Chinese intelligence operations in the United States

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China is alleged to have begun a widespread effort to acquire U.S. military technology and classified information and the trade secrets of U.S. companies.[1][2] The Chinese government is accused of stealing trade secrets and technology, often from companies in the United States, to help support its long-term military and commercial development. China has been accused of using a number of methods to obtain U.S. technology (using U.S. law to avoid prosecution), including espionage, exploitation of commercial entities and a network of scientific, academic and business contacts.[3] Although it uses a network of contacts to collect information used to benefit Chinese businesses, each bit of information does not invite scrutiny or prosecution by the U.S. government. Espionage cases include Larry Wu-Tai Chin, Katrina Leung, Gwo-Bao Min, Chi Mak and Peter Lee.[4][5]

In addition to traditional espionage, China partners civilian Chinese companies with American businesses to acquire technology and economic data[6] and uses cyber spying to penetrate the computer networks of U.S. businesses and government agencies; an example is the December 2009 Operation Aurora.[7] U.S. law enforcement officials have identified China as the most active foreign power involved in the illegal acquisition of American technology.[8] On May 19, 2014, the United States Department of Justice announced that a Federal grand jury had indicted five People's Liberation Army officers for stealing confidential business information and intellectual property from U.S. commercial firms and planting malware on their computers.[1][2]


China is alleged to use a number of methods to operate in the United States.[9] Individuals attempt to obtain targeted information from open sources such as libraries, research institutions and unclassified databases.[9] Chinese travelers are recruited to carry out specific intelligence activities, and the Chinese government debriefs returnees from exchange programs, trade missions and scientific-cooperation programs.[10] Chinese citizens may be coerced to cooperate in acting classes.[11]

Partnerships between Chinese and foreign companies have been accused of existing solely to give Chinese defense industries access to advanced technology.[12] The regulatory and commercial environment in China pressures American and other foreign companies to transfer technology to their Chinese partner companies as part of doing business in the country.[12] Foreign companies provide technology, capital and manufacturing expertise to obtain access to Chinese markets,[12] and high-tech equipment is purchased by Chinese agents operating front organizations in Hong Kong.[10][12] Some items (computers, semiconductors, software, telecommunications devices, and integrated circuits)[12] may be used for military or civilian purposes.[13] China also uses state-run firms to purchase American companies with access to the targeted technology.[10]

China also accesses foreign technology through industrial espionage,[12] with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials rating China's industrial-espionage and theft operations as the leading threat to U.S. technological security.[14] Between October 2002 and January 2003 five Chinese businessmen were accused of illegally shipping equipment and trade secrets from California to China,[9] and U.S. officials prevented a Chinese man from shipping a new, high-speed computer used on classified projects (including nuclear-weapons development) from Sandia National Laboratories.[9]

Nuclear espionage[edit]

A 1999 United States House of Representatives Select Committee on U.S. National Security and Military and Commercial Concerns with the People's Republic of China report, known as the Cox Report, warned that China has stolen classified information on every thermonuclear warhead in the country's intercontinental ballistic missile arsenal.[15] Information is collected through espionage, reviews of U.S. technical and academic publications and interaction with U.S. scientists.[16] China tasks a large number of individuals to collect small pieces of information (which are collated and analyzed),[16] and individual agents can more easily escape suspicion. U.S. government personnel suspect that China's intelligence-gathering efforts directed towards the development of modern nuclear weapons are focused on the Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore, Sandia and Oak Ridge National Laboratories.[16] China is known to have stolen classified information on the W-56 Minuteman II ICBM, the W-62 Minuteman III ICBM, the W-70 Lance short-range ballistic missile (SRBM), the W-76 Trident C-4 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), the W-78 Minuteman III Mark 12A ICBM, the W-87 Peacekeeper ICBM and the W-88 Trident D-5 SLBM and weapon-design concepts and features.[17]


China conducts political and corporate espionage to access the networks of financial, defense and technology companies and research institutions in the United States.[18] Email attachments attempting to enter the networks of U.S. companies and organizations exploit security weaknesses in software.[18] A recipient opens an email attachment, apparently from a familiar source, containing a program which embeds in the recipient's computer. The remotely controlled program allows an attacker to access the recipient's email, send sensitive documents to specific addresses and turn on a web camera or microphone.[18]

