US expels Chinese diplomats for the first time since 1987

Chinese embassy in the United StatesThe United States quietly expelled two Chinese diplomats in October of this year, a move that neither Washington nor Beijing chose to make public, according to a report published on Sunday. If true, the incident would signify the first known expulsions of Chinese diplomatic personnel from the US since 1987.

The incident was reported by The New York Times, which cited “six people with knowledge of the expulsions”. It said that the expulsions were triggered by an incident that took place in September in the US state of Virginia. It involved at least two Chinese diplomats stationed in Washington, who allegedly attempted to enter “a sensitive installation” near the city of Norfolk. The paper did not name the installation, but said that it belongs to the US Armed Forces and is also used by members of Special Operations forces.

According to the American side, a car carrying the Chinese diplomats and their spouses drove up to one of the checkpoints of the military installation. Upon realizing that the car’s passengers did not have permission to enter the base, the guard at the checkpoint asked the driver to proceed through the gated entry and immediately turn around, thus exiting the base. But the car allegedly drove straight into the base and did not slow down after military personnel pursued it. It came to a stop only after several fire trucks blocked its way.

Once apprehended, the car’s passengers claimed that their knowledge of English was limited and had thus misunderstood the instructions given to them by the guard at the entrance to the base. The New York Times reported that this explanation was echoed by associates of the Chinese diplomats, who said that they were on “a sightseeing tour when they accidentally drove onto the base”.

But US officials told The Times they are skeptical of that explanation, and suspect the Chinese diplomats were trying to assess the physical security of the installation. Moreover, at least one of the Chinese diplomats was allegedly an intelligence officer operating under diplomatic cover —a clue that heightened the skepticism of American officials.

Interestingly, although it complained about the expulsions of its diplomats following the incident in Virginia, Beijing did not retaliate, as is customary in such cases. Therefore, no American diplomats or intelligence officers have been expelled from China in response to Washington’s move. The last time the US expelled Chinese diplomats from its soil was in 1987, when two employees of the Chinese embassy in Washington —almost certainly intelligence officers operating under diplomatic cover— were declared personae non gratae.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 16 December 2019 | Permalink

Belgian university shuts down Chinese-funded institute due to espionage claims

Xinning SongOne of Belgium’s leading universities has decided to shut down a research institute funded by the Chinese government, after the Belgian intelligence service accused its director of spying on behalf of Beijing. The news was announced on Wednesday by the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB), one of Belgium’s leading higher-education institutions. The Confucius Institute has been operated at VUB since 2006. But the university’s board of directors now says that it will not be renewing its contact with the Institute in 2020.

The Confucius Institute at VUB is one of more than 500 such research bodies that the government of China has funded around the world since 2004. Their mission is to promote the language and culture of China to the world. However, numerous academic institutions in Japan, Canada, and a number of European countries, have recently shut down Confucius Institute branches, following allegations that their staff members carried out espionage tasks, or tried to stifle academic research critical of China. In Europe alone, the University of Lyon in France, Stockholm University in Sweden, and Holland’s University of Leiden have all recently terminated their cooperation with the Confucius Institute.

In October of this year, Belgium’s State Security Service (VSSE) concluded that the VUB Confucius Institute director, Dr. Song Xinning, carried out espionage tasks on behalf of the Chinese government. As a result, the Belgian government refused to renew the work visa of Dr. Song, who had lived in Belgium for over a decade. Additionally, the Chinese academic was barred from entering the European Union’s Schengen Area —which comprises 26 European countries— for eight years.

Dr. Song alleges that his work visa was revoked after he refused to cooperate with an American diplomat stationed in Brussels. He also denies that he was ever in the service of Chinese intelligence or the Chinese state. But the VUB appears to have sided with the Belgian government in this dispute. The university annulled its contract with Dr. Song and, as of January, will be terminating its relationship with the Confucius Institute. In a press statement published online, VUB Rector Caroline Pauwels said that the work of the Confucius Institute did not meet the “current policy objectives” of the university.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 12 December 2019 | Permalink

As Australia launches probe, skeptics cast doubts on Chinese defector’s spy claims

Wang LiqiangAs the Australian government has launched an official investigation into the claims made by a self-styled Chinese intelligence defector, some skeptics have begun to cast doubts about his revelations. The claims of Wang “William” Liqiang have dominated news headlines in Australia for over a week. The 26-year-old from China’s eastern Fujian province reportedly defected to Australia in October, while visiting his wife and newborn son in Sydney. He is currently reported to be in a safe house belonging to the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO).

