Have Chinese Spies Infiltrated American Campuses?
Last week we wrote a detailed piece of how the world is splitting down the middle as Cold War II kicks off – see https://marcellus.in/blogs/
If you want to understand how the innards of the last forty years of co-operation between America and China are being ripped apart at a rapid rate you should read this riveting long article in the New Yorker. When you finish reading the article you will mourn the passing of era and brace yourself for Cold War II.
The article focuses on the rapid ramp up in the efforts of the US intelligence authorities to crack down on alleged industrial & scientific espionage by scientists and scholars of Chinese/American descent. The New Yorker begins by reminding us that such intelligence ops focused on a specific group of people aren’t knew – they have happened before repeatedly in the US: “After the war, J. Robert Oppenheimer, who had presided over the Manhattan Project, expressed reservations about the development of the hydrogen bomb. His enemies, referring to his associations with the Communist Party, accused him of being a spy. President Eisenhower, unconvinced, nonetheless ordered a “blank wall” erected between Oppenheimer and any nuclear secrets, and his scientific career was effectively put to rest.
Private companies were still generally left to their own devices. But in 1996 Bill Clinton signed the Economic Espionage Act, making the theft of trade secrets—an active pursuit of at least two dozen countries—a federal crime. The law was most proximately motivated by anxiety about Japan’s technological prosperity; according to one account, Japanese industrial spies occupied two complete floors of a Manhattan skyscraper.”
The Japanese are no longer the bogeymen in the US. Under Donald Trump, the Chinese were named as the new bogeymen: “When Trump came to power, he was quick to ring the alarm about China, which he said was “raping our country.” In November, 2018, Sessions held a press conference to announce the China Initiative. Our innovations, he said, “can be stolen by computer hackers or carried out the door by an employee in a matter of minutes.” As a showpiece, Sessions—who would be fired by Trump six days later—unveiled an indictment alleging that spies had targeted an Idaho-based maker of semiconductors. This was the first such program to be dedicated to the actions of a single country. Trump reportedly said at the time, of people from China, “Almost every student that comes over to this country is a spy.”” The article in the New Yorker then focuses on the first Chinese/American academic to be arrested under this China Initiative launched by Trump – a man called “Franklin Tao, a forty-seven-year-old chemistry professor at the University of Kansas”.
In August 2019 Tao visited China and spent the summer caring for his ailing mother. When he returned to Kansas City the FBI arrested him. What had he done wrong? “Tao was arrested under a program called the China Initiative, begun by Donald Trump’s Department of Justice in 2018 to combat Chinese espionage. According to Jeff Sessions, the Attorney General who launched the Initiative, China had designs on American scientific prowess, and was running missions against targets “like research labs and universities.” In the summer of 2019, an F.B.I. agent told a magistrate judge that the Bureau had received tips from multiple sources that fingered Tao as an instrument of the Chinese state. The evidence suggested that Tao had concealed an affiliation with a talent-recruitment program in China, which had secured him a shadow post at Fuzhou University. Tao was indicted for having failed to disclose his Chinese ties, but to the prosecutors he was a clandestine agent who got off easy. Tony Mattivi, then an Assistant U.S. Attorney in Kansas, told me that the arrest had put an end to an ongoing intelligence operation: “We disrupted the transfer of American intellectual property to China by discontinuing Dr. Tao’s ability to transfer that information.”
Whilst the New Yorker tries to give you both sides of the story, the US Government is clear about its stance about Chinese/American scientists: “The D.O.J. had been emboldened by the successful prosecution of more straightforward cases of industrial espionage. In 2013, Xu Yanjun, a senior operative in Jiangsu Province’s Ministry for State Security, reached out, under various aliases, to experts at American aerospace companies, offering them paid travel expenses and stipends to give presentations at Chinese universities. In 2017, he narrowed in on an employee at G.E. Aviation, seeking information related to composite fan blades used in jet engines, which the Chinese had been unable to replicate. The employee contacted the F.B.I., which instructed him to hand over dummy documents and eventually to arrange a meeting in Belgium, where Xu was arrested. For the Administration, such activity was only the most visible aspect of a more submerged menace. In 2018, Christopher Wray, the director of the F.B.I., testified before the Senate that China represented a “whole-of-society threat,” and that its intelligence efforts were now exploiting “nontraditional collectors—especially in the academic setting, whether it’s professors, scientists, students.”…
In 2015, the physicist Xiaoxing Xi was arrested at gunpoint in front of his family for sending sensitive blueprints to Chinese colleagues; he faced eighty years in prison. It later came out that the F.B.I. hadn’t bothered to consult anyone trained to read the blueprints, which were actually for something anodyne. Classified research occurs at national laboratories; most college professors couldn’t understand what their work—which was invariably destined for open publication—had to do with national security. “When the F.B.I. people left the room, everyone looked around at each other and said, ‘They have no idea how science works,’ ” a former senior State Department official told me. “ ‘We don’t have trade secrets and we don’t work on anything that’s classified.’”…
In the wake of Tao’s arrest, the China Initiative seemed to have found its footing. In an interview with Politico, Demers urged U.S. Attorneys’ offices to pursue at least one or two cases a yeGideon Lewis-Krausar, which was taken as a de-facto expectation, if not a quota. The cases might be complex, Demers noted, but “we wanted to signal to the U.S. Attorneys that we understood that, and nonetheless we wanted them to focus their resources on this, and that we were going to approve these charges”…
Michael German, a former F.B.I. agent, told me, “The F.B.I. will say, ‘If you look at our cases, people of Chinese origin are overrepresented,’ but that’s not measuring spies—it’s measuring who the F.B.I. is investigating.” Either way, the appearance of selective prosecution has had broad ramifications. Ed Lazowska, a computer scientist at the University of Washington, told me that one of the best young faculty members in his department fled to the private sector lest he come under scrutiny.”