In January 2010, Google reported "a highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure originating from China that resulted in the theft of intellectual property from Google".[19] According to investigators, the Google cyber-attack targeted the Gmail accounts of Chinese human-rights activists.[19] At least 34 other companies have been attacked, including Yahoo, Symantec, Adobe, Northrop Grumman and Dow Chemical.[18]

In January 2013, The New York Times reported that it was the victim of hacking attempts originating from China during the previous four months after it published an article on Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. According to the newspaper, the "attacks appear to be part of a broader computer espionage campaign against American news media companies that have reported on Chinese leaders and corporations."[20]

Chinese cyber-attacks seem to target strategic industries in which China lags;[18] attacks on defense companies target weapons-systems information, and attacks on technology companies seek source code critical to software applications.[18] Operation Aurora emphasized what senior U.S. government officials have called an increasingly serious cyber threat to critical industries.[18]

Amitai Etzioni of the Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies has suggested that cyberspace could be a fruitful realm for the United States and China to implement a policy of mutually assured restraint allowing both states to take measures they deem necessary for self-defense while agreeing to refrain from offensive steps. Such a policy would require oversight.[21]

Espionage cases[edit]

Larry Wu-Tai Chin[edit]

Larry Wu-Tai Chin worked in the U.S. intelligence community for nearly 35 years while providing China with classified information.[22] Chin was recruited as a spy by a Chinese Communist official in 1948; an interpreter at the U.S. consulate in Shanghai,[4] he was later hired by the CIA’s Foreign Broadcast Information Service. After he became an American citizen in 1965 he was transferred to Arlington, Virginia, where he had access to reports from intelligence agents abroad and translations of documents acquired by CIA officers in China.[4] Chin sold classified National Intelligence Estimates pertaining to China and Southeast Asia to China,[4] enabling the country to discover weaknesses in its intelligence agencies and compromise U.S. intelligence activities in the region. He provided sensitive information about Richard Nixon’s plans for normalizing relations with China two years before the president visited the country. In February 1986, Chin was convicted of 17 counts of espionage, conspiracy and tax evasion.[4]

Katrina Leung[edit]

In 1982 FBI special agent James Smith recruited Katrina Leung, a 28-year-old Chinese immigrant, to work in Chinese counterintelligence.[23] Leung, a prominent business consultant, was valued for her contacts with high-level Chinese officials.[4] Smith and Leung became involved in a sexual relationship lasting nearly two decades.[23] At this time, Smith made classified documents available to Leung; she copied them,[23] providing China with information on nuclear, military and political issues.[24] Another FBI agent, William Cleveland, also became sexually involved with Leung.[23]

Peter Lee[edit]

Lee, a physicist born in China who worked at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and later for TRW Inc., pleaded guilty to lying on security-clearance forms and passing classified national-defense information to Chinese scientists on business trips to Beijing.[25] He compromised classified weapons information, microwave submarine-detection technology and other national-defense data,[4] and the Department of Energy later concluded that his disclosure of classified information "was of significant material assistance to the PRC in their nuclear weapons development program ... This analysis indicated that Dr. Lee's activities have directly enhanced the PRC nuclear weapons program to the detriment of U.S. national security."[4]

Chi Mak[edit]

Chi Mak is a Chinese-born engineer who worked for L-3 Communications, a California-based defense contractor,[5] as a support engineer on Navy quiet-drive propulsion technology.[5] According to recovered documents, he was instructed by his Chinese contacts to join "more professional associations and participate in more seminars with 'special subject matters' and to compile special conference materials on disk".[5] He was instructed to gather information on space-based electromagnetic intercept systems, space-launched magnetic-levitation platforms, electromagnetic gun or artillery systems, submarine torpedoes, electromagnetic launch systems, aircraft carrier electronic systems, water-jet propulsion, ship submarine propulsion, power-system configuration technology, weapons-system modularization, technologies to defend against nuclear attack, shipboard electromagnetic motor systems, shipboard internal and external communications systems and information on the next generation of U.S. destroyers.[5] He photocopied thousands of documents before passing them onto his brother who would than fly to the PRC, acting as a courier. His brother was arrested at the airport with a briefcase full of documents and floppy-disk drives. In 2008, he was sentenced to a 24 12-year prison term for espionage.[26]

