drilled staff, and probably a few thousand bugs and hidden cameras. Outside, palm trees sway in the Pacific breeze, and beyond them stretch the island’s famous sand beaches.
In November 2003, Zheng Bijian stepped up to the podium at Bo’ao to deliver a speech that could not have been a greater triumph. His articulation of the idea that China can peacefully become a great power sparked excited discussion among China watchers and international relations scholars around the world. It quickly caught on as his ‘theory of China’s peaceful rise’, Zheng argued that China’s growth towards superpower status, feared by some, would in fact ‘safeguard world peace’ and ‘boldly draw on the fruits of all human civilization’.1
Of all the false hopes China’s spies covertly peddled, none landed quite like ‘peaceful rise’. For all of Bo’ao’s breeziness and pats on the back, the ‘peaceful rise’ slogan was a cynically crafted riposte against growing apprehension towards China’s mounting power. The theory and its untold origin story lay bare how the Chinese Communist Party fooled the world about its ambitions.
Zheng Bijian’s article in the prestigious Foreign Affairs Magazine:
As Zheng argued in an earlier speech at Washington, DC’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, China would not be like Germany in World War One or Japan in World War Two, which he thought were mistaken for attempting ‘to overhaul the world political landscape by way of aggressive wars’. Nor would China be like the Soviet Union, competing against the United States in an arms race and through its global sphere of influence. According to Zheng, ‘China will have a totally different path of development from the path of rise of all major powers in the world since modern history.’
‘China’s only choice is to strive to rise and, more importantly, to strive for a peaceful rise,’ Zheng said. The alternative path – that of confrontation and conflict with the United States – was ‘doomed to failure’.2
China watchers, policymakers and intelligence analysts took note, many with optimism and hopefulness, describing Zheng’s idea in adulatory tones.3 Zheng was connected to chiefs of the Party; he had developed a reputation as a ‘confidant’ or trusted advisor to China’s leadership. His height, tone and experience make him a strikingly statesmanlike figure.
1. Zheng Bijian, China’s Peaceful Rise: Speeches of Zheng Bijian 1997–2005, Brookings Institution Press, Washington, DC, 2005, p.18.
2. Zheng, China’s Peaceful Rise, p.15.
3. Bonnie Glaser & Evan Medeiros, ‘The changing ecology of foreign policymaking in China: The ascension and demise of the theory of “peaceful rise”’, China Quarterly, no. 190, June 2007, pp. 291–310; Satoshi Amako, ‘China as a ‘Great Power’and East Asian integration’, East Asia Forum, http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2010/04/04/china-as-a-great-power-and-east-asian-integration .