The Australian spy agency confirmed last week that Mr. Wang had provided a 17-page sworn statement, in which he detailed his work as an undercover intelligence officer for Chinese military intelligence. He is also said to have shared the identities of senior Chinese intelligence officers in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and to have explained how they plan to carry out espionage operations on behalf of Bejing. Some media reports claimed that Mr. Wang had shared details about deep-cover Chinese intelligence networks in Australia. The Australian government said on Tuesday that an official investigation had been launched into Mr. Wang’s claims.

But some skeptics in Australia and elsewhere have begun to raise doubts about the Chinese defector’s claims, suggesting that he has given little —if any information— that is genuinely new. Some argue that Mr. Wang is much too young to have been entrusted with senior-level responsibilities in the intelligence agency of a country that rarely promotes twenty-somethings in high-ranking positions. Additionally, Mr. Wang appears to have no military background —he claims to have been recruited while studying fine art— which is not typical of a Chinese military intelligence operative.

Furthermore, Mr. Wang episode interviewers from Australian television’s 60 Minutes program that he began feeling tormented by moral dilemmas when his staff officers supplied him with a fake passport bearing a different name, in preparation for an operation in Taiwan. However, by his own admission, Mr. Wang had been supplied with fake passports for previous operations, so it is not clear why he lost his nerve at the time he did. In fact, case officers usually covet the opportunity to go undercover and feel a sense of exhilaration when they receive fake identification documents for an undercover mission.

Is Mr. Wang not sharing the entire background to his decision to defect to Australia? Or could he be deliberately amplifying his role in Chinese intelligence, in an effort to appear useful to the Australian government and thus secure political protection by Canberra? In the words of Alex Joske, an analyst at the  International Cyber Policy Centre of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, the details in some of Mr. Wang’s claims mean that “government investigations should uncover the facts eventually. But we don’t know the full story and we probably never will”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 26 September 2019 | Permalink

Chinese defector reveals identities of Chinese undercover spies in Asia and Australia

Wang LiqiangA Chinese intelligence defector has reportedly given the Australian government information about entire networks of Chinese undercover spies in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Australia, according to reports. The story of Wang “William” Liqiang, made headlines all over Australia during the weekend, culminating in an entire episode of 60 Minutes Australia about him airing on Sunday. The 26-year-old from China’s eastern Fujian province reportedly defected to Australia in October, while visiting his wife and newborn son, who live in Sydney. He is currently reported to be in a safe house belonging to the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO).

Police in the Chinese city of Shanghai claim that Mr. Wang is a small-time criminal who has been found guilty of using fraudulent documents and has a 15-month suspended prison sentence on his record. In a statement issued on Sunday, China’s embassy in Canberra described Mr. Wang as a “convicted fraudster” who was “wanted by police after fleeing [China] on a fake passport”. But according to reports in the Australian media, Mr. Wang has provided the ASIO with a 17-page sworn statement, in which he details his work as an undercover intelligence officer. He is also said to have shared the identities of senior Chinese intelligence officers in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and to have explained how they organize and implement espionage operations on behalf of Bejing.

In a leading article published on Saturday, The Sydney Morning Herald referred to Mr. Wang as “the first Chinese operative to ever blow his cover” and claimed that he had given the ASIO “a trove of unprecedented inside intelligence” about Chinese espionage operations in Southeast Asia. The newspaper said that the defector had revealed details about entire networks of Chinese intelligence operatives in Taiwan and Hong Kong. He also reportedly provided identifying information about deep-cover Chinese intelligence networks in Australia.

Meanwhile, in an unrelated development, Australian media said yesterday that the ASIO was examining allegations that a Chinese espionage ring tried to recruit an Australian businessman of Chinese background and convince him to run for parliament. According to reports, the spy ring approached Nick Zhao, a successful luxury car dealer, and offered to fund his political campaign with nearly $700,000 (AUS$1 million) if he run as a candidate for the Liberal Party of Australia. Zhao reportedly told the ASIO about the incident last year, shortly before he was found dead in a Melbourne hotel room. His death remains under investigation.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 25 November 2019 | Permalink

FBI files espionage charges against California man who allegedly spied for China

Xuehua Edward PengThe United States has pressed espionage charges against a naturalized American citizen who operated as a courier for Chinese intelligence while working as a tour operator in California. On Monday federal prosecutors in San Francisco filed espionage charges against Xuehua “Edward” Peng, a 56-year-old Chinese-born American citizen. Peng, a trained mechanical engineer, reportedly entered the United States in June 2001 on a temporary visa. In 2012 he became a naturalized American citizen. By that time he was working for US Tour and Travel, an independent tour operator in California.