Moo Ko-Suen[edit]

In May 2006, Ko-Suen (Bill) Moo pleaded guilty to being a covert agent of China. Moo attempted to purchase United States military equipment to send to China when he was arrested by undercover United States agents. Some of the equipment included an F-16 fighter jet engine, an AGM-129A cruise missile, UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter engines and AIM-120 air-to-air missiles.[27]

Wen Ho Lee[edit]

Wen Ho Lee is a Taiwanese-American scientist who worked for the University of California at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. He created simulations of nuclear explosions for the purpose of scientific inquiry and to improve the safety and reliability of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. In December 1999, a federal grand jury indicted him of stealing secrets about the arsenal for China.

After federal investigators could not prove the initial accusations, the government conducted a separate investigation. It could only charge Lee with improper handling of restricted data, part of the original 59-count indictment to which he pleaded guilty as part of a plea bargain. In June 2006, Lee received $1.6 million from the federal government and five media organizations as partial settlement of a civil suit he filed against them for leaking his name to the press before charges were filed against him. According to Lee, federal judge James A. Parker apologized for denying him bail and putting him in solitary confinement.[citation needed]

Fei Ye and Ming Zhong[edit]

Fei Ye, a U.S. citizen and Ming Zhong, a permanent resident of the United States were arrested at the San Francisco International Airport on November 23, 2001. They were accused of stealing trade secrets in designing a computer microprocessor to benefit China, although prosecutors did not allege that the Chinese government knew of their activities. In December 2002, they were charged with a total ten counts, including conspiracy, economic espionage, possession of stolen trade secretes and foreign transportation of stolen property. In 2006 (5 years after the arrest), they plead guilty to two counts each of economic espionage. In 2008, they were sentenced to a year in prison. They could have gotten 30 years maximum sentence. But prosecutors asked for less because of their cooperation. The charges represent the first conviction of the Economic Espionage Act of 1996.[28][29]

Hanjuan Jin[edit]

Hanjuan Jin, a naturalized U.S. Citizen, was arrested in 2007. She was carrying documents from Motorola that she was taking to China.[30] Tried, and convicted, Jin was sentenced to four years for stealing trade secrets, but acquitted of economic espionage.[31] She had earned a master's degree from University of Notre Dame, and earned a second master's at Illinois Institute of Technology.[32]

Bo Jiang[edit]

Bo Jiang, a researcher working on "source code for high technology imaging" at NASA's Langley Research Center, was arrested for lying to a federal officer on March 16, 2013 at Washington Dulles International Airport before returning to China. Jiang allegedly told the FBI that he was carrying fewer computer storage devices than he was. He was accused of espionage by Representative Frank Wolf, and was investigated for possible violations of the Arms Export Control Act.[33] An affidavit said that Jiang had previously brought a NASA laptop with sensitive information to China.[34]

U.S. Magistrate Judge Lawrence Leonard ordered Jiang released after a federal prosecutor acknowledged that there was no evidence that he possessed sensitive, secret or classified material.[35] According to Jiang's lawyer, Wolf made a "scapegoat" of his client.[36] On May 2, Jiang was cleared in federal court of the felony charge of lying to federal investigators.[37][38]

Hua Jun Zhao[edit]

Hua Jun Zhao, 42, was accused of stealing a cancer-research compound from a Medical College of Wisconsin office in Milwaukee in an attempt to deliver it to Zhejiang University, according to an FBI agent’s March 29, 2013 affidavit.[39] Presiding judge Charles N. Clevert found no evidence that "Zhao had intended to defraud or cause any loss to Medical College of Wisconsin, or even to make money for himself".[40] Zhao was convicted for "accessing a computer without authorization and obtaining information worth more than $5,000" for accessing his research on university-owned computers after school officials seized his own laptop, portable memory devices and papers.[41]

Xiafen "Sherry" Chen[edit]

