Chinese intelligence agents and diplomats are actively subverting U.S. policies through bribery, blackmail and covert influence operations, FBI Director Christopher A. Wray said Tuesday in a major policy address.
The operations, the FBI chief said, are part of large-scale intelligence activities by China to recruit spies and steal information.
“The greatest long-term threat to our nation’s information, intellectual property and to our economic vitality is the counterintelligence and economic espionage threat from China,” Mr. Wray told an audience at the Hudson Institute think tank.
The Chinese operations range from traditional spying — recruiting agents inside government — to cyberattacks and data theft aimed at obtaining cutting-edge U.S. technology. The theft has hit Fortune 100 companies down to small startup businesses.
The speech by Mr. Wray is part of a concerted Trump administration effort to highlight what U.S. leaders see as the dangers and threats posed by China’s Communist Party leadership at a time when relations between Washington and Beijing are strained on a number of fronts.
White House National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien spoke about the problem of China’s governing ideology last week. Additional addresses on China are planned for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Attorney General William Barr in the coming weeks.
Regarding “malign” subversion and influence operations, Mr. Wray said covert operations targeting American officials are underway “24/7, 365 days a year” and involve both intelligence operatives and Chinese diplomats.
“China is engaged in a highly sophisticated, malign foreign influence campaign,” Mr. Wray said. “Its methods include bribery, blackmail and covert deals.”
Mr. Wray said half of the 5,000 active FBI counterintelligence cases are related to China and that Beijing is “working to compromise American health care organizations, pharmaceutical companies and academic institutions conducting essential COVID-19 research.”
Chinese officials view the effort as a “generational fight” to overtake the U.S. economically and militarily, without giving up the government’s near-total control.
“China is engaged in a whole-of-state effort to become the world’s only superpower by any means necessary,” Mr. Wray said.
The victims of these activities are not just the U.S. government and American businesses but ordinary citizens as well, said Mr. Wray, adding that the operation is “on a scale so massive that it represents one of the largest transfers of wealth in human history.”
The speech offered more details and information about Chinese intelligence and influence operations than the FBI has ever made public before, Mr. Wray said.
Mr. Wray said China has run intelligence operations to sway U.S. policy and attitudes toward Taiwan, aimed at undermining U.S. support for Taipei, an unofficial ally. China considers Taiwan a renegade province that will in time come under Beijing’s control.
An American governor or member of a state legislature who announces plans to travel to the island often is targeted in overt and covert Chinese influence operations, including the use of paid and unpaid agents and U.S. media.
Chinese pressure campaigns have resulted in American news outlets “self-censoring” their coverage in ways designed to avoid upsetting the government. China uses travel restrictions to pressure news organizations and businesses to cut off access and targets anyone viewed as opposing the Chinese Communist Party-ruled system, Mr. Wray said.
Chinese officials have also threatened to punish American companies located in districts of local politicians economically as a way to prevent the officials from traveling or supporting Taiwan.
If overt pressure fails, China will then use more subversive “indirect, covert,” means, identifying and pressuring people close to local officials in a bid to force them to align with Beijing’s policies, he said.
“These intermediaries aren’t telling the American official they are Communist Party pawns,” Mr. Wray said. “Ultimately, China doesn’t hesitate to use smoke, mirrors and misdirection to influence Americans.”
The objective is to “sway our government policies and distort our public discussion” in a bid to undermine U.S. support for places like Taiwan and Hong Kong, where pro-democracy advocates are facing repression from a recently imposed mainland security law, Mr. Wray said.
“Chinese diplomats also use both open, naked economic pressure and seemingly independent middlemen to push China’s preferences on American officials,” he said.
FBI officials have also seen China seek to alter the narrative on its widely criticized handling of the COVID-19 outbreak among federal, state and local officials, Mr. Wray said.
One unnamed state senator was asked by China to issue a resolution praising Beijing’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.
“The punchline is this: All of these seemingly inconsequential pressures add up to a policymaking environment in which Americans find themselves held over a barrel by the Chinese Communist Party,” Mr. Wray said. “All the while, China’s government and Communist Party have brazenly violated well-settled norms and the rule of law.”
Chinese government activities also include large-scale cybertheft of Americans’ personal information and intellectual property.
Chinese hackers in recent years have obtained personal data on half of the U.S. population and most of the adult population, including from the Equifax credit reporting company, Anthem health care company and the U.S. government’s Office of Personnel Management, which holds records on federal employees.
China also has attempted to influence and recruit American university professors and researchers, including Harvard University Chemistry Department Chairman Charles Lieber, who was indicted on charges of making false statements about payments from China.
One Chinese agent stole more than $1 billion worth of proprietary technology from an Oklahoma petroleum company, said Mr. Wray.
“This kind of thing is happening over and over across the country,” he said.
Chinese intelligence activities are so prevalent that the FBI opens a counterspy case on average every 10 hours, Mr. Wray said.
Another program is the Chinese government, through its Ministry of Public Security, the police ministry, conducting covert efforts against Chinese dissidents abroad, including in the United States. The program, known as “Fox Hunt,” was launched by Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is also general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Mr. Wray said.
Fox Hunt uses teams of agents from the Ministry of Public Security ostensibly engaged in global anti-corruption campaigns to target dissidents and other political opponents.
The targets include political rivals, dissidents and critics who seek to expose China’s extensive human rights abuses. Many of the targets live in the United States and are U.S. citizens or permanent residents, and China is seeking to force them to return to China.
Threats and imprisonment of family members are used in the operations to coerce targeted people to return, the FBI chief said.
“Fox Hunt is a sweeping bid by General Secretary Xi to target Chinese nationals he sees as threats and who live outside of China across the world,” Mr. Wray said.
In one case, Chinese agents told the target of a Fox Hunt operation to return to China or “commit suicide,” Mr. Wray said.
“These people are essentially engaged in rogue law enforcement … suppressing dissent and trying to pressure citizens,” he said.
During a question period, Mr. Wray was asked about China’s three main intelligence agencies, the civilian spy service Ministry of State Security and the military People’s Liberation Army intelligence service.
The Ministry of Public Security is a relative newcomer to the operation.
“The Fox Hunt effort, for example, is more through the MPS, than it is the MSS or PLA,” Mr. Wray said. “But as a general rule, an awful lot of the kinds of things I was describing in my remarks are more geared to the MSS and the PLA.”
• Bill Gertz can be reached at email@example.com.
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