The Story of a Chinese Spy and Bay Area Politicians Highlights U.S. Vulnerabilities to Influence Operations

AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein, File

Axios broke an insightful piece of investigative journalism on how a particular Chinese spy infiltrated political circles in the Bay Area.

According to Axios, Chinese national Fang Fang (also known as Christine Fang) was a student when she began to form relationships with Bay Area political figures:

Fang’s friends and acquaintances said she was in her late 20s or early 30s when she was based in the U.S. and was enrolled as a student at a Bay Area university.

She used political gatherings, civic society conferences, campaign rallies, and campus events to connect with elected officials and other prominent figures, according to U.S. intelligence officials, Bay Area political operatives, former students, and current and former elected officials who knew her.

Fang was able to insert herself into several political campaigns at the local, state, and national levels, according to Axios.

  • According to a former campus organizer and social media posts, she volunteered for Ro Khanna’s unsuccessful 2014 House bid.
  • According to a Bay Area political operative and a current U.S. intelligence official, Fang took part in fundraising activity for Representative Eric Swalwell’s 2014 re-election campaign.
  • Fang helped place at least one intern in Swalwell’s office.
  • Fang attended regional conferences for U.S. mayors, which allowed her to grow her network of politicians across the country.
  • Fang helped with a fundraiser for Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) in 2013.

While these activities were concentrated on Democrat Party candidates, this makes sense in California. Democrats are more likely to win, especially in the Bay Area, and ultimately move to higher offices. Relationships are easier to build at the local level, where budgets are smaller. And according to Axios, California and the Bay Area are targets because of the prevalence of the technology sector and its influence on national politics.

The Axios investigation reveals the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) long-term view. With the CCP’s hold on power, they can develop strategies that take decades to execute.

The case demonstrates China’s strategy of cultivating relationships that may take years or even decades to bear fruit. The Chinese Communist Party knows that today’s mayors and city council members are tomorrow’s governors and members of Congress.

This underscores the importance of developing a consensus foreign policy view on China’s threat and what must be done to combat it. This was accomplished against Russia in the 1980s, against the former Soviet Union, and persisted long after the Berlin Wall fell. Original China policy was centered on the idea that the country would become more democratic as it engaged with the world through trade. This has not happened, and it is ridiculous to believe at this point that it will.

The number of Chinese students enrolled in American universities has increased almost four-fold between 2008 and 2018, from 98,235 to 369,548. Is this an intelligent strategy? How many are involved in cutting-edge research they can take back to China? It is almost impossible to live a comfortable life in China without acquiescing to the whims of the CCP, and according to reporting in the Epoch Times, Chinese students in America are monitored:

Chinese Students and Scholars Associations (CSSAs) exist at virtually all U.S. universities that have enrolled Chinese students. They are influenced and frequently funded by their local Chinese consulates.

These are not typical student clubs; rather, they serve to monitor fellow Chinese students and carry out a variety of state missions such as harassing the so-called anti-China speakers on campus and greeting any visiting Chinese leaders, rain or shine, outside their hotels.

It is not surprising that Fang was the president of the Chinese Student Association at CSU East Bay, where she was a student. Her first political contacts were made through her leadership role in this group.

The idea that Chinese students are coming here and internalizing democratic ideals is stopped short by the demands that reach across the ocean from their government at home. The Chinese social credit system has gotten more press recently, and it is understandable why many Chinese students may feel pressure based on having family remaining in China. The frequency of dissidents disappearing is also a powerful motivation.

We must have a cohesive strategy for how many visas will be granted to Chinese students, how they will be vetted, and possibly what educational programs they are allowed to participate in—not because the students are bad people, but because of what their government has the power to coerce them to do. It is not simply through business relationships that intellectual capital is stolen.

The good news is the FBI has taken note. According to Axios:

In the years since the Fang probe, the FBI has prioritized investigations into Chinese influence operations, creating a unit in May 2019 within the bureau solely dedicated to countering Beijing’s activities at the state and local levels. U.S. national security officials believe the threat posed by China has only grown with time.

However, a senior agent said Fang was just one of the numerous agents operating within the United States. It will take years and a significant focus to untangle the web of China’s influence operations in the United States. It will also be a careful balancing act to reduce access for Chinese nationals who may engage in activities on behalf of the CCP without creating undue bias. However, the risks to national security are too high not to take an aggressive approach. When we do, it is effective. According to Axios, Fang left the country abruptly in 2015 amid an investigation into her activities and has cut ties with most of her American contacts. Whatever influence she had is gone.

It seems interesting that several stories are breaking about the China threat, now that Joe Biden is the presumed president-elect—especially since President Trump’s aggressive stance toward the communist nation was often roundly criticized.

Beijing seems thrilled with the presumed election outcome. As my colleague Bryan Preston wrote:

An oped in the Globe Daily welcomes Joe Biden to the White House (supposing events stay on their current course) with both stern denunciations of Donald Trump and admonitions to not do what Trump did.

“Facing a voracious round of assault from the coronavirus and an economy in doldrums because of the health crisis, the incoming US administration of Joe Biden is hoped to chart a new course of policy interventions – categorically different from the inertia displayed by Donald Trump’s team.”

The truth of the claims aside, this seems to indicate that Beijing feels free to make demands of the incoming administration. This is similar behavior to the conditions they have handed Australia’s government regarding foreign policy positions that Beijing believes must change in order to resume normal trade relations. Further insight into Beijing’s confidence, now that they believe President Trump will be leaving the White House, was exposed in a speech by a Chinese economics professor detailed on Tucker Carlson Tonight.

Over the last four years, between the pandemic, the trade war, and broader exposure of China’s human rights abuses, most of America is only beginning to understand the threat that China poses to our economy, health, and way of life. Even before the pandemic, Americans’ view of China turned sharply negative, with 60% reporting an unfavorable view.

This change in public perception may be the biggest gift President Trump leaves us with. It will be hard for a Biden administration to return to business as usual with public sentiment opposing those moves. But it will take resolve and tactical strategy to remove Chinese influence from our culture and our politics.

Tucker Carlson’s Monologue on a Chinese Professor’s Recent Speech Should Terrify You