Xiafen "Sherry" Chen, 59, was a hydrologist for the federal government in Ohio. She was falsely accused of spying and arrested in October 2014.[42] She was originally charged with four felonies, including that she had illegally downloaded data about national infrastructure and made false statements to federal agents that she last saw a Chinese official in 2011, not 2012. Five months later, in March 2015, prosecutors dropped all charges against Mrs. Chen without explanation.[43]

Chinese intelligence agencies[edit]

The Ministry of State Security (中华人民共和国国家安全部), formerly a bureau of the Ministry of Public Security, received ministry status in June 1983.[44] The MSS is the principal Chinese agency responsible for intelligence collection and counterintelligence.[9] According to Western intelligence sources, the MSS operates intelligence activities in more than 170 cities in nearly 50 countries through its Foreign Affairs Bureau.[9] MSS reach beyond China allows it to pursue Chinese dissidents in foreign countries and establish cover for Chinese diplomats and agents and the thousands of Chinese who travel to the U.S. as business representatives, or members of scientific, academic and cultural delegations.[9]

Intelligence elements of the People's Liberation Army include the People's Liberation Army General Staff Department (总参二部); the Third, or Electronic-warfare, Department (总参三部); the Fourth Department (总参四部), focusing on information warfare; the General Armaments and General Logistics Departments (总装备部及总后勤部), which train collectors, and the PLA General Political Department (总政治部).[11] The Political Legal Leading Group (政法委) is a Communist Party agency under its Military Commission (responsible for internal order), whose responsibilities include overseeing intelligence and internal law enforcement.[9] The Investigations Department (监察部) is a Communist Party agency responsible for political investigations of party members.[9]

The United Front Works Department (统战部) is a Communist Party agency responsible for handling Chinese who are citizens of other countries. Works Department personnel, stationed in Chinese embassies and consulates, attempt to influence important people of Chinese descent to follow Communist Party direction.[9] They also watch Chinese academics and scientists working in other countries to ensure they return to China.[9]

The Commission of Science, Technology, and Industry for National Defense (国防科工委) sends agents to foreign countries as employees of front organizations to purchase defense equipment and technology whose export is restricted. Examples of Chinese cover organizations include New Era Corp.,[better source needed] the CITIC Group and Poly Technologies.[9]

Other cases[edit]

In 2007 McAfee alleged that China was actively involved in cyberwarfare, accusing the country of cyber-attacks on India, Germany and the United States; China denied knowledge of these attacks.[citation needed] In September 2007 former senior U.S. information security official Paul Strassmann said that 735,598 computers in the U.S. were "infested with Chinese zombies"; computers infected in this manner can theoretically form a botnet capable of carrying out unsophisticated yet potentially dangerous denial-of-service attacks.[45] A cyber spying network known as GhostNet, using servers primarily based in China, was reported as tapping into the classified documents of government and private organizations in 103 countries (including Tibetan exiles);[46][47] China denied the claim.[48][49]

In December 2009 and January 2010 a cyberattack, known as Operation Aurora, was launched from China on Google and over 20 other companies.[50] Google said that the attacks originated from China, and it would "review the feasibility" of its business operations in China as a result of the incident. According to Google, at least 20 other companies in a variety of sectors were also targeted by the attacks. According to McAfee, "this is the highest profile attack of its kind that we have seen in recent memory."[51]

In May 2014, a U.S. Federal grand jury indicted five Chinese military officers for cybercrimes and stealing trade secrets.[2] It was alleged that the Chinese officers hacked into computers of six U.S. companies to steal information that would provide an economic advantage to Chinese competitors, including Chinese state-owned enterprises. China said that the charges were "made-up", and the indictment would damage trust between the two nations.[52] Although the indictments have been called relatively meaningless, they could limit travel by the officers due to U.S. extradition treaties.[53]

Effect on Chinese and Asian Americans[edit]

