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Mosquito stuck in honey
Mosquito stuck in honey

Hi Tech and China: The Long Game re Spying in the United States

The relationship between California’s Eric Swalwell and Fang Fang could be a thriller. But they say it really happened

An investigative report from news site Axios reveals that Christine Fang (better known as Fang Fang), a fundraiser for Representative Eric Swalwell (D.–California), not only interacted with political elites in California but cultivated relationships with two Midwestern governors. She is also accused of being a spy for China from 2011 to 2015. This story adds to the growing evidence that China is playing the long-game of influencing American politics: Start with promising figures at the bottom, not at the top:

The case demonstrates China’s strategy of cultivating relationships that may take years or even decades to bear fruit. The Chinese Communist Party knows that today’s mayors and city council members are tomorrow’s governors and members of Congress.”

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian and Zach Dorfman, “Exclusive: Suspected Chinese Spy Targeted California Politicians” at Axios (December 8, 2020)

Reporters Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian and Zach Dorfman of the Aspen Institute worked for a year tracking down Fang’s deft infiltration of elite political circles in the US. That included, we are told, discussions with four current and former US intelligence officials and twenty-two current and former elected officials, political operatives, and former students who knew Fang. The story is a spy thriller waiting to be made.

Through campaign fundraising, extensive networking, personal charisma, and romantic or sexual relationships with at least two Midwestern mayors, Fang was able to gain proximity to political power, according to current and former US intelligence officials and one former elected official.”

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian and Zach Dorfman, “Exclusive: Suspected Chinese Spy Targeted California Politicians” at Axios (December 8, 2020)

Fang did not likely gain access to classified information. But what she did gain was just as important: Extensive access to private information about government officials. That type of information can be used for blackmail and for gaining either physical or digital access to government offices.

She reportedly worked with the Ministry of State Security (MSS), China’s civilian intelligence agency, which is reputed for its secrecy. I’ve written about the MSS before. Last July the US Department of Justice formally accused two Chinese hackers, who worked with the MSS, of hacking both private companies and government organizations . FBI Director Christopher Wray noted recently at a Hudson Institute presentation that, of their 5,000 active counterintelligence cases, half are related to China and that Chinese theft is “on a scale so massive that it represents one of the largest transfers of wealth in human history.”

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Eric-Swalwell-public-domain.jpg

Cyberespionage and undercover operatives go hand-in-hand. Gaining insight into who interacts with politicians on a regular basis is a common espionage strategy to collect as much information as possible about businesses, technology, and politics. According to Director Wray:

“China is engaged in a highly sophisticated malign foreign influence campaign, and its methods include bribery, blackmail, and covert deals. Chinese diplomats also use both open, naked economic pressure and seemingly independent middlemen to push China’s preferences on American officials.”

Christopher Wray, “The Threat Posed by the Chinese Government and the Chinese Communist Party to the Economic and National Security of the United States ” at FBI News

The Chinese government has been trying to influence regulations on AI and surveillance at the UN and other global bodies, possibly because its recent five-year plan focuses heavily on AI and technology. US intelligence sources believes that Fang was not only trying to get intel but also to sway politicians to vote on pro-China measures. One focus has been on politicians in California, which is home to the United States’ largest tech companies.

Fang forecast that Eric Stalwell would go far. She first became interested in him when he was a council member in Dublin City, California. He eventually became one of the youngest members elected to the US House of Representatives, part of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and the lead Democrat on the subcommittee on CIA oversight.

Why high tech matters so much

Fang was apparently working with another MSS agent in the San Francisco Bay Area of California, the home of Silicon Valley. That’s no surprise. Xi Jinping, China’s president, said in the recent five-year plan speech that China seeks to lead the world in artificial intelligence technology, where the US is still the leader. For global platforms, most of the world outside of China uses Silicon Valley rather than China’s alternatives such as WeChat, Weibo, Douyin, etc. Thus, China has had its eye on US tech companies for some time and San Francisco, in particular has been a target for spies.

