Chinese intelligence operations worldwide to steal important information both through human agents and cyber attacks are a growing threat, according to experts who testified at a US congressional commission last week.
Beijing’s spies, operating through the civilian Ministry of State Security and People’s Liberation Army Intelligence Bureau (IB), have scored impressive gains against the United States in particular, where economic espionage — the theft of trade secrets and high technology — remains at unprecedented levels.
Technology espionage by China was highlighted by the conviction in California last week of Wenxia Man of San Diego who was convicted of illegally conspiring to export fighter jet engines and an unmanned aerial vehicle to China.
According to trial evidence in the case, Man conspired with Chinese national Xinsheng Zhang in China, to illegally acquire and export Pratt & Whitney F135-PW-100 engines used in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter; Pratt & Whitney F119-PW-100 turbofan engines used in the F-22 Raptor fighter jet; and General Electric F110-GE-132 engines designed for the F-16 fighter jet.
Additionally, the case involved plans to export the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper/Predator B unmanned aerial vehicle that can be armed with Hellfire missiles.
Man told an undercover agent in the case that Zhan was a technology spy working for the Chinese military to replicate foreign defense items obtained abroad. The conspiracy highlighted the key targets of Chinese espionage.
160 Chinese agents identified
The CI Centre, a counterintelligence think tank, has identified a total 160 Chinese espionage agents uncovered in the United States between 1985 and 2016, one less than spy cases run by Moscow against the United States. Many involved theft of industrial or trade secrets useful to the Chinese military.
In Taiwan, a total of 56 Chinese agents were identified between 2002 and 2016, according to the center. Taiwan authorities in recent years have uncovered several high-level spies operating against the Taiwanese government.
“The PRC today is the most aggressive intelligence threat facing the United States,” said former FBI Agent David Major, currently director of the CI Centre.
Major testified at a hearing of the congressional commission the reason China poses a significant espionage threat is the Beijing’s government’s combined use of technical cyber attacks and sophisticated human spying to steal secrets and other information.
“FBI investigations and arrests for industrial espionage and violations of export control laws are at an all-time high, predominately linked to the Chinese government,” said Michele Van Cleave, former National Counterintelligence Executive, a senior US government counterspy post.
FBI economic espionage cases increased 53% from 2014 to 2015, and the number of cases currently underway is in the hundreds.
Peter Mattis, a China affairs analyst at the Jamestown Foundation, warned that China’s spy services target young people who travel to China.
“China’s intelligence services have demonstrated repeatedly over the last three decades the willingness to recruit students and others inside China who might be directed to join the US Government in the hopes of future access,” Mattis said.
Major, Van Cleave and Mattis were among several intelligence experts who revealed new details about Chinese intelligence activities during a hearing last week of the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a US Congress entity.
Van Cleave noted that some of the most damaging Chinese espionage occurred more than 20 years ago when a Chinese defector revealed that US nuclear weapons secrets had been compromised through spying.
Yet the crime, originally linked to Los Alamos nuclear laboratory technician Wen Ho Lee, remains unsolved.
“The [People’s Republic of China] stole design information on all of the United States’ most advanced thermonuclear weapons,” Van Cleave said. “This includes every currently deployed thermonuclear warhead in the US ballistic missile arsenal, as well as design information on enhanced radiation weapons. We still do not know how they did it. The troubling question is, why not?”
China currently is engaged in a major strategic nuclear forces buildup that analysts say has benefited from the theft of US nuclear secrets.
Shortcomings among counterintelligence agencies within the open democratic societies have made it relatively easy for China to conduct large-scale successful intelligence operations. The activities include both the recruitment of agents with access to secrets, as well as the use of cyber penetrations of government and private sector networks to obtain mass amounts of valuable data.
Blackmail US government workers
The hacking attack against the US Office of Personnel Management was an extremely damaging compromise that will greatly benefit Chinese intelligence activities.
The loss of sensitive records on 22 million US government workers included every employee with access to secrets, providing China’s Ministry of State Security and IB, formerly the PLA General Staff Second Department, with a gold mine of information useful in spotting and recruiting agents.
“The Chinese now have a detailed roster of most if not all American contractors and government employees who have access to classified information, plus a roster of their friends, colleagues or co-workers who may be useful conduits or potential assets in their own right,” Van Cleave said. “They also have a treasure trove of data that can be used to coerce, blackmail or recruit US sources or simply enable personalized phishing schemes.”
Additionally, by analyzing the stolen data on the foreign residence and travel of most American officials and can use the information to identify and disrupt US and foreign intelligence networks and operations.
Aggressive counterintelligence need
The solution to the problem is to increase awareness of the problem of Chinese intelligence operations, and to conduct aggressive counterintelligence activities against them. Those counterspying activities should include offensive strategic operations to recruit Chinese intelligence officers and use them to identify aggressive Beijing spying operations and disrupt them.
Like the Soviet KGB political police and intelligence services, China’s spy agencies’ foremost mission is maintaining rule of the Communist Party of China. An aggressive counterintelligence program against both the Ministry of State Security and PLA Intelligence Bureau would be an important first step in helping Beijing devolve its authoritarian system into a more democratic one.