The heads of the American FBI and British MI5 have never before appeared side by side for a joint statement. Christopher Wray travelled from Washington to show a united front with British intelligence head Ken McCallum in London on Wednesday, July 6, where they declared that there is currently no greater threat to the West than China.
“It is very unusual because you normally don’t see heads of spy agencies delivering joint statements. Intel people cannot do that on their own; it must come from above. It’s a political decision made in Washington and London, which means it’s an important diplomatic stance,” said Zeno Leoni, a specialist in Chinese defence and Sino-Western affairs at King’s College London.
A multitude of spying incidents ‘made in China’
For Leoni, “there is a momentum in favour of Washington’s position because of the war in Ukraine”. How are the Russian invasion and the Chinese threat related? “US allies, especially in continental Europe, tend to be less hawkish toward China, but because of the war they might see the threat of regimes like Russia or China, [which] stood by Putin, more according to Washington’s view.”
There is thus a new dynamic that Washington and London intend to exploit as quickly as possible. They decided to hit hard with the public statement from two intelligence heads. The joint declaration reads like a laundry list of ways in which Chinese spies are pillaging Western know-how and imperilling democracy.
The description is anxiety-provoking, giving an impression of Chinese spies are lurking on every street corner. One example has them hiding among our crops, stealing GMO samples to appropriate their technology. FBI Director Christopher Wray said that Chinese agents have been caught “out in the US heartland, sneaking into fields to dig up proprietary, genetically modified seeds, which would have cost them nearly a decade and billions in research to develop themselves”.
Beijing categorically denied the accusations on Wednesday, declaring that “facts have fully proven that the US is the biggest threat to world peace, stability and development”, as reported by The Guardian.
“Accusations of economic and industrial espionage on the part of China are nothing new. The project for the Americans and the British now is to demonstrate that Beijing, which has increasing economic means at its disposal and has gained a lot of confidence in the international arena, is more active than ever in this domain,” said Antoine Bondaz, China specialist at France’s Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique.
A Tiananmen dissident in the crosshairs
What is newer is this emphasis on the threat to our democracies posed by Chinese spies. Christopher Wray said that to him, the “most extreme” example of Chinese political interference outside its borders is the effort directed by Beijing to prevent, by any means necessary, a candidate it doesn’t like from running in the American midterm elections in November 2022.
The FBI director did not cite the person by name, saying simply that he is a naturalized US citizen of Chinese origin who had participated in the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.
The person is Yan Xiong, whose story is at the heart of a federal investigation which led in March 2022 to charges against several Chinese citizens for “harassment and intimidation”.
Yan Xiong is on the list of Chinese dissidents sought after by Beijing, which accuses him of having played a key leadership role in the student movement of 1989. After the repression of the protests in Tiananmen Square, Yan Xiong fled to the United States in 1992, where he was naturalized and served eight years in the American military.
Having a new life did not stop Yan from continuing to protest the Chinese regime. He even went to Hong Kong in 2009 to show his support for the pro-democracy movement there.
It is not surprising, given these circumstances, that the Chinese authorities are not happy about his candidacy in the upcoming Congressional elections for New York State.
‘Not very subtle’ methods
To prevent Yan from running, Chinese spy agencies went so far as to hire a private detective to find any skeletons that may be hiding in the dissident’s closet. They were even prepared to fabricate a scandal if the investigation led to nothing interesting. “You go find a girl for him, see if he will take the bait,” the Chinese agent told the private detective, according to an affidavit filed by prosecutors in New York.
They also considered falsifying income tax declarations to make Yan Xiong look like he was committing fraud, according to the New York Times. And if all that didn’t work? A resort to violence was apparently in question. Several recordings gathered by investigators show that the detective was encouraged to “beat him until he cannot run for election”. Finally: “Car accident… [he] will be completely wrecked, no?”
Yan Xiong barely escaped these sad outcomes. The private investigator went to the US authorities and told them everything.
“It’s the perfect, shocking example to send the message that China represents a real threat,” acknowledged Antoine Bondaz. However, the experts consulted by FRANCE 24 also felt that it’s not very representative of the Chinese way of doing such things. “This sort of activity shows that China is not very subtle. It’s concerning, but shows that China isn’t very effective. But they do have more diffuse ways of trying to [exert] influence abroad,” according to Zeno Leoni. Antoine Bondaz, for his part, emphasised that “Chinese political interference generally happens more by financing the political campaigns of candidates in countries such as Australia.”
For Zeno Leoni, the Yan Xiong affair is more about a Chinese strategy of intimidation for its diaspora than an outright attack on American democratic institutions. “You have to take into consideration who the target of this operation could be. It might very well be a way to deliver a message to Chinese abroad, telling them Beijing can always reach them wherever they are.”
This article was translated from the original in French.
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