The high-profile reporting of Chinese spy cases, especially these later found falsefully accused, by the U.S. news media has raised concerns by civil-rights groups about the racial profiling of Chinese Americans as spies. In the Wen Ho Lee case, Lee's attorneys said that the scientist was unfairly singled out by government investigators because of his ethnic background.[54][55] Bo Jiang's case in 2013 was called by his lawyer as another example of witch-hunting Chinese spies.[36] Another Chinese American, Sherry Chen (a National Weather Service employee in Ohio), was falsefully accused of spying on U.S. dams in 2014 after she contacted a former classmate—now a senior Chinese official—and advised him about finding information in the United States on how dams are financed.[56] Analyzing several recently similar falsefully accused Chinese American victims, a prominent Chinese American and a member of the Committee of 100, Dr. George Koo wrote an article in 2015 warning that "Chinese Americans continue to be victimized by racial profiling".[57]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Finkle, J., Menn, J., Viswanatha, J. U.S. accuses China of cyber spying on American companies. Reuters, Mon 19 May 2014 6:04pm EDT.
  2. ^ a b c Clayton, M. US indicts five in China's secret 'Unit 61398' for cyber-spying. Christian Science Monitor, 19 May 2014
  3. ^ deGraffenreid, p. 30.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h Global Security. "Ministry of State Security Operations." (accessed March 11, 2010).
  5. ^ a b c d e Wortzel, p. 6.
  6. ^ Wortzel, p. 9.
  7. ^ Helft, Miguel and John Markoff, "In Rebuke of China, Focus Falls on Cybersecuirty," The New York Times, January 13, 2010.
  8. ^ Wortzel, p. 8.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Polmar, Norman and Thomas B. Allen, Spy Book: The Encyclopedia of Espionage, Second Edition, (New York, NY: Random House Reference, 2004), p. 125.
  10. ^ a b c Eftimiades, p. 28.
  11. ^ a b Wortzel, p. 5.
  12. ^ a b c d e f Wortzel, p. 4.
  13. ^ Wortzel, p. 3.
  14. ^ U.S. Department of Defense, Annual Report to Congress on the Military Power of the People's Republic of China, (Washington, DC: July 2007), p. 29.
  15. ^ deGraffenreid, p. 99.
  16. ^ a b c deGraffenreid, p. 98.
  17. ^ deGraffenreid, p. 100.
  18. ^ a b c d e f g Cha, Ariana Eunjung and Ellen Nakashima, "Google China cyberattack part of vast espionage campaign, experts say," The Washington Post, January 14, 2010.
  19. ^ a b "Google cyberattack hit password system – NY Times," Reuters, April 19, 2010.
  20. ^ Perlroth, Nicole (2013-01-30). "Hackers in China Attacked The Times for Last 4 Months". The New York Times. Retrieved January 31, 2013. 
  21. ^ Amitai Etzioni, The Diplomat. "MAR: A Model for US-China Relations". The Diplomat. Retrieved 2014-08-25. 
  22. ^ Eftimiades, p. 21.
  23. ^ a b c d "They let her clean the China," The Economist, May 15, 2003.
  24. ^ Lichtblau, Eric, "F.B.I. Was Told Years Ago Of Possible Double Agent," The New York Times, April 12, 2003.
  25. ^ Polmar, Norman and Thomas B. Allen, Spy Book: The Encyclopedia of Espionage, Second Edition, (New York, NY: Random House Reference, 2004).
  26. ^
  27. ^ "Ex-Lockheed Martin agent gets six-and-a-half years". Taipei Times. July 26, 2006. Retrieved May 13, 2015. 
  28. ^ "Two Men Plead Guilty to Stealing Trade Secrets from Silicon Valley Companies to Benefit China". 2016-12-14. Retrieved 2015-05-20. 
  29. ^ "2 engineers sentenced for espionage". 2008-11-22. Retrieved 2015-05-20. 
  30. ^ Kelleher, James B. (October 29, 2015). "Hanjuan Jin, Former Motorola Worker, Gets 4 Years For Trade Secrets Theft". Huffington Post. Reuters. Retrieved June 16, 2015. 
  31. ^ Keyser, Jason (October 29, 2012). "Motorola trade secrets thief gets 4-year term". USA Today. Associated Press. Retrieved June 16, 2015. 
