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Between the years 2010 and 2012, China killed or jailed around 20 of its citizens who had been feeding information to the CIA for years. The purge was so effective that it crippled the CIA’s ability to spy on China for years.

It seemed clear at the time that the Chinese Communist Party had somehow been able to find out who most of the CIA’s informants were. Up to this day, U.S. officials are still not certain how China found out. Some believe it was a mole, while others believe it could have been a tradecraft failure, while still others believe the Chinese could have hacked the CIA’s communications.

In January 2012, China finished constructing the African Union’s headquarters in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. Built by Chinese construction firms and paid for by China, the huge building and its data systems were given as a gift by China to the body that is tasked with bringing together the heads of state and top policy makers from all of Africa’s countries. In 2018, French newspaper Le Monde reported that AU staff had found that the building’s servers — which were also installed by China — were sending large amounts of data to China, in the dead of night and on a daily basis. The newspaper also reported that AU technicians then did a security check and discovered and removed hidden microphones from desks and walls in the headquarters. This implies that China had been digitally eavesdropping on the verbal and online conversations of top African officials for five years since 2012.

Two years later, Reuters reported that prior to the 33rd AU Summit in February 2020, a Japanese cybersecurity firm had alerted AU technicians to another security breach. When the AU technicians investigated, they found that a group of servers in an annex of the AU building was communicating with a website that was associated with a Chinese hacking group. Reuters reported that these servers were sending surveillance camera footage to the Chinese website, which meant that camera feeds from across the AU campus were effectively being fed to hackers operating from abroad.

Last year, the Center for Strategic Studies (CSIS) released a list of 160 reported incidents of Chinese espionage in the U.S. since 2000. Many of the incidents were of Chinese employees of U.S. companies and universities engaging in attempts to steal military and trade secrets from U.S. institutions and companies. 

One of these incidents was a hacking attack in 2007, when Chinese hackers breached the Pentagon’s Joint Strike Fighter project and stole data related to the F-35 stealth fighter. Only four years later, China suddenly unveiled its J-20 stealth fighter, which featured a number of design features found on the F-35. The J-20 is a surprisingly sophisticated stealth plane and represents a giant leap in stealth development for a country that had no stealth program before 2007. Some experts say this massive leap could not have been achieved without secrets that had been hacked from the U.S.

The J-20 makes it harder for Taiwanese and American forces to protect Taiwan and U.S. assets from air strikes, as it is harder to track and shoot down with modern air-defense missiles. If a conflict between the U.S. and China breaks out, the J-20 would very likely cause more damage to U.S. forces than any other Chinese airplane.

The scale and frequency of Chinese spying is increasing at an alarming rate. This escalation prompted the FBI director and the director general of Britain’s MI5 to hold an unprecedented joint news conference in July. They said that China was drastically increasing its spying activities, with the number of MI5 investigations into suspected Chinese activity having increased sevenfold since 2018.

In 2018, the Trump administration reacted to the perceived threat by launching the “China Initiative,” a concerted effort to combat economic espionage, trade theft and technology transfers by Chinese state actors and civilians. The Department of Justice explained that about 80 percent of all economic espionage prosecutions brought by the Justice Department “allege conduct that would benefit the Chinese state, and there is at least some nexus to China in around 60 percent of all trade secret theft cases.”

The Justice Department went on to say that the primary goal of the initiative was to “identify priority trade secret theft cases, ensure that investigations are adequately resourced, and work to bring them to fruition in a timely manner and according to the facts and applicable law.” The initiative also sought to develop an enforcement strategy concerning “non-traditional collectors” (e.g., researchers in labs, universities and the defense industrial base) who were being co-opted into transferring technology contrary to U.S. interests. It also sought to educate universities on these issues, and to “apply the Foreign Agents Registration Act to unregistered agents seeking to advance China’s political agenda, bringing enforcement actions when appropriate.” In addition, the initiative instructed the Justice Department to make sure U.S. law enforcement agencies had the resources and help required to enforce different laws enacted to protect U.S. national assets “from foreign economic aggression.”

It could therefore be said that the initiative was a logical way to combat the risks created by allowing large numbers of Chinese citizens into the U.S. to work in sensitive institutions and research labs. As the new Biden-administration Justice Department later said of the initiative: “The idea behind the initiative was to develop a coherent approach to the challenges posed by the PRC government. The initiative effectively focused attention on the multi-faceted threat from the PRC.”

When Attorney General Jeff Sessions originally announced the China Initiative he lambasted China, accusing it of stealing U.S. inventions and defrauding U.S. citizens; of posing a “grave threat” to U.S. national security; of being a notorious intellectual property thief; of engaging in unfair trade practices; of hacking into American business and commercial networks; and of existing outside “the community of lawful nations.” “Enough is enough,” said Sessions. “We’re not going to take it anymore.”

