A Chinese born man, Xiaodong
Sheldon Meng pled guilty this week to stealing source code for American
military flight simulators and selling it to China. The FBI and CIA have
detected hundreds of such attempts to steal American military technology in the
last eight years. That information led to over 400 formal investigations, and
hundreds of arrests and prosecutions. Even with that, it appears that far more
military technology is illegally making its way to China.
Thousands of Chinese citizens, and
Chinese-Americans caught up in what the Chinese call the "thousand grains of
sand" espionage system. Basically, China tries to get all Chinese going
overseas, and those of Chinsese ancestry living outside the motherland, to spy
for China, if only a tiny bit. This approach to espionage is nothing new. Other
nations have used similar systems for centuries. What is unusual is the scale
of the Chinese effort.
Backing it all up is a Chinese intelligence
bureaucracy back home that is huge, with nearly 100,000 people working just to
keep track of the many Chinese overseas, and what they could, or should, be to
trying to grab for the motherland. It begins when Chinese intelligence
officials examining who is going overseas, and for what purpose. Chinese citizens
cannot leave the country, legally, without the state security organizations
being notified. The intel people are not being asked to give permission. They
are being alerted in case they want to have a talk with students, tourists or
business people before they leave the country. Interviews are often held when
these people come back as well. Those who might be coming in contact with
useful information are asked to remember what they saw, or bring back
souvenirs. Over 100,000 Chinese students go off to foreign universities each
year. Even more go abroad as tourists or on business. Most of these people were
not asked to actually act as spies, but simply to share, with Chinese
government officials (who are not always identified as intelligence personnel)
whatever information they obtained.
Of course, it's long been common knowledge in
China, and in Western intelligence agencies, about what was going on. Quiet diplomatic efforts,
over the years, to get the Chinese to back off, were politely ignored. Another
problem is that China has never been energetic at enforcing intellectual
property laws. If a Chinese student came back with valuable technical
information (obtained in a classroom, in a job, or simply while socializing),
the data was often passed on to Chinese companies, or military organizations,
that could use it in new products. Since there were few individual Chinese
bringing back a lot of data, or material (CDs full of technical data, or actual
components or devices), it was difficult for the foreign counterintelligence
agencies to catch Chinese spies. There were thousands of them, and most were
simply going back to China with secrets in their heads. How do you stop that?
Some of the more ambitious of these spies have been
caught red handed with actual objects (CDs, memory sticks, paper documents).
But most of the information moves back to China unhindered, in tiny pieces.
Naturally, the Chinese push their system as far as they can. Why not? There is
little risk. The Chinese offer large cash rewards for Chinese who could get
particularly valuable stuff back to China. Chinese intelligence looked on these
"purchases" as strictly commercial transactions. If the Chinese spies
got caught, they were on their own. The Chinese involved knew the rules. If you
were successful, you also won favor with the government, and the Chinese
government was agreeable to whatever business deals you later tried to put
together back in China. This kind of clout is important in China, where a
"friend in the government" is more valuable than in the West.
But more and more of these ambitious Chinese agents
are getting caught because it is becoming known, to the Western business and
academic community, what is going on. There are over ten million Americans and
Europeans of Chinese ancestry. Many are recent immigrants, or simply students
or people working in Canada temporarily for Chinese companies. Most have family
back in China, and are thus vulnerable to getting recruited, usually
unwillingly, as one of the "grains of sand."
Many of these overseas Chinese are not comfortable
about betraying their new homelands, and in the U.S., the FBI is taking
advantage of that. This is making the Chinese espionage effort less useful.
Some of the information coming back has been planted by the FBI, to confuse the
Chinese. That's also been part of the intel game for a long time. But, at the
moment, the Chinese are way ahead on points.