In an unprecedented move, the head of the FBI, Christopher Wray, and the head of Britain's domestic intelligence agency, the MI5, Ken McCallum, came together in July to warn against the "massive" threat that both intelligence services consider China presents.
"We consistently see that it's the Chinese government that poses the biggest long-term threat to our economic and national security, and by 'our', I mean both of our nations, along with our allies in Europe and elsewhere," Wray said in a joint address by the two directors at the London headquarters of MI5.
"Today is the first time the heads of the FBI and MI5 have shared a public platform," McCallum said. "We're doing so to send the clearest signal we can on a massive shared challenge: China."
"The most game-changing challenge we face comes from the Chinese Communist Party," McCallum said. "It's covertly applying pressure across the globe."
The two intelligence directors listed a number of threats that they consider the greatest currently emanating from China. Both directors emphasized that one of the greatest challenges to Western economies is China's theft of Western technology through a variety of means.
Wray made it clear that China uses "intelligence officers to target valuable private sector information -- multiplying their efforts by working extensively through scores of 'co-optees,' people who aren't technically Chinese government officials but assist in intelligence operations, spotting and assessing sources to recruit, providing cover and communications, and helping steal secrets in other ways."
Wray also mentioned how China's Ministry of State Security (MSS) uses its regional bureaus to "key in specifically on the innovation of certain Western companies it wants to ransack. And I'm talking about companies everywhere from big cities to small towns -- from Fortune 100s to start-ups, folks that focus on everything from aviation, to AI, to pharma. We've even caught people affiliated with Chinese companies out in the U.S. heartland, sneaking into fields to dig up proprietary, genetically modified seeds, which would have cost them nearly a decade and billions in research to develop themselves."
Wray was most likely referring to the FBI's case against Mo Hailong, a Chinese national who was sent to the US by China's Dabeinong Technology Group, a company that makes feed products and is closely connected to the Chinese government. In the US, he collected thousands of inbred corn seeds from fields in Iowa and elsewhere owned by the Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer companies and then shipped the seeds back to China. As part of his operations, Hailong had also purchased two farms in Iowa and Illinois. He was sentenced to three years in prison and a fine.
China also steals from the West through cyber hacking. Wray described China as operating a "lavishly resourced hacking program that's bigger than that of every other major country combined. The Chinese Government sees cyber as the pathway to cheat and steal on a massive scale."
Wray emphasized that effectively all Chinese companies are in the pockets of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP):
"To start with, a whole lot of Chinese companies are owned by the Chinese government -- effectively the Chinese Communist Party. And often that ownership is indirect and not advertised. And those that aren't owned outright are effectively beholden to the government all the same, as Chinese companies of any size are required to host a Communist Party cell to keep them in line. So, when you deal with a Chinese company, know you're also dealing with the Chinese government -- that is, the MSS and the PLA [People's Liberation Army] -- too, almost like silent partners."
Wray unconditionally warned businesses against partnering with Chinese companies:
"Maintaining a technological edge may do more to increase a company's value than would partnering with a Chinese company to sell into that huge Chinese market, only to find the Chinese government, and your 'partner,' stealing and copying your innovation, setting up a Chinese competitor, backed by its government, that is soon undercutting you -- not just in China, but everywhere."
Such straight talk from the head of the FBI should be enough to put a stop to any doubts about the security risks that Chinese companies pose to US national security. Under debate, nevertheless, is the purchase by China's Fufeng Group of agricultural land in North Dakota, just 12 miles from the vital Grand Forks Air Force Base. The deal has caused concerns that the purchased land could be used to spy on the base, as China most likely has done on other bases.
Since December 2021, when the city of Grand Forks announced that the Chinese company would be buying the land, such national security concerns, however, have still not been enough for the deal to be cancelled.
Additionally, there is widespread Chinese theft and spying in academia, which Wray and McCallum mention only briefly. In Europe, for instance, European scientists have been empowering China's military by sharing "militarily sensitive knowledge with the Chinese army on a large scale." Out of an astounding 353,000 scientific collaborations between Europe and China around 3,000 had taken place with the Chinese military, defined as "studies where scientists from Western European universities collaborated with Chinese colleagues directly linked to an institute that is part of the Chinese army."
Despite the massive threat that China poses, the Biden administration nevertheless ended the Department of Justice's "China Initiative" in February 2022. That same month, the head of the FBI said in an interview that Chinese spying had become so prevalent in the US that on average, the FBI was opening on average two counterintelligence investigations a day, with more than 2,000 such cases already underway.
China's theft of sensitive information and technology, economic espionage and other forms of trade secret theft; working against China's malicious cyber activity and its malign foreign influence operations and China's foreign intelligence operations in the United States, to name just a few.
Speaking in November 2020, then Attorney General William P. Barr said:
"In the last year, the Department has made incredible strides in countering the systemic efforts by the PRC to enhance its economic and military strength at America's expense. While much work remains to be done, the Department is committed to holding to account those who would steal, or otherwise illicitly obtain, the U.S. intellectual capital that will propel the future."
The Biden administration, however, claimed that the China Initiative gave rise to the wrong "perceptions" and therefore ended it. According to Assistant Attorney General for National Security Matthew Olsen:
"By grouping cases under the China Initiative rubric, we helped give rise to a harmful perception that the department applies a lower standard to investigate and prosecute criminal conduct related to that country or that we in some way view people with racial, ethnic or familial ties to China differently."
Instead, Olsen said, the administration would be using a "broader approach one that looks across all of these threats [from China, Russia, and Iran; ed.] and uses all of our authorities to combat them."
All right. Where is it? No need to shut down the China Initiative; just increase investigations of other threats, which the US should presumably be doing anyway.
The unmistakable signal that the Biden administration sent to China by closing down the China Initiative was one of weakness -- again -- this time, underscoring that the US does not consider countering China a priority at a time when China, according to two international prominent intelligence directors -- is unquestionably the greatest threat to US interests.
Could there be a signal to an intransigent adversary more dangerous than that?
John Richardson is a researcher based in the United States.