China and Taiwan swap jailed spies in historic first

Ma Ying-jeou and Xi JinpingChina and Taiwan reportedly swapped each other’s imprisoned spies, just days before a historic meeting between their heads of government. It was the first time in the two nations’ history that they have swapped jailed spies with each other. The exchange appears to have taken place in secret in late October, less than two weeks ahead of a historic November 7 meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou. The meeting, which took place in Singapore, was hailed for its historic significance, as it was the first of its kind since 1949, when the two countries emerged following a bitter civil war between communist and nationalist forces.

News of the spy exchange emerged in the Taiwanese press on Monday, when it was reported that Taipei had released Li Zhihao. Li, a mysterious Chinese intelligence officer known in spy circles as “the man in black”, had been arrested in 1999 after being lured into Taiwan, and was serving a life sentence. He is believed to be 70 years old. In return, Beijing appears to have freed Chu Kung-hsun and Hsu Chang-kuo, two colonels in Taiwan’s Military Information Bureau, who were arrested by mainland China’s counterintelligence nearly a decade ago. At the time of their arrest, the Taiwanese government protested that the two officers had been kidnapped from the Vietnamese side of the Chinese-Vietnamese border. But Beijing had dismissed Taipei’s protestations and had convicted the two men of espionage.

It is worth pointing out that the two Taiwanese officials had initially been sentenced to death, but their sentences were later commuted to 20 years behind bars. It is believed that they were the last Taiwanese military officials held in China for espionage, and that they were the highest-ranked Taiwanese spies imprisoned in China. Their release, therefore, marks an unprecedented development in Chinese-Taiwanese relations, though it should be remembered that dozens of Taiwanese civilians are held in Chinese jails on espionage charges.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 01 December 2015 | Permalink

Washington to investigate Chinese-owned radio stations in the US

CRI ChinaAuthorities in Washington are preparing to launch an investigation into a dozen radio stations operating in major cities in the United States, which are allegedly owned by a subsidiary of the Chinese government. The investigation appears to have been sparked by a report published by the Reuters news agency on Monday, which claims that the Chinese government is operating a “covert radio network” inside the US, aimed at broadcasting news reports that reflect Chinese views. According to Reuters, the radio stations broadcast in at least a dozen large American cities, including Houston, San Francisco, Boston and Philadelphia.

All stations in question are managed by broadcasting firm G&E Studioa, based in West Covina, California, which is owned by James Su, a Shanghai-born American broadcasting entrepreneur. According to the news agency, G&E Studio controls the vast majority of these stations’ air time, which it fills with entertainment and public-affairs programming produced in its studios in California. However, the Reuters report claimed that G&E Studio is 60% owned by China Radio International (CRI), which is a Chinese state-controlled broadcaster. Founded as Radio Peking in 1941, then renamed to Radio Beijing during the Cold War, CRI is the Chinese equivalent of the Voice of America or the BBC World Service: it is officially affiliated with the Chinese government and reflects its point of view. What is more, said Reuters, some of the programming aired on G&E Studio-managed stations is produced by CRI in Beijing. Consequently, news programming on these stations tends to reflect the Chinese government’s point of view, on subjects such as Taiwan, naval rights in the South China Sea, trade policies and other major topics of the day.

The investigation has been launched by the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) because American law prohibits representatives of foreign governments, or foreign governments themselves, from owning or managing US broadcast stations. Moreover, individuals or companies seeking to influence American politics or public opinion on behalf of a foreign agency, group or government, must register with the US Department of State. It doesn’t appear that G&E-owned radio stations have done that, said Reuters on Monday. The news agency quoted FCC spokesman Neil Grace, who said that an investigation had been launched into “the foreign ownership issues raised in the stories, including whether the Commission’s statutory foreign ownership rules have been violated”. The Department of State, however, refused to confirm or deny that an investigation into G&E Studios was underway.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 3 November 2015 | Permalink

China announces arrests of Japanese citizens on espionage charges

Liaoning ChinaAuthorities in China announced last week the arrests of two Japanese citizens accused of spying for the national intelligence agency of Japan. According to a spokesman from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the two men were been arrested last May “on suspicion of carrying out espionage activities” for Japan’s Public Security Intelligence Agency. Administered by Japan’s Ministry of Justice, the Public Security Intelligence Agency is tasked with protecting the country’s internal security by collecting intelligence both within and without Japan. The Agency has a long history of organizing human intelligence operations in mainland China.

Following China’s announcement last week, Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary, who serves as the government’s press secretary, denied that the two men had links with Japanese intelligence. But the Tokyo-based Kyodo news agency reported on Saturday that the two men had admitted that they had links with the Public Security Intelligence Agency. Citing unnamed Chinese and Japanese diplomats, Kyodo said the two men were on a mission to collect intelligence about Chinese military facilities, as well as to spy on Chinese military activities in the border regions between China and North Korea. The news agency said that both men were civilians and did not have diplomatic credentials. One of them is believed to be a 51-year-old who travels regularly to China. He was reportedly captured in the vicinity of a military facility in China’s eastern coastal province of Zhejiang. The other man was described by Kyoto as a 55-year-old North Korean defector to Japan; he was detained in the northeast province of Liaoning (photo), near China’s border with North Korea.

