They hack trade secrets from thousands of miles away, or load the data onto thumb drives at their workplaces. They may engage in cloak and dagger spying, or be rewarded for using their positions of authority or influence, or gather intelligence without even knowing they are being used to do so.
“They” are the multitude of spies of various kinds employed by the People’s Republic of China to steal U.S. economic and security secrets.
In his book, The Art of Intelligence, former CIA agent Henry Crumpton says “Both Russia and China probably have more clandestine intelligence operatives inside the United States now, in the second decade of the 21 century, than at the height of the Cold War.”
Representative Billy Long said during a June 2012 congressional hearing that Russia and China “view economic espionage as an essential tool in statecraft to achieve stated national security and economic prosperity aims,” noting their daily attacks target sensitive technologies, economic data, private companies, academics, and regular U.S. citizens.
“It is critical Members of Congress and U.S. businesses understand that point: China and Russia have official government policies of stealing U.S. assets for economic gain,” he said.
There are regular cases of this taking place. On Sept. 3 the Chinese “Red Star” cyberattack re-emerged. It is a broad espionage campaign “that infected hundreds of high profile victims in more than 40 countries,” states a report from SecureList, a blog run by the security researcher firm Kaspersky.
Targets of Red Star include Tibetan and Uyghur activists, oil companies, scientific research institutes, universities, private companies, government, embassies, and military contractors.
This broad campaign has gotten little public attention. A Google News search for “Red Star” and the attack’s other name, “NetTraveler,” on Sept. 3 yielded no results beyond security websites.
Just a week prior, cyberespionage attacks targeting G-20 attendees were traced back to the Chinese military. Just prior to that, hackers traced to the Chinese military re-emerged with a fresh wave of attacks against the U.S. government and U.S. businesses.
Yet cyberespionage is only part of the picture. The number of Chinese spies in the United States, and the breadth of their activities, dwarfs that of any other nation.
They include students, journalists, visiting scholars, insiders at companies, businessmen, criminal organizations, conventional spies, and agents of influence who try to recruit others into the fold.
David Wise, a leading writer on intelligence and espionage, and author of “Tiger Trap: America’s Secret Spy War with China,” presented an analogy to put Chinese spying in perspective, during an interview with Democracy Now.
He said if various nations wanted intelligence on a beach, “The Russians would send in a submarine in the dark of night and collect several buckets of sand, the Americans would send over a spy satellite and collect reams of data that would be analyzed back in Washington.”
The Chinese, however, “would send in a thousand tourists, each with instructions to collect one grain of sand,” he said. And as part of the analogy, he said they would go back to China, “shake out their towels and at the end of that time China would know more about that beach than anyone else.”
When it comes to the Chinese, “You have several different types of overseas spies,” said Terry Minarcin, a retired NSA agent.
According to Minarcin, Chinese agents will often target ethnic Chinese, particularly those who are part of “Tongs” that dot Chinese communities and range from hometown associations to fraternal business associations.
“So you’ve got the Chinese who already belong to a Tong, and so they’ll go in there and say the Mother Tong is back in the motherland, and this is what I’d like you to do,” he said.
“It doesn’t work every time, but it works more often than not,” he said.
The associations give them networks of individuals across a broad spectrum of industries. Minarcin said if they wanted someone in the plastics industry, for example, they would develop a friendship with that person and “cultivate him as a spy.”
The Chinese regime’s race-based system to recruit spies brings about additional problems for the United States, where investigations can be viewed as racial profiling.
Paul Moore, the FBI’s former chief intelligence analyst, described the dilemma in a 1999 Los Angeles Times report.
“The intelligence professionals want their Chinese-American target simply to perceive himself as more Chinese than American and to come to see that he has a special duty to help his ancestral land somehow, some day,” Moore said.
Moore added that the Chinese regime targets ethnic Chinese for two primary reasons. The first is the shared culture and history. The second is that “Chinese Americans comprise an estimated 15 percent of the overall U.S. research and development sector, and far more than that in some key defense-related industries.”
Minarcin said they are given several incentives. Some get paid, some get protection for family members back home, others may not get anything at all or not even realize they are being exploited.
Lu Dong, a former agent of influence for the Chinese regime, told the Epoch Times, “If you want land, they give you the land at a cheaper price. If you want to order something, you pay less at customs, or they give you a special dealership to get special items.”
Lu Dong classifies the top-level Chinese spies into three categories: agents to influence public opinion, agents to recruit others to gather information, and agents sent to marry key individuals or keep quiet positions as sleeper agents. Lower-level spies include those recruited by the official spies, and others who are being blackmailed.
A classified manual from the U.K. Ministry of Defense, leaked by WikiLeaks, describes the process of deception—particularly when a person visits China—used to recruit spies. On such visits Westerners, as well as Chinese returning from abroad, may be enlisted to become agents of influence.
“The process of being cultivated as a ‘friend of China’ (ie. an ‘agent’) is subtle and long-term. The Chinese are adept at exploiting a visitor’s interest in, and appreciation of, Chinese history and culture. They are expert flatterers and are well aware of the ‘softening’ effect of food and alcohol,” states the manual.
“Under cover of consultation or lecturing, a visitor may be given favors, advantageous economic conditions, or commercial opportunities,” it states. “In return they will be expected to give information or access to material. Or, at the very least, to speak out on China’s behalf (becoming an ‘agent of influence’).”