Fang, for her part, appears to have used all avenues to build a network and boost her reputation in political circles, including the use of social media to build a persona:

Fang’s Facebook friends list is a virtual who’s who of local Bay Area politicos, and includes city council members, current and former mayors, Khanna, and Swalwell’s father and brother. “She positioned herself “to be the connector between the Asian American community and members of Congress,” recalled a Bay Area political operative who knew her.

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian and Zach Dorfman, “Exclusive: Suspected Chinese Spy Targeted California Politicians” at Axios (December 8, 2020)

Around 2015, US officials alerted the White House and several state government departments about Fang and, in the midst of an FBI probe, she suddenly left for China. She has apparently not talked to her contacts in the US since then.

The San Francisco Bay Area was an ideal place to begin an espionage operation, for several reasons. California has the largest economy in the United States, which means that it often tips the scales in US trade deals with other nations. Many politicians who went on to national prominence have started in California. Additionally, the Bay Area politicians are largely Democrats. That meant that China could make inroads by exploiting long-existing tensions between Bay Area Democrats and the FBI. This fact alone demonstrates China’s understanding of political nuances that reach back to storied issues of the 1960s and 1970s.

Finally, the Bay Area has one of the largest Chinese-American communities in the US. The Chinese government has no qualms about surveilling Chinese citizens living abroad and threatening them that they had best cooperate with the Chinese government—or risk backlash against family members still living in China. In a 2018 article on the extent of Chinese and Russian espionage in Silicon Valley, Dorfman says US Intelligence officials told him,

Chinese officials, in particular, often cajole or outright threaten Chinese nationals (or U.S. citizens with family members in China) working or studying locally to provide them with valuable technological information.

“You get into situations where you have really good, really bright, conscientious people, twisted by their home government,” said a chief security officer at a major cloud storage company that maintains sensitive government contracts. U.S.-based Chinese employees of this company have had Chinese government officials attempt to “leverage” these individuals’ family members in China, this person told me.

Zach Dorfman, “How Silicon Valley Became a Den of Spies” at Politico.com (July 27, 2018)
The“honey trap” is only to be used abroad, not at home

In espionage lingo, a “honey trap” is a spy (usually female) who uses sexual and romantic relationships to obtain information. Interestingly, in April 2016, about a year after Fang left the US, the Chinese government sponsored a “National Security Education Day.” As part of their security training, female government employees were warned to look out for foreigners who could be spies trying to obtain information.

The campaign included posters labeled “Dangerous Love” depicting cartoon characters. Xiao Li is a state employee, and David is red-haired and distinctly Western in appearance . Interestingly, the campaign focused on female Chinese state employees, not male employees, although—for demographic reasons alone—one might have expected a greater focus on warning men against honey traps than on warning women.

Since the Axios report on December 8, the issues have descended into partisanship, with calls to investigate Swalwell on one side and accusations that the report stemmed from Swalwell’s criticism of the White House on the other. Axios’ Editor-in-Chief Nicholas Johnson has stated on Twitter that his publication tried to contact Swalwell multiple times, and emphasized that it is independent, nonpartisan, and not politically motivated.

Despite political tensions, the key takeaway is: The Chinese Communist Party focuses on US technology and seeks to make inroads with up-and-coming politicians. That includes using everything from cyberespionage to old-fashioned secret agents and spy methods that are the stuff of thrillers to obtain information and influence laws and regulations that favor China. Technology chiefs should remain aware of that fact.

Here’s one version of the story, which offers a look at Fang Fang:

Further reading:

China’s door-to-door census now identifies religious believers. Heather Zeiger: Census takers are urged to keep their eyes open for evidence of religious activity. Rewriting the Bible so that Jesus stones a woman to death is intended to teach students that the Party is all-powerful, even if corrupt.

Heather Zeiger

Heather Zeiger is a freelance science writer in Dallas, TX. She has advanced degrees in chemistry and bioethics and writes on the intersection of science, technology, and society. She also serves as a research analyst with The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity. Heather writes for bioethics.com, Salvo Magazine, and her work has appeared in RelevantMercatorNet, Quartz, and The New Atlantis.

Hi Tech and China: The Long Game re Spying in the United States