Why the Chinese ‘spies’ the White House sent home were the wrong ones

September 2, 2015
A combination photo of five military officers of China's People's Liberation Army

A combination photo shows five Chinese military officers who the U.S. has accused of cyber espionage. REUTERS/FBI/Handout via Reuters

With Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit rapidly approaching, a testy exchange between American and Chinese officials over undeclared Chinese law enforcement personnel operating on U.S. soil will likely add to the friction between the two powers.

According to the New York Times — and confirmed by China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency — the Obama administration told China to stop using members of its Ministry of Public Security to seek out Chinese citizens who had fled to the United States with large amounts of allegedly ill-gotten cash — and then pressure the embezzlers to return home. While the United States has cooperated in other extradition cases, it refused to allow Chinese law enforcement officials to use threats and coercive tactics to get the fugitives to “voluntarily” return to China.

Despite the fact that China has subsequently recalled these operatives, Beijing will continue to maintain a large and very active espionage presence in the United States. While some media outlets have referred to the departing individuals as “spies,” they are actually police officers. The actual spies aren’t going anywhere, and expelling these officers will have virtually no impact on China’s spying in the United States.

While events like the recently disclosed hack of the Office of Personnel Management get most of the media attention, China’s human intelligence operations are extensive and arguably more damaging, as they can involve not only intellectual property, but sensitive military information. Recent espionage cases against Chinese operatives show that the efforts are massive, well-planned and persistent.

China plans and executes its efforts over a very long time frame, using the student visa process to place sleepers in universities throughout the country. The scope of this effort is difficult to estimate, but given that one of every three foreign students in the United States holds a Chinese passport, it is bound to be quite large. This method for infiltrating academia is also nearly impossible to stop without doing an unacceptable level of harm to the admissions process for foreign students.

These cases often involve Chinese citizens who arrive as graduate students, subsequently obtaining employment in targeted industries. For example, in an effort lasting more than a decade, three Chinese men formed a network while attending graduate school in the United States, subsequently taking jobs at two small firms that manufacture mobile phone technology. They subsequently stole the technology and attempted to set up a company with three others at Tianjin University. One of the six conspirators has been arrested, while the other five remain in China.

The case of Larry Wu-Tai Chin shows an even longer horizon. Chin began working for the U.S. Army as a translator in 1948. He continued working for the U.S. government for more than three decades, becoming a U.S. citizen along the way. In 1986 he was convicted of espionage, but committed suicide in prison before he could be sentenced.

China also uses joint ventures to extract trade secrets from U.S. companies. Business regulations make it very difficult for foreign firms to operate independently in China. The only efficient way to operate in China is via a joint venture with a Chinese firm. These arrangements generally require some level of technology transfer, but foreign firms have to go to great lengths to protect intellectual property that they do not wish to share. Most companies that I have visited spend more money securing themselves from their Chinese partners than they spend to defend against external threats.

While all countries spy, the confrontational tone taken by the Obama administration suggests that China has crossed a line. The FBI has stated that industrial espionage cases are skyrocketing, with as much as 95 percent of the activity coming from China. Such a public pushback, with a high-profile arrest, expulsion of operatives, and a New York Times article indicate that the Obama administration is fed up. However, it is unlikely that the public expressions of anger, or the FBI’s unusual effort to educate businesses that face a high threat level, will do much good.

During the Xi visit the Obama administration should convey that continued use of study as a cover for espionage will eventually lead to difficulty for Chinese graduates to find employment in the United States. This will happen not due to any organized profiling, but simply because companies will not wish to risk losing billions of dollars in intellectual property by hiring a Chinese student.









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This begs the question of why we’re letting in Chinese nationals on such a huge scale into the United States. At this point, we’re just educating the enemy and providing an intelligence bonanza to the enemy.

But this is the United States, everything revolves around individual gain. Collective security be damned.

Posted by Concerned122 | Report as abusive

I am certain that we have not turned any double agents and that we do not spy on them.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive


It has been a long-standing American policy to influence China through education. The implementation of the Boxer Indemnity Scholarship Program started this campaign more than 100 years ago.

Posted by Kailim | Report as abusive

“All coutries spy” is a slight understatement. USA has been caught spying on Angela Merkel, Shino Abe among other world prominent figures. One can only guess what kind of spy network or espionage presence US has in China. Fair game.

Posted by Thompson12 | Report as abusive