Kyoto said it contacted the Public Security Intelligence Agency, but a spokesman said he was not in a position to comment on the arrest of the two alleged spies. This is the third instance of arrests of Japanese spies in China on espionage charges since 2005. In the summer of that year, Beijing expelled two Japanese nationals for allegedly stealing military secrets. Five years later, four Japanese citizens were detained in Shijiazhuang, reportedly for spying on a Chinese military base there. All were released within a year of their capture.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 05 October 2015 | Permalink

CIA pulled officers from Beijing embassy following OPM database hack

Office of Personnel ManagementThe Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) pulled a number of officers from the United States embassy in Chinese capital Beijing, after a massive cyber hacking incident compromised an American federal database containing millions of personnel records. Up to 21 million individual files were stolen in June of this year, when hackers broke into the computer system of the US Office of Personnel Management (OPM), which handles applications for security clearances for agencies of the federal government. The breach gave the unidentified hackers access to the names and sensitive personal records of millions of Americans who have filed applications for security clearances —including intelligence officers.

According to sources in the US government, the records of CIA employees were not included in the compromised OPM database. However, that is precisely the problem, according to The Washington Post. The paper said on Wednesday that the compromised OPM records contain the background checks of employees in the US State Department, including those stationed at US embassies or consulates around the world. It follows that US diplomatic personnel stationed abroad whose names do not appear on the compromised OPM list “could be CIA officers”, according to The Post. The majority of CIA officers stationed abroad work under diplomatic cover; they are attached to an embassy or consulate and enjoy diplomatic protection, which is typically invoked if their official cover is blown. However, they still have to present their credentials and be authorized by their host country before they assume their diplomatic post. The CIA hopes that foreign counterintelligence agencies will not be able to distinguish intelligence personnel from actual diplomats.

Although the US has not officially pointed the finger at a particular country or group as being behind the OPM hack, anonymous sources in Washington have identified China as the culprit. If true, The Post’s claim that the CIA pulled several of its officers from the US embassy in Beijing would add more weight to the view that the Chinese intelligence services were behind the cyber theft. The paper quoted anonymous US officials who said that the CIA’s decision to remove its officers from Beijing was directly related to the OPM hack, and it was meant to safeguard their personal security, as well as to protect CIA programs currently underway in China.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 1 October 2015 | Permalink

Obama delegation switches hotels allegedly due to espionage fears

Waldorf AstoriaThe president of the United States and his delegation will be housed at a different hotel during a United Nations General Assembly meeting later this month, allegedly due to concerns over Chinese espionage activity. Since the late 1940s, the American president and his diplomatic entourage have resided at the Waldorf Astoria for several days in September, while attending the annual UN General Assembly in New York. The luxury hotel, which is located on Park Avenue on the island of Manhattan, has also served since 1947 as the residence of the US ambassador to the UN. That is also why the American delegation is usually hosted there, courtesy of the ambassador. This year, however, President Barack Obama and his sizeable delegation will be staying at the New York Palace Hotel, located at the corner of Manhattan’s 50th Street and Madison Avenue. The announcement was made last week by the White House and the US Department of State.

According to The Associated Press and The New York Times, the decision to relocate the American high-level delegation is primarily due to security concerns. The reports cited well-placed sources in the US government as stating that the relocation was prompted by the sale last year of the Waldorf Astoria to the Chinese firm Anbang Insurance Group. The McLean, VA-headquartered Hilton Worldwide Holdings, Inc., which sold the hotel to the Chinese firm, pocketed nearly $2 billion from the transaction. Based on the terms of the agreement, the American company will continue to operate the Waldorf Astoria until 2114. But Anbang announced last spring that the hotel would be undergoing a massive renovation program, which, according to media reports, has alarmed American counterintelligence officials. The latter are concerned that Chinese intelligence technicians may use the renovation to install eavesdropping equipment in Waldorf Astoria’s rooms and compromise the hotel’s Internet network.

