A Chinese born naturalized American citizen (Wei Chen) has been arrested and charged with copying secret files from a Department of Defense network to a thumb drive while employed as a U.S. Army Systems Administrator in Kuwait. Chen tried to conceal the illegal copying by editing the system logs he had access to. But new security procedures, put into place since several high profile losses of data via illegal copying, set off an alert that prompted an investigation. Eventually this revealed that in 2010, when Chen applied for a security job to become an army systems administrator, he did not reveal that he had joined the Chinese Army when he was 18 and served from 1971 to 1976. It was not unusual for Chinese men of that generation to have served in the military but leaving it off a security clearance application is illegal and raised more suspicions. Chen had received a degree in Industrial Automation from a Chinese university in 1981 and moved to the United States a few years later.
No more details of this case have been revealed but as it stands now Chen could be sent to jail for fifteen years. The way these situations usually develop Chen and the government may be negotiating a deal that would have Chen spend less time in jail in return for more details about who he was working for or with.
American intelligence and counter-intelligence agencies have increasingly been paying close attention to Chinese born American scientists and technical personnel, seeking out the minority that use their access to American technology secrets to either give or sell this valuable material to government or commercial organizations in China. This is all part of extensive Chinese intelligence efforts to steal American technology. This has gotten so bad that the American president, during a recent meeting with his Chinese counterpart, demanded that the Chinese stop using Chinese in the United States for espionage.
The Chinese are not likely to stop as China sees this kind of broad-spectrum intelligence gathering as a major operation and one they intend to keep going as long as possible. Thus since 2010 China has established eight National Intelligence Colleges in major universities. In effect, each school now has an "Espionage Department." With this, about 300 carefully selected applicants are accepted each year, to be trained as spies and intelligence operatives and future commanders of these operations. The college trained operatives expect to make a career out of stealing Western technology. China has found that espionage is an enormously profitable way to steal military and commercial secrets. While Chinese Cyber War operations in this area get a lot of publicity, the more conventional spying brings in a lot of stuff that is not reachable on the Internet.
One indicator of this effort is the fact that American counter-intelligence efforts are snagging more Chinese spies. But this is largely due to increased spying efforts by China, rather than more success by the FBI and CIA. This use of industrial espionage has played a large part in turning China into the mightiest industrial and military power on the planet.
Since the 1990s China has been attempting to do what the Soviet Union never accomplished: steal Western technology and then use it to move ahead of the West. The Soviets lacked the many essential supporting industries found in the West (founded and run by entrepreneurs) and was never able to get all the many pieces needed to match Western technical accomplishments. Soviet copies of American computers, for example, were crude, less reliable, and less powerful. It was the same with their jet fighters, tanks, and warships.
China gets around this by making it profitable for Western firms to set up factories in China, where Chinese managers and workers can be taught how to make things right. At the same time China allows thousands of their best students to go to the United States to study. While most of these students will stay in America, where there are better jobs and more opportunities, some will come back to China and bring American business and technical skills with them. Finally, China energetically uses the "thousand grains of sand" approach to espionage. This involves China trying to get all Chinese going overseas, and those of Chinese 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 trying to grab for the motherland. This is where many of the graduates of the National Intelligence College program will work.
It begins when Chinese intelligence officials examine 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. The more energetic among these amateur spies sometimes get caught and prosecuted. But the majority are quite casual and, individually, bring back relatively little but are almost impossible to catch.
Like the Russians, the Chinese are also employing the traditional methods, using people with diplomatic immunity to recruit spies, and offering cash, or whatever, to get people to sell them information. This is still effective and when combined with the "thousand grains of sand" methods, brings in lots of secrets. The final ingredient is a shadowy venture capital operation, sometimes called Project 863, which offers money for Chinese entrepreneurs who will turn the stolen technology into something real. No questions asked. If you can get back to China with the secrets you are home free and potentially very rich.
But there are some legal problems. When the Chinese steal some technology, and produce something that the Western victims can prove was stolen (via patents and prior use of the technology), legal action can make it impossible, or very difficult, to sell anything using the stolen tech outside of China. For that reason the Chinese like to steal military technology. This kind of stuff rarely leaves China. And in some cases, like manufacturing technology, there's an advantage to not selling it outside of China. Because China is still a communist dictatorship the courts do as they are told and they are rarely told to honor foreign patent claims. That, however, is beginning to change, as more Chinese firms patent new ideas and are demanding protection inside China and overseas. This, more than anything else, will reduce Chinese technology theft.