Dec 8, 2020

Axios China

Welcome back to Axios China. Today, we've got a behind-the-scenes look at Axios' yearlong national security investigation, just published last night, into an alleged Chinese political intelligence operation that ran in California's Bay Area from 2011 to 2015.

Today's newsletter is 947 words, a 3½-minute read.

1 big thing: Top counterintelligence takeaways

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The case of Christine Fang shows how an alleged Chinese intelligence agent really dug into hyperlocal U.S. politics, my colleague Zach Dorfman of the Aspen Institute and I write.

Why it matters: Fang’s case offers unique insights into how China’s spy services operate and the challenges faced by U.S. counterintelligence officials — and can help explain some actions by the Trump administration.

  1. Fang’s alleged work as a “bundler” — helping connect donors to political candidates — is a particularly important example of how a potential foreign operative can gain access to, and accrue influence with, important people while participating in outwardly benign civic activities.
  2. Fang got involved at the core civic level of U.S. politics, from attending cookouts with mayors, participating in obscure conferences attended almost exclusively by municipal officials, volunteering for candidates in hyperlocal races in mid-sized cities and in congressional primaries, and to leading local student groups that often interfaced with officials.
  3. Of course, civic participation is a good thing. The U.S. has a long and shameful history of discrimination against Asian Americans, particularly Chinese Americans. So the need for student and civic organizations to encourage Asian American political participation and representation is clear.
  4. Meanwhile, local officials often don't know they might be the target of a foreign intelligence operation. And why would they? They don't have access to classified information, they're not privy to affairs of state, and they're not getting detailed FBI briefings on local CI threats.
  5. But China's spy services understand that "all politics is local." It's fair to say that U.S. counterintelligence has never faced a rival with this much capacity, will and means when it comes to penetrating local U.S. politics.

And here's one thought about the U.S. government's actions toward China, especially during the Trump administration:

  • One top goal of Trump administration senior officials, particularly Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, has been to increase public awareness of China's intelligence activities within U.S. borders.
    • Top U.S. intelligence officials like FBI Director Christopher Wray have made public remarks citing specific instances of China's behavior that they view as particularly concerning.
  • Tougher China-related measures have garnered bipartisan support. “China poses the greatest national security threat to the United States. Our intelligence is clear: the Chinese Communist Party will stop at nothing to exert its global dominance,” Senate Select Committee on Intelligence acting Chair Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Vice Chair Mark Warner (D-Va.) said in a recent joint statement.
    • "Beijing’s infiltration of U.S. society has been deliberate and insidious as they use every instrument of influence available to accelerate their rise at America’s expense," they said.
  • With Christine Fang’s story now public, it is perhaps easier to understand why in recent years many U.S. counterintelligence officials believed there was a gap between what the American public understood about the threat of Chinese political influence operations and the reality of what was actually occurring.
2. Read the investigation

A suspected Chinese intelligence operative developed extensive ties with local and national politicians, including a U.S. congressman, in what U.S. officials believe was a political intelligence operation run by China’s main civilian spy agency between 2011 and 2015, Zach and I found.

Why it matters: The alleged operation offers a rare window into how Beijing has tried to gain access to and influence U.S. political circles.

  • While this suspected operative’s activities appear to have ended during the Obama administration, concerns about Beijing's influence operations have spanned President Trump’s time in office and will continue to be a core focus for U.S. counterintelligence during the Biden administration.

Go deeper: Read the full story

3. Watch: Key takeaways
Screenshot: "Axios on HBO"

How did a Chinese student active in San Francisco Bay Area politics from 2011 to 2015 become the target of a U.S. counterintelligence investigation? And why did her efforts to connect with local politicians who would later play a role on the national stage raise investigators' alarms?

In a clip from "Axios on HBO," Zach and I explain.

4. Listen: How a suspected Chinese spy got close to U.S. politicians

Niala Boodhoo, the host of our daily news podcast "Axios Today," spoke with two people in California's Bay Area who remember interacting with Christine Fang.

  • Shawn Wilson, chief of staff to Alameda County Supervisor Scott Haggerty, recalled seeing Fang at a local Democratic fundraising dinner, where her overfamiliar behavior toward Haggerty puzzled both men. Wilson recalls that Fang drove a white Mercedes, dressed well and was eager to volunteer with many campaigns.
  • Gilbert Wong, the former mayor of Cupertino, met Fang at several political events. Wong said that while China's attempts at espionage and influence are a concern, it's also a very tough time to be a Chinese American in the U.S. as tensions between China and the U.S. are running high.

Go deeper: Listen here

5. The wrong lesson

China's Ministry of State Security allegedly used a Chinese student as cover for a yearslong political intelligence operation. But the extraordinary and unique nature of her case indicates the exact opposite — that it is vanishingly rare for the MSS to use students as cover.

Why it matters: The worst possible lesson to take away from Fang's case is that Chinese students on campus are a threat. On the contrary, the overwhelming majority of Chinese students on U.S. campuses are here for the same reasons as international students from any other country.

6. Ratcliffe's long-term China play

Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe told Axios in an interview that "China and China alone is the only country that has the ability to compete with the U.S." — and hopes the intelligence community will adopt his view even under "the next administration."

Why it matters: Ratcliffe's comments suggested that he's trying to lock in the Trump era's harder line on China for the long term.

What he's saying: Ratcliffe told Axios that shifting the intelligence community's priority to China has been "really my focus since I’ve been in this position. Hopefully, that will continue regardless of ... the next administration."

  • Ratcliffe said the threat is urgent because the U.S. has a limited window of opportunity to act while China remains the weaker country.
  • "It’s always better to fight downhill. At this point, for all of the threats that China poses, we have the ability to fight them downhill because we are still stronger," Ratcliffe said. "I don’t want our country to be in a position where we fight them uphill."

Go deeper: Read the full story