How Chinese Diplomatic Missions Covertly Work to Subvert the United States

How Chinese Diplomatic Missions Covertly Work to Subvert the United States
A person walks past the Consulate General of the People's Republic of China in San Francisco on July 23, 2020. (PHILIP PACHECO/AFP via Getty Images)
Cathy He

Chinese diplomatic missions are a hotbed of spying and malign activity aimed at subverting the United States, experts warn, after the United States recently took unprecedented action in ordering the closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston.

The consulate shut its doors last Friday after the administration accused it of being a “hub of spying and intellectual property theft.”

U.S. officials said during a July 24 press briefing that the Houston consulate was “particularly aggressive and particularly successful” in the theft of American research and technology. A senior state department official linked espionage activity from the consulate to the regime’s pursuit of research into a vaccine for COVID-19. Houston is a hub for various high-tech fields including biomedical research.
According to a senior intelligence official, in the past 10 years, there were over 50 cases of Houston consular staff promoting and doing recruitment for Chinese state-backed talent plans—especially targeting research centers in the area. These talent programs, which aim to attract foreign experts to work in China, have been criticized for facilitating the transfer of research and know-how to benefit Beijing.

In one case, consular officials communicated with scientists at a Texas research institute, guiding them on what information to collect, a senior justice department official said.

David R. Stilwell, the State Department’s head for East Asia and the Pacific, told The New York Times that the Houston consul-general and two other diplomats were caught on May 31 using false IDs to escort Chinese travelers onto a charter flight at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, Texas.

A former Chinese diplomat and experts told The Epoch Times that such attempts to steal technology extend to all Chinese diplomatic missions around the world.

“Chinese embassies and consulates are a focal point for [the regime’s] espionage activities globally,” said Nicholas Eftimiades, a former U.S. senior intelligence official and author of the book, “Chinese Intelligence Operations.”

He described the outposts as a “hub for extending Chinese interests—legally and illegally.”

While it is generally understood that every nation’s diplomatic missions conduct a certain level of spying in their host countries, the actions by Chinese embassy and consulate officials cross the line in their maliciousness and harm to U.S. national security, said James Carafano, vice president of the Heritage Foundation’s institute for national security and foreign policy.

“It’s completely disproportionate to what we’re doing,” Carafano said, adding that at this point, “it doesn’t make any sense for us to ignore this.”

The illegal activities carried out covertly from Chinese diplomatic missions are not just limited to economic and military espionage, experts noted. Chinese consulates and embassies are also command centers for the regime’s vast influence operations abroad. Using techniques ranging from financial inducements to threats, the Chinese regime attempts to sway public opinion and coerce local elites to act in ways favorable to Beijing.

At the same time, diplomatic outposts work to suppress overseas dissidents and silence speech critical of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) across government, business, and academia. They coordinate “united front” groups—such as overseas Chinese community, professional, and student bodies—to carry out Beijing’s operations.


Chen Yonglin, a former senior diplomat at the Chinese consulate in Sydney, Australia who defected in 2005, told The Epoch Times that the Houston consulate was of high strategic importance to Beijing because of the high-tech sectors that are based in the Houston region, including the aeronautical, biomedical, and petroleum industries. Describing the CCP as a “parasite,” Chen said the Party relies on stealing American technology in these advanced fields to fuel its technological and economic growth.

FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) Director Christopher Wray recently said the agency has more than 2,000 investigations across the country linking to China. More than 80 percent of all economic espionage charges brought by federal prosecutors since 2012 implicated China, according to the Justice Department.

Eftimiades said that every consulate has oversight of and supports the regime’s espionage activities in the host country. While there may be some acts of economic espionage they don’t know about, they would be aware of most of them, he noted.

Consulates are supporting a network of undercover Chinese military officers studying at U.S. universities across 25 cities by giving them guidance on how to evade and obstruct law enforcement, a senior justice department official said in the press briefing. Recently, the FBI has made a string of arrests of Chinese students charged with visa fraud, for allegedly concealing their status as personnel from the regime’s People’s Liberation Army in their visa applications.

In a court document filed on July 20, prosecutors said that “there exists evidence in at least one of these cases of a military scientist copying or stealing information from American institutions at the direction of military superiors in China.”

They added that there was also evidence of the regime instructing these students to destroy evidence and coordinate efforts to evacuate them from the United States, particularly after June 7, when one Chinese national, a researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, was arrested at the Los Angeles International Airport while attempting to board a flight to China.

One of those charged was Tang Juan, a researcher at the University of California Davis, who fled to the Chinese consulate in San Francisco after being questioned by FBI agents on June 20. She was eventually taken into custody on July 23.

Another student charged was Song Chen, a visiting neurology researcher at Stanford University. According to court documents, the FBI recovered a deleted document from Song’s hard drive that was a letter to the education section of the Chinese consulate in New York. In that letter, she explains that she planned to extend her studies in the United States for a year and that her listed employer, Beijing’s “Xi Diaoyutai Hospital,” was a front. She said she received an approval letter from the PLA Air Force, which was classified, so she couldn’t send it online.

