China made the headlines in espionage news today. The Times of London reported that two French intelligence officers in the equivalent of MI6 have been charged with treason for passing information to China. Yet Beijing has a knack for staying below the fold. As David Wise in the New York Times noted, “with all the focus on Russian meddling in the 2016 election, the damage done by China’s vigorous and continuing espionage against the United States has taken a back seat.”
Lost against the background of the Snowden defection, Putin’s invasion of the Ukraine and Syria and the beating to death of a Russian media czar in Washington, D.C. is the memory of one of the major fiascos of the Obama administration: the rollup of the CIA’s agent network in China. The New York Times reported in May 2017 that “the Chinese government systematically dismantled C.I.A. spying operations in the country starting in 2010, killing or imprisoning more than a dozen sources over two years and crippling intelligence gathering there for years afterward.”
Current and former American officials described the intelligence breach as one of the worst in decades. It set off a scramble in Washington’s intelligence and law enforcement agencies to contain the fallout, but investigators were bitterly divided over the cause. Some were convinced that a mole within the C.I.A. had betrayed the United States. Others believed that the Chinese had hacked the covert system the C.I.A. used to communicate with its foreign sources. Years later, that debate remains unresolved.
But the biggest threat China now poses may be not traditional espionage but political subversion. At the April 2018 hearing by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, co-chair Senator James Talent said “the activities of the United Front Work Department, which coordinates the CCP’s overseas influence operations, deserve more scrutiny–and a careful response.”
Australia and New Zealand, members of the “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing network, have seen a sharp rise in political donations and media investment from United Front Work Department-affiliated entities, and even individuals affiliated with the United Front Work Department and People’s Liberation Army holding office. Beijing also incentivizes political figures in Australia and New Zealand to parrot its line on issues it deems important…
It is important for the United States to consider that China may be testing methods of interference to probe for weaknesses in democracies in order to use the same techniques against Western countries in the future. The United States, its allies, and its partners should understand China’s goals and recognize China’s determination to achieve these goals at any cost. Affected countries should consider carefully whether China’s vision of the Asia Pacific is in their interests.
China’s influence tactics, such the acquisition of a German robotics firm, rarely occasion the interest of the police because they are legal. The European defense has been to erect a wall of regulation, welcoming Chinese investments in Europe only to the extent that they are in line with “EU policies and legislation”; stipulating that the the Belt and Road Initiative adhere to EU market rules and requirements/standards; pointedly emphasizing market access opportunities and addressing Chinese overcapacity.
The idea is to hang up the Chinese United Front in a tangle of red tape. But the Chinese have sought to flank the regulatory barbed wire by offering enticing investment packages to the poorer European countries. “At the Council meeting of June 23, 2017, the newly-elected French President Emmanuel Macron put forward a proposal to screen investments at the EU level. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Juncker supported the idea, but a group of Northern European member states aligned with Portugal, Greece, Ireland, and Spain to oppose the proposal.20 The Nordic and Benelux countries were worried that the procedure could be a Trojan horse for protectionism while ailing Southern economies were anxious not to stem the flow of investment they rely on to support themselves following the 2008 European debt crisis.”
This has put the Euros in a corner. The need to wall off the Chinese United Front has incentivized Brussels into tightening its grip on the theory that if the EU doesn’t lock down the Continent then Beijing will pick it apart.
Many smaller Eastern and Southern EU members align with China in fits of “preemptive obedience.” They try to curry favor with China and lure investment by supporting China’s political positions. Some illiberal governments (such as Hungary’s) do so all too happily. They see China’s authoritarian model as attractive and a convenient source of leverage against Brussels and Western EU members pushing back against their illiberalism. Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán has already played the China card to put pressure his EU partners
The Chinese are playing a similar game against the “Five Eyes,” attacking the political systems of New Zealand and Australia who=ich are the weaker members of the coalition. “At the heart of most influence activities is the United Front Work Department, UFWD.”
UFWD efforts have focused heavily on overseas Chinese populations in Australia and New Zealand, including businessmen, community leaders, and students, but their efforts are not limited to ethnic Chinese and increasingly target the non-ethnic Chinese people in these countries. And we’ve seen allegations that have caused some real concern and public debate over a number of incidents, which include things like Beijing-linked political donors buyingaccess and influence with party politicians; universities being coopted by generous donors for research institutions that have dubious neutrality in their academic pursuits; and voices that are coerced and silenced by networks on college campuses and elsewhere that are mobilized to silence criticism of Beijing
The most striking aspect of China’s campaign of influence is there is no apparent way to defend against it without circumscribing Globalization itself. The very institutions of “open borders,” “capital mobility,” “multiculturalism,” and political correctness are access ways along which the United Front is rapidly advancing. It was inevitable that the free flow of money, information and people would have an impact on politics. Echoing a phrase from the Vietnam war the West may have to destroy the global village in order to save it. Or at least, save itself.
One of the most remarkable aspects of the Mueller investigation into Russian collusion is how small the incidents concerned are in comparison to the broader threat to Western political independence. Even were the Special Prosecutor to indict and jail all his currently named suspects and shut down political ads on Facebook, it would not make slightest impact on the principal strategic threat. The focus is on bit player suspects while the giant industry of influence peddling goes serenely on.
Did they ever figure out what was responsible for the loss of the CIA’s entire network in China during the last administration?
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The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. This book reveals the forces driving the reinvention of our lives and our economy. As the full impact of digital technologies is felt, we will realize immense bounty but also experience wrenching change. Professions of all kinds – from lawyers to truck drivers – will be forever upended. Companies will be forced to transform or die. Recent economic indicators reflect this shift: fewer people are working, and wages are falling even as productivity and profits soar. Drawing on years of research and up-to-the-minute trends, MIT’s Brynjolfsson and McAfee identify the best strategies for survival and a new path to prosperity.
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