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There have been four cases of Chinese espionage against the United States in just the last three weeks. These haven’t been the run-of-the-mill cyberspies either; these are Cold War-style cases of individuals allegedly caught spying on behalf of a communist regime.
Three of the cases involved people trying to steal nuclear technology. Another involved the theft of cutting-edge technology for unmanned submarines.
The first case garnered the most attention. On April 8, the U.S. military held the first hearing on the case of Lt. Cmdr. Edward Chieh-Liang Lin. The U.S. military officer and Taiwanese immigrant served as a “nuclear-trained enlisted sailor” and as a signals intelligence expert, and was allegedly spying on behalf of Taiwan and Mainland China.
Just five days later, a Chinese citizen, Fuyi “Frank” Sun, 52, was arrested in New York for trying to obtain sensitive carbon fiber used in nuclear centrifuges. Sun allegedly told undercover agents he worked for the Chinese regime’s missile program and had close ties to the Chinese military.
The next day, on April 14, another individual was indicted, alongside a Chinese state-owned nuclear power company, in a conspiracy case in Tennessee. Szuhsiung “Allen” Ho was allegedly acting on behalf of the state-run company to illegally transfer nuclear materials to China.
Then, just seven days later on April 21, Amin Yu, 53, was charged in Florida for “acting as an illegal agent” for China and trying to steal sensitive technology, including for unmanned underwater vehicles.
If the tables were turned, and four American spies were caught spying on another country—especially if it were in the course of a few weeks—it would be an international scandal. But with China, the world seems to have gotten somewhat desensitized to its brazen use of espionage.
In fact, only two of the cases were broadly covered by U.S. news outlets.
The unfortunate fact is that there are so many cases of Chinese espionage against the United States—both using cyberattacks and human spies—that they’ve begun to blend in with each other.
Chinese espionage has become the “dog bites man” story, where cases are so common that they’ve lost their shock value. People are no longer surprised by the cases, and so many news outlets seem to gloss over them.
But the importance of these cases is no less significant than it was during the Cold War, and the frequency of spy cases coming out of China isn’t a whole lot different.
The fact is that while China’s use of cyberattacks for espionage has taken center stage, it also has a very large system for conventional espionage—and its spies on both ends will often work together.
The Chinese military’s two main departments for this type of espionage are overseen by its General Staff Department. The cyberattacks are run under its Third Department, which handles signals intelligence (SIGINT); while its human intelligence (HUMINT) operations are carried out by its Second Department.
Epoch Times reported previously that the Chinese regime has between 250,000 and 300,000 soldiers under its Third Department dedicated to cyberespionage. Its Second Department has between 30,000 and 50,000 human spies working on insider operations.
The Chinese military also runs more than 3,200 military front companies in the United States, which are dedicated to theft. The information was revealed by the FBI’s former deputy director for counterintelligence, in a 2010 report from the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency.
With these numbers in mind, it’s important to point out that even though cases of Chinese espionage (both SIGINT and HUMINT) are regularly exposed, the cases brought to light are just a drop in the ocean compared to the broader picture of what’s taking place.
There is also a lot of overlap between China’s use of cyberattacks and human spies. Sources told Epoch Times in a previous interview that Chinese cyberspies will even at times launch cyberattacks to cover the tracks of spies working as insiders in U.S. businesses and government agencies.
The rationale of using human intelligence operatives was explained well in a previous interview with Jarrett Kolthoff, president of cyber counterintelligence company SpearTip and a former special agent in U.S. Army counterintelligence.
Kolthoff told Epoch Times that Chinese spies are interested in “quantity first, quality second,” and often grab everything they can. He said they look for whatever approach is most effective for reaching this goal, and they “determine that it’s much easier to obtain the information through a rogue insider, or a trusted insider who is working for someone else.”
He said that while the human spy is at work, cyberspies will then launch attacks as a ruse, and this makes it appear the information was stolen through a cyberattack instead of an insider. This prevents the company or agency from searching for the insider spy, and Kolthoff noted “it’s very, very effective.”