To enact the China Initiative, the Justice Department then proceeded to double check information given by Chinese citizens who were working at sensitive institutions in the U.S. and filed charges against a number of such workers for offenses such as lying by failing to disclose that they were affiliated with Chinese government institutions. Many of these cases had to be dropped by the Justice Department in 2021 and 2022 because federal courts said the failure to disclose did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the individuals had ill intent.

The Justice Department cases had a chilling effect on China-linked scientists and employees working in the U.S. However, the situation took an unexpected turn when groups purporting to represent Chinese American interests complained that the China Initiative was harming them. Jenny Lee, a social scientist at the University of Arizona in Tucson, teamed up with the Committee of 100 — a pro-Beijing group of elite Chinese Americans whose stated aim is “to encourage constructive relations between the peoples of the United States and Greater China.” They called on the Biden administration to end the program, pointing to the results of a University of Arizona survey conducted by the above-mentioned Jenny Lee, Xiaojie Li and the Committee of 100.

The survey probed opinions among a group of scientists working at U.S. universities and found that over 42 percent of scientists of Chinese heritage felt “racially profiled” by the U.S. government. The survey also showed that 42 percent of such Chinese scientists felt that FBI and China Initiative investigations affected their plans to stay in the U.S.

The Association of Chinese Professors of the University of Michigan (UM-ACP) says it conducted a similar survey and found similar results, but unlike the Committee of 100, it did not post any evidence of its survey online. A look at the UM-ACP’s website shows no mention of the survey either, but does contain a link to a Science.org article that quotes the association’s president, Duxin Sun, as saying he conducted a survey and quotes him listing the results of his survey.

The UM-ACP website did however link directly to an online letter that it calls “Letter to President Biden from 13 ACPs of 13 universities.” In the letter the ACPs ask President Biden to end the “China Initiative” because it was “targeting a specific racial group” and to safeguard their group’s “human rights and academic freedom in the face of federal investigations.”

On February 23 of this year, the DOJ — now being led by Biden’s new attorney general, Merrick Garland — announced that it was ending the China Initiative, because “We have heard concerns from the civil rights community that the ‘China Initiative’ fueled a narrative of intolerance and bias.” The announcement did not say that it found any reasons for the concerns, just that it was ending the initiative because of the concerns.

In the U.S., left-leaning organizations like the ACLU and the Brennan Center for Justice, first joined the push to end the China Initiative and then claimed ending it was not good enough.

A day after the announcement, The Global Times, a propaganda outlet of the Chinese Communist Party, published an article headlined “China urges U.S. to end poisonous legacy left by Trump after ‘China Initiative’ is dropped.” The article quoted Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying as saying that “facts have shown that the program is a tool for local anti-China forces to generalize the concept of national security and contain and suppress China.” Hua added that the initiative has “aggravated racial discrimination against Chinese in the U.S., caused serious harm to the Asian community, and seriously poisoned the atmosphere of mutual trust and cooperation between China and the U.S.”

The message is clear: The fact that China will never allow a non-Chinese person near its more sensitive research institutions is somehow not a problem. Also, when China conducts surveillance on the few foreigners who are allowed to work at less sensitive research institutions, that’s also somehow not a problem. China is, after all, an ethno-state that is working brutally hard to bring its Muslim minority into perfect harmony with its ethnic-Chinese majority. And has done so with Tibet as well.

However, when the U.S., a multicultural and multi-ethnic nation, dares to react to a massive CCP program to use Chinese citizens to steal U.S. secrets — by double-checking if Chinese citizens lied about their association with Chinese institutions — then that reaction is morally repugnant because it targets people who happen to be Chinese. The irony is of course that the only reason why this happened is because China is coercing its citizens to steal U.S. secrets and that fact in itself forces the DOJ to scrutinize Chinese people more closely.

The CCP can slap itself on the back for a huge propaganda win against the U.S. They managed to paint a basic anti-espionage program aimed at a clear and present danger as somehow being “racial profiling.” What is even more alarming is that China was aided in this by pressure groups that operate freely inside the U.S.

When war looms, it is sometimes imperative to risk being impolite in order to safeguard one’s nation from the tyranny that follows military defeat by nations that do not care about human rights. When one looks at China’s military buildup and the U.S.’ growing need to defend Taiwan, it is prudent to assume that an empire-defining war is indeed looming — and the Biden administration needs to stop being polite to the wrong people.


Image: Jennifer Parr

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