Spy balloons are one small part of an enormous, “whole of society” decades-long Chinese espionage campaign against the United States. And unfortunately, it has been successful.
As with most intelligence operations, it’s a mix of technical and human platforms that aim to obtain (by any means) other countries’ secrets. However, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) operates on a completely different scale.
It’s not just the Ministry of State Security (MSS) deploying officers to recruit spies.
China’s 2017 National Intelligence Law explicitly requires all Chinese companies and citizens to assist: “An organization or citizen shall support, assist in and cooperate in national intelligence work in accordance with the law and keep confidential the national intelligence work that it or he knows. The state shall protect the individual organization that has supported, assisted in or cooperated in national intelligence work.”
Civilians participate in national espionage
Even before 2017, an “invitation for tea” by the security services would have been enough For a Chinese to know what was expected. It still is.
Every Chinese company or citizen anywhere is a potential platform. Even people of Chinese extraction can be pressured to assist. This is especially if they have family, business interests or anything else that ties them back to the PRC.
This is very different than the US. For example, Apple refused to even help American authorities unlock a mass murdering terrorist’s iPhone.
Conversely, the Chinese use satellites, electronic eavesdropping and cyber operations as well as their companies and hardware to get into US telecommunications and electrical networks. And US companies helped them get set up and embedded into American systems. Why? The Chinese make sure their products are cheap, and the American companies just can’t resist.
And this isn’t just “sucking up information.” Some of it can be used offensively. Don’t be surprised when the power goes off and public utilities in the US don’t function.
Beijing will capitalize on anything potentially useful
China’s spies also capitalize on all the freedoms the United States has to offer. This included freedom of movement, freedom to call yourself a journalist (even if you are an MSS operative), and freedom to buy strategically situated real estate to serve as collection platforms.
FBI director Christopher Wray said the FBI is opening a counterintelligence case involving China every 12 hours. But for every case they open, they are probably missing 100.
China goes after military and state secrets, but also commercial secrets and intellectual property — literally anything potentially useful.
It’s been doing this for years. The idea is to “leap over stages” and advance China’s economic development. And, in that, the Chinese government doesn’t have a monopoly on spying.
Individual Chinese will steal technology and know-how, with the aim to set up their own companies. And, an American company that sets up in China is making things easy for Chinese spies — both government spies and “freelancers.” Even Elon Musk is going to learn the hard way.
It might not necessarily be state-directed. But it might be of use to the government later and it adds to Chinese economic advantage and national power.
How resilient is the US against Chinese spying?
There has probably never been a great power that did less to protect itself from an avowed enemy’s espionage efforts. And even the United States might someday find itself at a fatal disadvantage.
How bad is it?
There have always been Americans in government and outside who recognized the Chinese espionage threat. Nick Eftimiades, formerly with DIA and CIA, literally wrote the book on Chinese spying back in the early 1990s and has spread the gospel ever since. But there are too few of him, and he and the others haven’t been listened to as they should.
Indeed, as the Americans examine the Chinese balloon, much of the technology in the “collection” part of the system will no doubt look familiar — since they got it from us.
Chinese spies let off the hook
The FBI does regularly indict and then sometimes punish Chinese spies (if they’ve actually got them in custody) and their associates — including Americans. But this is a pinprick. Also, the penalties aren’t much. The Chinese national who helped MSS steal the C-17 transport plane plans was convicted and got only four years in prison.
And, by and large, the United States has overlooked (usually intentionally) Chinese spying. One data point of many: The private security firm Strider reported in 2022 that, from 1987 to 2021, at least 162 Chinese scientists who had worked at Los Alamos — the US research lab where the atomic bomb was developed — returned to the PRC to contribute to China’s R&D programs. Besides nuclear weapons designs, these “alumni” have helped the PRC advance key military and dual-use technologies.
Yes, Chinese nationals working at the most sensitive US facilities. What could go wrong?
How does the US defend itself?
It doesn’t really. The FBI makes a modest effort, private sector companies go through the motions of protecting their technology, academia is firmly opposed to cracking down on Chinese spying at US universities and research centers and Wall Street resists anything that makes China angry.
As late as 2009, the INDOPACOM commander offered to help China develop aircraft carriers. And many senior officers still want to engage with the People’s Liberation Army.
American administrations have mostly ignored the problem. When Chinese hackers stole 23 million Office of Personal Management files in 2015, the Obama administration refused to say the word “China.” Reward or ignore bad behavior and you’ll get more of it.
There have been some efforts at self-defense, but they often aren’t sustained. President Trump closed China’s Houston consulate — a hotbed of spying — and forced the Department of Justice to launch the China Initiative against Chinese spies at US universities.
This put the fear of God in Beijing. Then, shortly after taking office, Biden shut down the China Initiative. American academics had claimed it was racist. The US government did revoke China Telecom’s license in 2021 — although it was two decades late.
Doesn’t the US spy, as well?
The US does spy, but it’s with the traditional methods: electronic and satellite surveillance and a relatively tiny number of intelligence officers trying to recruit Chinese spies — who might produce useful information, and hopefully are not compromised by an American Quisling or dodgy covert communications devices. The US does not do “commercial” espionage.
Ultimately, if a US Congressman can have a Chinese spy as a girlfriend and still serve on the House Intelligence Oversight Committee, the Americans are not serious.
I’m reminded of the comment of a young Marine officer in Afghanistan some time back: “Sir, I think we want to lose.”
Grant Newsham is a former US diplomat, a retired US Marine intelligence officer and the author of the soon-to-be-released book When China Attacks: A Warning To America.
This article was originally published by JAPAN Forward and is republished with permission.