China is seeking to become the world’s only superpower by usurping the United States with a government-directed “campaign of theft and malign influence”, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director said on Tuesday.
In a wide-ranging attack on Beijing’s behaviour on the world stage delivered at the conservative think tank Hudson Institute, Christopher Wray said that the counter-intelligence and economic espionage threat from China represented the “greatest long-term threat to our nation’s information and intellectual property, and to our economic vitality”.
China’s “generational fight” to usurp the US was playing out in fields ranging from local politics to industries including aviation, agriculture, robotics and health care, said Wray, accusing Beijing of working to compromise American institutions conducting “essential” Covid-19 research.
The charges come at a nadir in US-China relations, with tensions boiling on a number of fronts including the coronavirus pandemic, Beijing’s handling of Hong Kong, and treatment of each other’s respective journalists.
Those spats have come on top of long-standing concerns in the US of a state-orchestrated theft of American technology by China, allegations that in part fuelled the still-simmering trade war that began two years ago.
Wray revealed on Tuesday that the FBI opens a new China-related counter-intelligence investigation every 10 hours, and that around half of the bureau’s approximately 5,000 open cases relate to China. Investigations into alleged attempts to steal US-based technology by Chinese entities are under way in all of the FBI’s 56 field offices.
“That’s not because we’re just trying to spread the work around,” said Wray. “That’s because the threat is all over the country, in rural areas and big cities. And it’s in Fortune 100s all the way down to small start-ups.”
The US Attorney General William Barr and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are preparing to unveil new actions to address the threat from China in the coming weeks, said Wray, a Trump appointee who took over the FBI in 2017.
Wray reserved particular criticism for China’s “Fox Hunt” operation, an extraterritorial campaign launched by Chinese President Xi Jinping to repatriate individuals to be charged in China for crimes relating to corruption.
Though presented as an anti-graft effort, the operation was “a sweeping bid by General Secretary Xi to target Chinese nationals who he sees as threats,” charged Wray, who said it violated “established processes for foreign law enforcement to cooperate with each other”.
In cases where targets were not cooperative, the Chinese government had threatened or even arrested their family members still in China for leverage, said Wray.
In one instance, a Chinese emissary told the US-based relatives of a target to pass along a message to the individual, saying the target had two options: “return to China promptly or commit suicide,” said Wray, without giving specifics of the case.
Wray appealed to anyone in the US who believed they were being targeted by the Chinese government in such a campaign to reach out to their local FBI field office.
Beyond economic espionage and extraterritorial law enforcement, Beijing was also actively interfering in US politics, said Wray, alleging that China was targeting US local officials and lawmakers with direct or indirect pressure campaigns to prevent them from travelling to Taiwan.
“China does not want that to happen, because that travel might appear to legitimise Taiwanese independence from China,” said Wray, who suggested that Chinese state actors had threatened retaliation against companies within local officials’ constituencies to dissuade them from going to Taiwan.
Wray did not provide specific examples of such events, and the FBI declined to comment further when asked for clarification.
Asked during Tuesday’s event whether the FBI was concerned about the prospect of Chinese interference in the fall elections, Wray said China’s “malign foreign influence campaign” was a year-round threat rather than “an election specific threat”.
Nonetheless, China’s attempts to sway US policy had “implications for elections, and they certainly have preferences that go along with that,” he said.
China has been accused of hacking into US government systems in the past, notably the alleged infiltration of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), acquiring sensitive data on around 20 million US federal government employees.
The hack was part of broader attempts by China to “identify people for secret intelligence gathering,” Wray said on Tuesday.
The data breach also suggested there are possible cybersecurity vulnerabilities heading into the 2020 election, said Nina Jankowicz, a former Fulbright-Clinton Public Policy Fellow at the US State Department who is now disinformation fellow at Washington-based think tank the Wilson Centre.
“It would be difficult to hack all of [the US voting systems] at once, but you might not need to hack all of them at once. What you need to do is just cast doubt on to the vote tallying” in one race, said Jankowicz at a Wilson Centre event.
“Once you’ve cast that doubt, then people aren't going to trust in the results and we get into a very sticky situation as we’re trying to declare a winner.”
Chinese officials said earlier this year they have no interest in interfering in the fall elections, after Trump said in April that Beijing would do “anything they can” to thwart his re-election.
“We’ve made some sparing investments in our election infrastructure, but I think we need to do a lot more,” Jankowicz said.
“Unfortunately that issue has been politicised, but hopefully we’ve gotten up to the point where those basic security loopholes are not exploited ahead of the vote in November.”
We learn something every day, and lots of times it’s that what we learned the day before was wrong.