Intelligence: FBI Advertises For Chinese Informants

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July 20, 2007: The FBI has been taking a more direct approach to dealing with increased Chinese espionage efforts. This has been in the form of ads run in Chinese language newspapers in San Francisco. The ads ask Chinese-Americans to provide more tips on the spying activities of Chinese diplomats, and members of Chinese state security. The official Chinese response to the ads was to condemn the FBI for trying to make China look like a threat, and reviving Cold War hysteria.

There are a growing number of prosecutions, and convictions, of Chinese citizens, and Chinese-Americans caught up in what the Chinese call the "a thousand grains of sand" espionage system. Basically, China tries to get all Chinese going overseas, and those of Chinses 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.

Chinese intelligence officials try to have a talk with Chinese students and business people before they leave the country to study or do business, and after they come back as well. Those going to the West are asked to bring back anything that might "help the motherland." 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 soon became open knowledge in China, and in Western intelligence agencies, 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. 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. 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. They all have family back in China, and are thus vulnerable to getting recruited, usually unwillingly, as one of the "thousand grains of sand." Or perhaps "million grains of sand" would be more accurate. 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.

 


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