China’s spying policies are shooting itself in the foot

On September 3, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported that Chinese nationals, occasionally feigning as tourists, have entered military bases and classified locations in the U.S. up to 100 times in recent years, quoting officials who lambasted the episodes as possible espionage risks. 

In 2022, the U.S. Defense Department, FBI and other agencies conducted an assessment to restrict these incidents that entailed gatecrashers entering military bases without proper permission, the same WSJ report said.

Moreover, these episodes that happened in remote areas with limited tourism usually encompassed Chinese nationals who had to report back to the Chinese government, the report elaborated, citing officials acquainted with the matter.  

Likewise, on September 10, British news outlet The Sunday Times reported the arrest of a British parliamentary employee for alleged spying for Beijing. The male suspect had spent some time living and working in China, where he might have been hired as an agent of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under the current leadership of authoritarian leader Xi Jinping. 

Furthermore, the same paper continued that the suspect, who it portrayed as supposedly culpable for “one of the most damaging breaches of security involving a hostile state at Westminster,” is believed to be connected to various senior Tory MPs, such as “several” who are “privy to classified or highly sensitive information.”

In turn, the accused has maintained that he is “completely innocent”, with The Daily Telegraph citing him positing that his career has been focused on unearthing the “threat” by the CCP.

Tory MP Sir Iain Duncan Smith, who has long been opposed to the UK’s relationship with China (such that the alleged spy was reported to have “[had] a particular issue” with him), declared that the case must be taken seriously. 

Smith wrote: “If true, this is very serious and of great concern. It shows that we cannot afford to be complacent about the threat that the CCP poses to the function of Parliament and our democratic way of life.”

Another man was also arrested at a similar time on suspicion of espionage-related offenses. Both arrests were conducted under the Official Secrets Act.

When a balloon was found lingering above sensitive military installations in the U.S., the CCP denied any allegations of spying, stating instead that the giant orb was only a meteorological balloon that had drifted off-course. 

However, investigations have shown that the balloon, around 60 meters (197 feet) in height, was self-propelling, and had been directed to float over the missile bases.

Various other unidentified objects in North American skies have been shot down, amid reports of balloon sightings in Colombia, Venezuela, Costa Rica, India and the Philippines.

Additionally, the CCP controls the data of Chinese firms to capitalize on Chinese-owned social media and telecommunications giants, such as in the case of TikTok, a popular short video app owned by Chinese tech giant ByteDance.

Characterized by U.S. intelligence leaders as a “national security threat” and castigated by security specialists as a “weaponized military application,” TikTok has censored stories at the behest of the CCP and has given them access to U.S. users’ data, as CCP law requires that Chinese firms supply data to the regime upon request.

ByteDance employees tapped on geolocation data from TikTok to unlawfully stalk American journalists suspected to be reporting on the company. Washington has also clamped down on other Chinese firms, including Huawei and ZTE, on the same grounds of national security. 

In 2021, a top U.S. counterintelligence agency cautioned that Chinese biotechnology companies’ partnerships with American institutes to obtain clinical and genetic data of U.S. citizens undermined national security. This is because such widespread DNA collection conducted by companies like genome-sequencing firm BGI could be used in multiple ways against the U.S., as per congressional reports.

CCP-linked firms have been buying strategic expanses of American land, inciting panic that the CCP could stage espionage activities or otherwise threaten national security interests. 

For example, Sun Guangxin, a Chinese billionaire who bought 140,000 acres of Texas land, enjoys close relations with the CCP and has supposedly employed many Chinese government and military officials.

For its part, Beijing’s highly secretive Ministry of State Security unveiled a public account on WeChat in August, urging “all members of society” to join its combat against domestic espionage by foreign interests, dangling rewards and offering protection for informants. 

Titled “Countering espionage requires the mobilization of all members of society,” the ministry announced that national security bodies should keep reporting channels, such as hotlines and online platforms, open to tackle reports of suspected espionage within China in a swift manner. 

The aforementioned instances are merely the tip of the iceberg documenting the CCP’s numerous attempts to spy on and garner information as part of its ambition to widen its global clout and stature, while simultaneously preventing foreign agents from doing exactly the same thing within China. 

The Chinese communist regime also has a long track record of spying on its own citizens. 

For one, the CCP’s use of facial recognition cameras throughout the country, for example in Xinjiang province to track the movement of the Uyghurs. 

To counter the CCP’s tentacles all over the world, Australian defense specialist, Michael Shoebridge, director at Strategic Analysis Australia, contended that governments may step up espionage efforts in China to tackle an increasingly opaque CCP leadership.

“As Xi Jinping closes China to foreign journalists and academics and makes it harder for foreign businesses to operate there, there will be an increasing drive by other countries’ government agencies to get sources inside Chinese institutions and organizations,” Shoebridge declared.

“Unlike Beijing’s efforts overseas, that is far less likely to involve trying to interfere in politics and decision making in China and be much more focused on gaining information and insights about the opaque workings of the CCP and those around Xi. 

“Sowing discord and magnifying dissent inside countries, their parliaments, and governments is a tactic that Beijing—and its strategic partner Russia—see as effective and useful, so they will do more of it. 

“Overall, Beijing’s aggressive intelligence gathering and foreign interference activities will continue to be a destabilizing factor in Australia and many other nations’ relationships with China—and will disrupt even the most careful attempts at calm and constructive relationship building by showing the dark side of Beijing’s goals and activities.”

Shoebridge added that certain episodes, such as the one when a Chinese academic was supposedly offered US$2,000 in cash by the Australian Federal Police for information, could provoke panic in Beijing about traveling Chinese individuals posing as security risks when back home.

“This will reinforce Xi’s mindset around control,” he said.

Another fear as a result of CCP espionage activities is that such scandals would adversely impair the trust by pro-freedom governmental and non-governmental organizations as well as Chinese dissidents. 

Dissidents who are critical of the CCP regime but are nevertheless of Chinese origin might feel jeopardized, both in China and overseas, as governments increase their suspicions of those of Chinese origins. 

In the British Parliament – where MPs can leverage the stories of dissidents to contest the status quo, Chinese dissidents could be less willing to step out and reveal information about the Beijing authoritarian regime. 

Undeniably, China’s recent anti-espionage law has also ruffled feathers among businessmen and foreign investors. A senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, Elisabeth Braw, wrote in an article for The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) that foreign businesses have found it challenging to procure insurance policies that cover political risks for their China ventures.

The insurance firms are thus leaving China owing to worries that range “from political interference in companies’ operation all the way up to war with Taiwan,” Braw asserted in an interview with VOA’s Mandarin Service.

Reports that Mintz Group, an American research consultancy firm, had been fined US$1.5 million for research that Chinese authorities had not authorized in advance only serve to augment investors’ worries about China’s heavy-handed and increasingly authoritarian environment. 

In March, Mintz Group verified that Chinese authorities had detained the five staff members in its Beijing office and closed down the company’s operations there. Reuters also pointed out that the raid happened on March 20 while employees were being kept incommunicado at venues outside Beijing.

On July 5, Beijing authorities declared the seizure of US$730,000 that Mintz Group had earned “illegally” and added that the company had been fined an equal amount.

There is little wonder that China has been described as a “pariah state” for global investors. And it has been Xi’s increasingly stringent political policies that have been China’s own undoing.

Photo credit: iStock/BeeBright

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