Besides playing a supporting role, Chinese officials have been implicated in more active collection efforts, particularly in recruitment drives.

Chinese Ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai and a top Chinese diplomat in New York facilitated the covert recruitment of U.S. scientists to work in China, according to court documents unsealed in April.
In 2019, Liu Zhongsan, a Chinese national, was charged in relation to a scheme to fraudulently obtain U.S. research visas for Chinese government employees whose actual purpose was to allegedly recruit U.S. experts to work in China. Liu “regularly coordinated” his talent-recruitment activities with officials at the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., and the Chinese consulate in New York, prosecutors said.
In September 2019, the United States expelled two Chinese Embassy officials who had driven onto a “sensitive” military base in Virginia. The officials reportedly had their wives with them as they drove through an entry checkpoint on the military base despite being denied permission, and evaded the military personnel who pursued them.

The Chinese consulate in San Francisco was also implicated in the case of Chung Dongfan, a former Boeing engineer who was sentenced to 10 years in prison for stealing space shuttle secrets for Beijing in 2010. The consulate helped Chung send engineering manuals about the design of the B-1 bomber to China using a diplomatic pouch, prosecutors alleged.

China’s permanent mission to the United Nations and the Chinese consulate in New York also paid Lin Ying, a manager at Chinese state-owned airline Air China, to smuggle luggage onboard flights for Chinese military officers assigned to the regime’s mission at the United Nations. Lin, a U.S. citizen, pleaded guilty to acting as an agent for the regime in April 2019.

Malign Influence

Chinese consulates and embassies are key nodes in the regime’s “United Front” network. The CCP’s United Front Work Department, which is responsible for pushing the regime’s agenda abroad, coordinates, through diplomatic outposts, thousands of groups around the world to carry out political influence operations, suppress dissident movements, and gather intelligence, according to a June report by think tank Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
They control Chinese Student and Scholars Associations (CSSA), Chinese student groups on U.S. college campuses and around the world. Many CSSAs openly say they are directed by or financed by local Chinese consulates. They have a long history of aggressively protesting events on campus that showcase views critical of Beijing, which raises concerns about their threats to academic freedom.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence in a 2018 speech said CSSAs also “alert Chinese consulates and embassies when Chinese students, and American schools, stray from the Communist Party line.”

The education section at Chinese missions also oversee Confucius Institutes, state-backed language and cultural centers, established at dozens of American universities. The institutes have come under heavy criticism for spreading Beijing propaganda and stifling free speech.

Chinese diplomats themselves also attempt to pressure American policymakers to adopt pro-Beijing stances, using methods including bribery, blackmail, and covert deals, FBI Director Wray said.

“Chinese diplomats also use both open, naked economic pressure and seemingly independent middlemen to push China’s preferences on American officials,” Wray said.

The director said they identify those closest to the targeted official, such as relatives and business associates, and attempt to influence the policymaker through them.

“These intermediaries, of course, aren’t telling the American official that they’re Chinese Communist Party pawns—and worse still, some of these intermediaries may not even realize they’re being used as pawns, because they, too, have been deceived,” he said.

Suppressing Dissent

As part of the CCP’s efforts to silence and demonize its critics abroad, Chinese diplomats have aggressively targeted dissident groups, pressuring local politicians to distance themselves from these groups and orchestrating attacks.

Chen, who used to head the political affairs section of the Chinese consulate in Sydney, revealed in 2005 that one of the main tasks of consular staff was to monitor and suppress local practitioners of the persecuted spiritual group Falun Gong.

“The ‘war on Falun Gong’ constitutes more than half the total work of the typical Chinese mission,” Chen said at the time, adding that it’s the “top priority” of Chinese embassies and consulates.

According to Chen, every Chinese embassy and consulate “has at least one diplomat whose primary job is to implement the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners.”

He said the consulate had compiled a “blacklist” with the names of around 800 local Falun Gong practitioners, for the purpose of denying them entry into China should they apply for visas. The list fed into a global list maintained by Chinese security agencies, he added.

The Epoch Times reported in 2008 that then-New York Consul General Peng Keyu admitted, in an undercover phone call, to instigating groups to launch a series of assaults on Falun Gong practitioners in Flushing, New York City.
Meanwhile, consulates and embassies around the world have for years attempted to block performances by the New York-based Shen Yun Performing Arts, a Chinese classical dance company, whose program depicts the regime’s human rights abuses against Falun Gong practitioners onstage. They have piled pressure on theaters and governments to pull the show, and have occasionally succeeded.

U.S. officials have also warned that consulates serve as bases for Beijing’s “Fox Hunt” operations—a campaign to repatriate fugitives targeted by the CCP, including dissidents and officials who’ve fallen out of favor with the Party.

Wray described one of the coercive methods used on Fox Hunt targets: “The Chinese government sent an emissary to visit the target’s family here in the United States. The message they said to pass on? The target had two options: Return to China promptly, or commit suicide,” he said.

Cathy He is the politics editor at the Washington D.C. bureau. She was previously an editor for U.S.-China and a reporter covering U.S.-China relations.
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