The US diplomatic exit from the Waldorf Astoria was first reported back in mid-June, but was not confirmed by the White House or the Department of State. Since that time, no American cabinet official, including Secretary of State John Kerry and Vice President Joe Biden, has stayed at the Waldorf. But President Obama’s upcoming trip renewed the media’s interest in the change of hotels, and US government officials finally confirmed that the Chinese-owned hotel had been dropped based “on several considerations, including space, costs and security”. A State Department official told reporters last week that the change took “into account changing circumstances”. The Times also reported that the US government is examining whether its ambassador to the UN will continue to be headquartered at the Waldorf.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 14 September 2015 | Permalink

US warns China against use of non-official-cover operatives

Chinese Ministry of State SecurityThe White House has warned the Chinese government to stop deploying on American soil intelligence operatives masquerading as tourists, business executives or other false covers. Nowadays the standard practice for intelligence personnel deployed abroad is to be posted as diplomatic staff in a foreign embassy or consulate. But there are some intelligence officers who do not follow that practice. These are known as non-official-cover operatives, or NOCs in American intelligence parlance. NOCs are typically high-level principal agents or officers of an intelligence agency, who operate without official connection to the diplomatic authorities of the country that is employing them. They typically pose as business executives, students, academics, journalists, or non-profit agency workers. Unlike official-cover officers, who are protected by diplomatic immunity, NOCs have no such protection. If arrested by authorities of their host country, they can be tried and convicted for operating as unregistered agents of a foreign government.

According to The New York Times, a significant number of Chinese NOCs have recently entered the United States as part of the Chinese government’s Operation FOX HUNT. Supervised by China’s Ministry of State Security (MSS), FOX HUNT is aimed at the thousands of former officials and other fugitives from China, who are alleged to have embezzled funds and are now living abroad, usually in considerable wealth. As part of the MSS operation, teams of intelligence agents are said to have been dispatched around the world in order to hunt down these fugitives, many of whom are believed to have embezzled hundreds of millions of dollars in government funds. Chinese media reports claim that nearly 1000 such fugitives have been “repatriated”, either voluntarily or involuntarily, since the launch of FOX HUNT. The tactics used by the Chinese NOCs are not clear, and some suspect that they include direct or indirect threats against the fugitives’ family members in China. Chinese reports have described FOX HUNT operatives as “mostly young, highly skilled”, and accustomed to “rapid-fire deployment” around the world.

The Times said that Washington views the parts of Operation FOX HUNT that take place on US soil as “a departure from the routine practice of secret government intelligence gathering” that both America and China practice against each other. The US, therefore, does not want Chinese officers without official diplomatic credentials, but posing instead as students, tourists or business representatives, engaging in intelligence operations on US soil, said the paper. It added that Washington’s warning had been delivered to Beijing “in recent weeks”. The Times article did not include specific descriptions of FOX RUN activities on American soil.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 17 August 2015 | Permalink

Is brother of China’s ex-chief of staff seeking to defect to the US?

Ling WanchengA well-connected Chinese businessman, described by officials as potentially one of the most damaging defectors in the history of modern China, is reputed to have requested political asylum in the United States. Ling Wancheng, 54, is the multimillionaire brother of Ling Jihua, a close aide of China’s former premier, Hu Jintao, who rose through the ranks of the Communist Party of China to eventually lead its Central Committee’s General Office. With the help of his brother’s connections and political influence, Ling Wancheng transformed himself from a journalist to an entrepreneur in the early 2000s. Soon after receiving his graduate degree in business administration, he founded an investment firm and joined China’s nouveau riche elite. His wealth, which is estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars, coupled with his older brother’s senior position within the Communist Party, made him one of China’s most politically connected entrepreneurs.

However, the Ling family’s fortunes turned dramatically for the worse in March of 2012, when Ling Jihua’s 23-year-old son was killed in a Beijing street while driving a Ferrari after a night of wild partying. Two half-naked women, who were also riding in the car, were seriously injured; one later died of her wounds. The circumstances of the crash, as well as Ling Jihua’s failed efforts to cover it up, were seen as symbolic of a spoiled generation of government officials, whose corrupt practices have isolated the Communist Party from the Chinese populace. Soon afterwards, the new administration of President Xi Jinping initiated a massive anti-corruption campaign as a means of restoring the reputation of the Communist Party. Ling was immediately demoted, cut off from the top echelons of the Chinese government, and in 2014 there were rumors that he would soon be facing a corruption investigation. In July of this year, it was officially announced that Ling had been expelled from the Communist Party and that he would be facing trial on charges of accepting bribes.

The announcement of Ling’s trial stated that he was accused of “accepting certain bribes for himself and on behalf of his family”. But no charges were filed against Ling Wancheng, and there were rumors that he was being pressured by Communist Party officials to testify against his brother. But it appears that the multimillionaire businessman, who owns several properties in the US, was able to flee China and is now in an undisclosed location on US soil. The New York Times, who tried to locate Ling earlier this week, spoke to unnamed American officials, who confirmed that he had indeed fled China and was in the US. The officials refused to confirm that Ling had applied for asylum. But they said that, if he did defect to America, Ling “could become one of the most damaging defectors in the history of the People’s Republic”, due to his political connections.

The Times added that Beijing had contacted the White House requesting that Ling be extradited to China. But the administration of US President Barack Obama appears unwilling to satisfy the Chinese government’s request, given that Chinese hackers are believed to be responsible for the recent theft of up to 24 million American government workers’ personal data.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 04 August 2015 | Permalink


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