  32. ^ Golden, Daniel (April 8, 2012). "American Universities Infected by Foreign Spies Detected by FBI". Bloomberg Business. Retrieved June 16, 2015. 
  33. ^ Lambidakis, Stephanie (19 March 2013). "Update: NASA researcher arrested on China-bound plane". CBS Interactive Inc. Retrieved 20 March 2013. 
  34. ^ Howard, Jacqueline (18 March 2013). "Bo Jiang, Former NASA Contractor, Arrested By FBI On Plane To China". Huffington Post. Archived from the original on March 20, 2013. Retrieved 20 March 2013. 
  35. ^ Sizemore, Bill (28 March 2013). "Chinese ex-NASA worker to be released pending trial". Hamptonroads. Retrieved 28 March 2013. 
  36. ^ a b Dujardin, Peter (21 March 2013). "Attorney: Former NASA contractor subject of 'witch hunt'". Daily Press. Retrieved 21 March 2013. 
  37. ^ "NIA STATEMENT ON THE RELEASE OF DR. BO JIANG". 3 May 2013. Retrieved 10 Nov 2013. 
  38. ^ "Chinese scientist freed after felony case collapses". 3 May 2013. Retrieved 10 Nov 2013. 
  39. ^ Rohde, Marie (2013-04-02). "Wisconsin Researcher Accused of Economic Spying for China". Retrieved 2014-08-25. 
  40. ^ Vielmetti, Bruce (2013-08-06). "Chinese Scientist to be Sentenced for Theft of Research Drug". Retrieved 2014-08-25. 
  41. ^ Harris, Andrew (2013-08-06). "Ex-Espionage Suspect Gets Time Served for Computer Crime". Retrieved 2014-08-25. 
  42. ^ Fritz, Angela (2015-05-12). "Falsely accused of spying, Weather Service employee's life turned upside down". Retrieved 2015-05-17. 
  43. ^ Perlroth, Nicole (2015-05-09). "Accused of Spying for China, Until She Wasn't". Retrieved 2015-05-17. 
  44. ^ Eftimiades, p. 17.
  45. ^ Waterman, Shaun (17 September 2007). "China 'has .75M zombie computers' in U.S.". United Press International. Retrieved 2007-11-30. 
  46. ^ "Researchers: Cyber spies break into govt computers". Archived from the original on April 3, 2009. Retrieved July 29, 2011. 
  47. ^ "CTV News: Video clip". Retrieved 2014-08-25. 
  48. ^ "Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Qin Gang's Remarks on the So-called Chinese Cyber-Spy Ring Invading Computers in Countries". Retrieved 2014-08-25. 
  49. ^ "Chinese embassy scoffs at reports of cyber spying". 
  50. ^ "A new approach to China". Google Inc. 2010-01-12. Retrieved 17 January 2010. 
  51. ^ "Google Attack Is Tip Of Iceberg", McAfee Security Insights, Jan. 13, 2010
  52. ^ "Beijing denies corporate cyber spying charge against five Chinese military officials". China News.Net. Retrieved May 20, 2014. 
  53. ^ "The Cyber Cold War". The Huffington Post. 
  54. ^ "Racial Bias in the Wen Ho Lee Case? | PBS NewsHour". 1999-12-14. Retrieved 2014-08-25. 
  55. ^ "The Prosecution Unravels: The Case of Wen Ho Lee",, Feb. 5, 2001
  56. ^ Nicole Perlroth (May 9, 2015). "Accused of Spying for China, Until She Wasn't". The New York Times. Retrieved May 10, 2015. the facts didn’t quite meet the law 
  57. ^ Koo, George (2015-05-18). "Chinese Americans continue to be victimized by racial profiling: Opinion". Retrieved 2015-05-19. 


  • deGraffenreid, Kenneth (ed.), The Unanimous and Bipartisan Report of the House Select Committee on U.S. National Security and Military Commercial Concerns with the People's Republic of China ("The Cox Report"). Select Committee, U.S. House of Representatives (Washington, DC: Regnery, 1999)
  • Eftimiades, Nicholas, Chinese Intelligence Operations (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1994)
  • Wortzel, Larry M., Hearing on "Enforcement of Federal Espionage Laws." Testimony before the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security of the House Committee on the Judiciary, U.S. House of Representatives, January 29, 2008

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