Americans breathed a sigh of relief when the U.S. Air Force shot down a Chinese spy balloon off the coast of South Carolina on February 4. The balloon had floated almost entirely across the country after it was first sighted in Montana.
The Biden administration refrained from shooting down the balloon while it was over land, despite it moving past several military installations, because of concerns that the debris from the airship could cause collateral damage to civilians below. The U.S. quickly began to collect the debris from the craft to discern what kind of tech it carried.
Since the downing of China’s would-be instrument of high-altitude espionage, several more strange craft have been spotted and downed over America’s skies. U.S. intelligence officials have stated that the balloon is part of a vast spy network that has been used by the communist country to surveil military bases in countries like Japan, India, and Taiwan. President Joe Biden said Thursday that the U.S. does not believe that these additional objects are part of China’s spy program, but apprehension about China’s attempts to spy on the United States has come to the forefront of the national consciousness.
But in reality, the CCP has employed far more subtle and sophisticated methods to glean information from Americans than simple balloons.
Corporate espionage is a favorite tactic of the CCP in its ongoing economic struggle with the United States. Of the 160 publicly revealed instances of Chinese espionage since 2000, 51% of the incidents attempted to steal American commercial technology, compared to 34% of incidents that tried to acquire military tech and 16% that attempted to get information on government agencies or politicians, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
Chinese spies have been caught trying to smuggle data on everything from nanotechnology to pharmaceuticals to artificial intelligence back to the CCP, according to the BBC. These espionage efforts also include some of the largest companies in the U.S. — a Chinese national was sentenced to 20 years in prison in January for trying to steal information about jet turbines from General Electric.
During a meeting in London to discuss the threat of Chinese spy programs, FBI Director Christopher Wray said that law enforcement had caught people paid by Chinese companies trying to steal genetically modified seeds from fields in rural areas. Intellectual property theft by Chinese agents could cost the U.S. up to $600 billion a year, according to a report from the National Bureau of Asian Research.
Chinese agents and affiliates have also managed to infiltrate American universities and laboratories, stealing valuable research.
In 2020, the U.S. canceled over 1,000 visas belonging to Chinese students and researchers at American universities due to concerns that they had ties to the Chinese military.
China’s Thousand Talents Program, which aims to partner with leading foreign researchers, has been accused of facilitating the theft of research. Between 1987 and 2021, over 160 researchers at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, one of the nation’s top locations for nuclear research, returned to China, with dozens returning under the Thousand Talents program. Those researchers went on to “advance key military and dual-use technologies in areas such as hypersonics, deep-earth penetrating warheads, unmanned aerial vehicles, jet engines, and submarine noise reduction,” a report from Strider Technologies said.
Over a quarter of perpetrators in Chinese espionage schemes are non-Chinese agents, according to CSIS.
Charles Lieber, the former head of Harvard University’s Chemistry Department, was found guilty in December 2021 of hiding his ties to the Thousand Talents Program. For his involvement in the program, Lieber had received $50,000 a month from the Wuhan University of Technology as well as $1.5 million in grants, which he failed to disclose. Prosecutors said that Lieber wrote articles and applied for patents on behalf of the Chinese university.
One suspected Chinese spy who enrolled at an American university was Christine Fang. From 2011 to 2015, she made connections with several powerful California politicians, and allegedly developed sexual relationships with two Midwestern mayors. One of her principal targets was Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell. She helped fundraise for his 2014 re-election campaign as well as place an intern in Swalwell’s office, sources told Axios.
Fang’s behavior caught the attention of federal law enforcement, and the congressman severed ties with her after they gave him a briefing on their findings. Fang left the country in 2015 before the investigation was concluded.
Swalwell’s office told the outlet that he “provided information about this person — whom he met more than eight years ago, and whom he hasn’t seen in nearly six years — to the FBI.”
Though Swalwell’s alleged association with Fang has become a meme among conservatives, intelligence officials are concerned that it’s part of a larger effort to cultivate influence among U.S. politicians.
Balloons aren’t the only way the Chinese have tried to spy on key U.S. military installations out West. The Chinese telecom giant Huawei provided cheap equipment to small providers in rural America.
The sheer amount of Chinese-made equipment being installed in rural areas caught the attention of federal investigators, who discovered that in many cases Huawei was selling the technology at an unprofitable price to providers near U.S. military assets. One company, Viaero, had 1,000 Huawei-equipped towers spread across five states, and the company’s coverage area happened to contain several missile silos and military bases.
Multiple sources told CNN that the Huawei-made tech on the cell towers had the ability to intercept and even disrupt highly sensitive U.S. Strategic Command communications — including those related to the nation’s nuclear weapons. Cameras mounted on Viaero’s towers to monitor weather and traffic could also provide the Chinese with intel on U.S. military movements in the area.
The Federal Communications Commission effectively banned companies from using Huawei equipment in 2019. Even though billions of dollars were appropriated by Congress in order to help get rid of the equipment, as of 2022 not all of the technology has been removed, according to CNN.
Installing technology that can spy on military bases in the American West is one thing, but in 2017 federal officials killed a $100 million project that could have allowed China to position similar equipment at the perfect location to eavesdrop on lawmakers in the nation’s capital.
The Chinese government offered to pay $100 million to install a lavish garden, complete with a pagoda, at the National Arboretum. The planned 70-foot structure would have been placed at one of the highest points in Washington, D.C., and only two miles from the Capitol Building, according to CNN. One red flag that caught the eye of counterintelligence officials was the fact that China insisted that the materials that would be used to build the garden should be shipped to Washington in diplomatic pouches, which would prevent U.S. Customs from examining them before they entered the country. Suspicious U.S. officials soon put an end to the project.
Then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in 2020 that the Chinese consulates in Houston, San Francisco, and New York City were hotbeds for Chinese spies. The espionage activity at the Houston embassy was so bad that the U.S. government ordered it to be closed, with one Justice Department official telling Reuters, “The sum total of the Houston consulate’s activities went well over the line of what we’re willing to accept.”
The consulate in New York City was allegedly being used to spy on anti-Chinese Uyghur and Tibetan groups, while the one in San Francisco helped Chinese agents steal secrets from Silicon Valley.
Spy balloons ominously floating across the American countryside may make for more sensational reporting in most media outlets, but in reality, Xi Jinping has far more subtle and effective methods of intelligence gathering at his disposal — including ones that don’t end up in the Atlantic Ocean.
U.S. intelligence officials are aware of and in many cases have taken action against these spying efforts, but the economic and political necessities of maintaining close ties with the communist nation ensure that their efforts to steal, bribe, and spy their way to the top of the geopolitical order will continue apace on U.S. soil.