FBI Chief: Agency Opens Probe Tied to China ‘Nearly Every Ten Hours’

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The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) on Monday published a year-end review of the “China Initiative,” a program launched in 2018 to detect and counter “national security threats posed by the policies and practices of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) government.”

“In the last year, the Department has made incredible strides in countering the systemic efforts by the PRC to enhance its economic and military strength at America’s expense. While much work remains to be done, the Department is committed to holding to account those who would steal, or otherwise illicitly obtain, the U.S. intellectual capital that will propel the future,” said Attorney General William Barr.

FBI Director Christopher Wray noted his agency opens a new counterintelligence investigation related to China “nearly every ten hours.”

“The Chinese Communist Party’s theft of sensitive information and technology isn’t a rumor or a baseless accusation. It’s very real, and it’s part of a coordinated campaign by the Chinese government, which the China Initiative is helping to disrupt,” said Wray.

According to the China Initiative review, DOJ charged three cases of economic espionage intended to benefit the Chinese government over the past year.

“Overall, since the Initiative was announced, we have charged more than ten cases in which the trade secret theft had some alleged nexus to China, and we obtained guilty pleas of three defendants in those cases over the past year,” DOJ said.

Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers pointed to the case against United Microelectronics – announced on the same day the China Initiative was launched and concluding with a guilty plea in October 2020 – as a “glaring example of the PRC’s ‘rob, replicate, and replace’ strategy, in which it robs a U.S. institution of its intellectual capital, replicates the stolen technology, and then endeavors to replace the U.S. institution on the Chinese and then the global market.”

The China Initiative looked at academia as one of America’s most “vulnerable sectors” for PRC exploitation, due to its “traditions of openness, and the importance of international exchanges to the free flow of ideas.”

Deputy Assistant Attorney General Adam S. Hickey noted that China’s “cultural outreach” and recruiting initiatives, such as the notorious Thousand Talents Program, are “not per se illegal” and the information harvested by Chinese academic operations does not always consist of protected trade secrets. The Justice Department knows the PRC uses those initiatives as “a vehicle to recruit individuals with access to U.S. government-funded research to work in the interest of the Chinese Communist Party.”

The China Initiative Year-in-Review spotlighted six Chinese researchers who concealed their ties to the PRC military when applying for research visas:

In one of those cases, the Department alleged that a PLA officer was being tasked by superiors in the PRC to obtain information that would benefit PLA operations.  In another case, a PLA medical researcher stands accused of following orders to observe lab operations at a U.S. university, which received funding from the U.S. government, in order to replicate those operations in the PRC.

In each of the cases, the defendants are accused of concealing their PLA affiliations in order to obtain visas that allowed them to travel to the United States.  After the FBI conducted interviews this summer that led to charges in those cases and the State Department closed the PRC’s Houston Consulate, a large number of undeclared, PLA-affiliated Chinese researchers fled the United States.

Those six examples are just part of the interagency effort to protect academia and taxpayer-funded research.  The FBI and Department have been collaborating with federal grant-making agencies, the Joint Committee on the Research Environment, the major academic associations, the Academic Security and Counter Exploitation working group, and other appropriate entities, as well as hundreds of individual universities nationwide. 

The department said it has been reaching out to American universities and stressing the need to “protect foreign students studying in the United States from coercive efforts by the Communist Party to censor the freedom of thought and expression that all students here should enjoy.”

The PRC’s recruitment efforts go far beyond the campuses of major universities. According to the report, China is “targeting former members of the U.S. intelligence community for recruitment, and the Department has been holding accountable individuals who succumb to their efforts.”

“The Department is particularly focused on disrupting the PRC government from using career networking and social media sites to target Americans, as well as holding those accountable who hide behind fake profiles to co-opt individuals on behalf of the PRC,” the report said.

DOJ said the PRC remains very active in using cyber espionage to steal American intellectual property, listing several major hacking cases linked to the Chinese Ministry of State Security and noting the surge of hacking activity directed at U.S. corporations and research institutions working on vaccines for the Wuhan coronavirus.

2020 brought a renewed emphasis on protecting America’s telecommunications assets from being controlled or compromised by “entities, subject to PRC influence, that seek to invest in U.S. companies or integrate into our supply chains.” A special interagency committee known as Team Telecom has been reviewing all relevant applications made to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to “identify and address risks to national security and law enforcement.” The FCC’s first revocation of licenses for American subsidiaries of a Chinese state-owned telecom enterprise based on Team Telecom’s recommendation was made last year.

“The success of the China Initiative is not measured by criminal cases and administrative actions alone, however. Outreach to businesses and academia is critical to helping America’s national assets better protect themselves,” DOJ’s year-in-review concluded.

The South China Morning Post (SCMP) on Tuesday quoted some criticisms of the China Initiative, including claims that it created a “chilling effect on open scientific exchange” and facilitated the “potential demonization of Asian-Americans.”

“Expect the initiative to continue under a Biden administration, but with more willingness to be surgical about it as opposed to using this as a sledgehammer. Academia and industry are good examples where we have tons of people that are either Chinese citizens or of Chinese descent that are now being viewed as inherently suspect,” former Pentagon official Joseph Kelly, now president of the Pointweaver consulting firm, told the SCMP.

Other skeptics said the China Initiative was largely symbolic, a means of letting the PRC know that U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies are taking intellectual property theft, academic subversion, and recruiting efforts seriously. These critics noted that few of the biggest names in Chinese espionage called out by DOJ are likely to spend any time in American jails, since they live in mainland China.

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