How China became a powerhouse of espionage
As China’s influence spreads to every corner of the globe under President Xi Jinping, so do its spies.
Why it matters: China has the money and the ambition to build a vast foreign intelligence network, including inside the United States. Meanwhile, American intelligence-gathering on China is falling short, Chris Johnson, a former senior China analyst for the CIA who's now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, tells Axios: "We have to at least live up to [China's] expectations. And we aren't doing that."
Three quick things to know about China's intelligence efforts, per Johnson:
- Their strategy is "looking more and more like the Russians."
- "They're clearly becoming more aggressive."
- "Unlike us, they'll actually devote the resources to it."
"China has greater [international] influence operations than we think about," Dennis Wilder, who was the National Security Council's Senior Director for East Asia under George W. Bush, tells Axios — and international influence is incomplete without intelligence.
- The U.S. once engaged in broader foreign influence programs, but has shifted primarily to collecting intelligence. Meanwhile, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told lawmakers that China will spend $8 billion in 68 countries this year to undermine American influence and bolster its own reach.
- Xi's reform of Chinese intelligence will likely "involve reconstituting the Ministry of State Security [China's spy agency] as a two-part body, one for monitoring spies in China and another for gathering intelligence overseas," reports the Nikkei Asian Review.
- In terms of economic espionage, FBI Director Chris Wray told NBC News, "there's no country that's even close" to China.
- Now China’s playbook is starting to mimic those of traditional intelligence powers like the U.S. and Russia, Johnson says. It’s increasingly seeking intelligence for political purposes, rather than just economic applications.
- Beijing is also trying to grow its presence in the Middle East — an intelligence-gathering hotspot where it hasn't traditionally been a significant player.
Beijing and Moscow
- China resembles Russia in one big way: Both employ a united front strategy, says Wilder. In those countries, everyone — the government, the billionaires, the academics — works together for the good of the state, in part because the state has tight control over their lives, he says.
- But there are key differences between the Chinese and Russian approaches to intelligence-gathering.
In January, the FBI arrested Jerry Chun Shing Lee, a 53-year-old former CIA agent based in China who reportedly leaked information about American espionage to the Chinese, who then used that intelligence to systematically break the CIA's spy network in China.
- The story is emblematic of China's skill in infiltrating U.S. intelligence, David Wise, a historian and China expert, writes in the New York Times. "The Chinese may take years to develop a source and plant one inside American intelligence organizations. But they have managed to do just that inside the FBI, the CIA, the Pentagon and the State Department," according to Wise.
And those recruitment efforts, which used to be limited to ethnically Chinese people living in foreign countries, have expanded to target white Americans, Johnson says.
- One example is Glenn Shriver, a Virginian who studied in Shanghai and was recruited by Chinese operatives to try to land a job at the CIA to spy for Beijing. Shriver pleaded guilty to conspiring to leak U.S. defense information in 2010.
The bottom line
Congress doesn't love the spending bill, but it passed anyway
House Speaker Paul Ryan touted the defense spending increase, Sen. Rand Paul angrily tweeted about arcane government spending, and Democrats shook their head at the lack of gun control measures. But most members of Congress accepted the omnibus spending bill for what it is: A giant collection of what has to get done to keep the government functioning, while mustering enough votes to pass.
Why it matters: This is a $1.3 trillion dollar bill affecting every branch of government that passed mostly because it had to. Members voted on it without really reading it, as it was released Wednesday night and passed the Senate shortly after midnight Friday.
The big picture: Passing a spending bill has to be a bipartisan affair, since Republicans don't have the votes to push it through by themselves. Thus, both parties' priorities must be addressed, so few people are actually fully satisfied with the final product.
What Republicans are saying:
- Conservatives are furious. Here's House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows: "We are growing the size of government at a breakneck pace. And we are doing all of this through a 2,300 page spending bill, written privately by four leadership members, that became public only 24 hours ago."
- Defense hawks are happy(ish). Here's Ryan: "With the biggest increase in defense funding in 15 years, this critical legislation begins to reverse the damage of the last decade and allows us to create a 21st-century fighting force."
- Moderates accept it. Sen. Lisa Murkowski: "You know, it was the agreement that we reached ... There’s an awful lot that we quote needed to be in this in order to pass, and it’s kind of like the legislative cleanup list. Seems to me that we ought to have a better process for doing legislation other than waiting for one omnibus.”
What Democrats are saying:
- Leadership is happy(ish). House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said there was a "tremendous victory" on the domestic side, but denounced the process, including the failed attempt to add protections for Dreamers.
- Moderates aren't complaining (much). “Everything is the art of compromise," said Sen. Doug Jones. He called a provision to strengthen gun background checks "an important step," adding that "no one should ever, ever think that because it doesn’t have a whole list of things, that that’s not important."
- Most are disappointed but not shocked that they didn't get more wins on hot-button issues, like guns and immigration. "I’m very disappointed that no really meaningful or major step to prevent gun violence prevention is included," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal. "DACA is a major disappointment as well.”
The bitterest fight: health care. Sens. Lamar Alexander, Patty Murray and Susan Collins failed to come to an agreement on an Affordable Care Act market stabilization deal, as they couldn't reach agreement on abortion language. The three went back and forth in a tense round of Senate floor speeches Thursday afternoon.
Those speeches aren't going to change the outcome: The bill will pass without any kind of stabilization for the ACA, and that was probably their last chance to prevent big premium increases before the 2019 insurance rates are released.