China’s Web of Spies and the Breach at Mar-a-Lago

April 3, 2019 Updated: April 3, 2019

News Analysis

A Chinese woman was arrested at President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club in Florida, after telling a series of lies to gain access.

Included in her possessions were four cell phones, a laptop, an external drive, two passports, and a thumb drive with malware.

Yujing Zhang, 32, is being charged with making false statements to federal agents and illegally entering a restricted area. It doesn’t appear she was anywhere near Trump, and it’s unclear whether her actions were targeting the president.

While espionage isn’t one of the charges Zhang is facing, the March 30 incident raises suspicion as to whether her actions tie to an espionage attempt on Trump. There are rumors she’s connected to Republican donor Li Yang, who promised Chinese business leaders access to Mar-a-Lago, but there isn’t yet conclusive evidence to support that.

United Front

When it comes to Chinese espionage, there are many types of spies. While we can’t say anything for certain, Zhang fits the profile of someone with the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) United Front operations. Yet, it’s unlikely Zhang was an official spy, in the way we in the United States would typically think of a spy.

The smoking gun is that Zhang allegedly told a Secret Service agent she was there to join a “United Nations Friendship Event” between the United States and China. She had an alleged invitation, which the Secret Service agent wasn’t able to read since it was written in Chinese. She also claimed the event was through the United Nations Chinese-American Association.

Chinese “associations” such as the one Zhang mentioned are often the main targets for control by the United Front Department, such as its official China Overseas Friendship Association. The “friendship” line is another of its favorites.

As the Financial Times reported in October 2017, United Front events often begin “with an invitation to a banquet or reception, usually from one of a host of ‘friendship associations’ that work under the United Front banner, to celebrate dates in the Chinese calendar.” People are then brought more deeply into the CCP’s fold over time.

The United Front Department is one of the CCP’s organizations for overt espionage. These are espionage operations that often happen out in the open, in broad daylight, and often work to spread propaganda, recruit spies, and invite targets to China to tell them the “China story.”

Spies under the United Front are often different from the more official spies. The United Front often works through Chinese consulates, which, in turn, target Chinese “Tongs” around the world, which are fraternal organizations that often have significant influence in Chinese communities around the world. It also targets the “triad” criminal organizations that sometimes operate under the Tongs.

These United Front networks are then used by the CCP to extend its influence into overseas Chinese communities, and to influence local politics in targeted countries, pressure Chinese dissidents living abroad, recruit people as low-tier spies, and to spread CCP propaganda.

“The United Front strategy uses a range of methods to influence overseas Chinese communities, foreign governments, and other actors to take actions or adopt positions supportive of Beijing’s preferred policies,” states an Aug. 24, 2018, report from the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.

It adds that the United Front guides and funds both “official and quasi-official” entities, “including groups such as Chinese Students and Scholars Associations (CSSAs) and Confucius Institutes.”

Still, United Front operations are much different from those of more official spies, which would often work under the CCP’s Ministry of State Security on the government side, or under the Strategic Support Force on the military side (before the CCP reorganized its military in January 2016, this would have included the Second and Third Departments of the General Staff Department, which were the human intelligence and signals intelligence branches, respectively).

United Front operations are also different from the more official “agents of influence” who rarely engage in official espionage, but work quietly to spread the CCP’s message. This would include groups such as the CCP’s Committee of 100, which already has influence at the higher levels of U.S. politics, academia, and media.

Spreading the Seeds

So, if the CCP already has well-trained agents targeting the higher levels of American politics and society, why would someone like Zhang be suspected of espionage? After all, it doesn’t appear that Zhang could even maintain a stable lie (and her ever-changing story is what got her caught).

This ties to the deeper nature of CCP espionage, overall.

There’s a Chinese saying for espionage operations, to “spread the seeds far and wide.” The idea is that not every seed is expected to yield anything, but if enough seeds are spread, then the little that is yielded will be plenty.

An analogy that’s sometimes used to explain this is that if a beach were the target of espionage, the United States would use satellite imagery to assess it. Russia would send in a small team of trained spies in the dead of night to steal a few buckets of sand. The CCP, meanwhile, would just have a large number of tourists go, who would take their towels afterward and shake out the sand. And by the end, the CCP would have more information about that beach than any of them.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Follow Joshua on Twitter: @JoshJPhilipp