On Friday, officers with the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested Peng at his home in Hayward, California, and charged him with spying on behalf of the Ministry of State Security (MSS), which is China’s primary external intelligence agency. At a press conference held on Monday, David Anderson, US Attorney for the Northern District of California, said that Peng began working for the MSS in June 2015 and continued to do so until June of 2018. Throughout that time, Peng participated in at least six dead drops on behalf of the MSS, said the FBI. But he was unaware that the agent on the other end of the dead drop was in fact an FBI informant, who had lured Peng and the MSS into an elaborate sting operation. The informant is referred to in the indictment as “the source”. The FBI said it paid the informant nearly $200,000 to facilitate the sting operation.

Most of the dead drops took place at a hotel in Newark, California. Peng would book a room in the hotel using a popular online booking service. He would check in and go to his hotel room, where he would hide envelopes containing as much as $20,000 in cash. He would then leave the room key at the front desk for his contact to pick up. The contact (the FBI informant) would pick up the key and the cash, and leave memory sticks with classified US government information for Peng to pick up. Peng would then travel to China to deliver the classified information to the MSS.

Unbeknownst to Peng, the FBI was monitoring him all along, and managed to secretly tape his alleged espionage activities. The surveillance footage is now part of the federal affidavit that was unsealed on Monday. Moreover, the FBI appears to have given Peng classified information that was approved for the purposes of the counterespionage operation against him. It is not known whether the classified information was real, deceptive, or a mixture of the two. It is worth noting that Peng is not a foreign diplomat and is therefore not subject to the rules of diplomatic immunity. He now faces a maximum of 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 if convicted.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 01 October 2019 | Permalink

In unprecedented move, US plans to block undersea cable linking US with China

undersea telecommunications cableIn a move observers describe as unprecedented, a United States government regulator is preparing to recommend blocking the construction of an 8,000-mile long undersea cable linking America with China, allegedly due to national security concerns. Washington has never before halted the construction of undersea cables, which form the global backbone of the Internet by facilitating nearly 100% of Internet traffic. Much of the undersea cable network is in the process of being replaced by modern optical cables that can facilitate faster Internet-based communications than ever before.

One such scheme is the Pacific Light Cable Network (PLCN), an 8,000-mile undersea cable construction project funded by Google, Facebook and Dr. Peng Telecom & Media Group Co., one of China’s largest telecommunications-hardware manufacturers. The PLCN’s completion will produce the first-ever direct Internet link between Los Angeles and Hong Kong, and is expected to increase Internet speeds in both China and the United States. Most of the PLCN has been laid and its completion is projected for this year.

But now an American regulatory panel plans to recommend blocking the PLCN’s final construction phase. According to The Wall Street Journal, the panel fears that the $300 million undersea cable project may facilitate Chinese espionage. The Justice Department-led panel is known as Team Telecom and consists of officials from several American government agencies, said the paper, citing “individuals involved in the discussion” about PLCN.

Never before has the US blocked the construction of an undersea cable, reported The Journal. National security concerns have been raised with reference to past undersea cable projects, some of whom were partially funded by Chinese-owned companies. But the projects eventually went ahead after the manufacturers were able to demonstrate that the design of the undersea cables forbade the installation of wiretaps. If the PLCN project is blocked, therefore, it will be the first such case in the history of the Internet in America.

The paper said that supporters of the PLCN argue that it would give American government regulators more control over the security of Internet traffic before it even reaches US territory. Additionally, PLCN investors claim that the completion of the project will provide American companies with broader access to consumers in Asia. Google, Facebook, Dr. Peng Telecom and the US government declined to comment on the news report.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 29 August 2019 | Permalink

Swiss to extradite brother of ‘leading biochemist’ who spied for Chinese firm

GlaxoSmithKlineA Swiss court has ordered the extradition to the United States of the brother of one of the world’s leading biochemists, who spied on a British pharmaceutical firm to help a Chinese startup. The extradition is part of a large corporate espionage case centered on Yu Xue, a Chinese scientist described by US federal prosecutors as “one of the world’s top protein biochemists”. Yu specializes in drug research for cancer and other serious terminal illnesses. From 2006 until 2016 he worked in the US for GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), a leading British pharmaceutical group.

In 2018, Yu was arrested by US authorities for stealing trade secrets from a GSK research facility in the US state of Pennsylvania, and giving them to a Chinese startup pharmaceutical company called Renopharma. He eventually pleaded guilty to stealing proprietary data from GSK, in a case that the US Department of Justice described as a textbook example of Chinese “economic warfare” against America. US government prosecutors also claim that Renopharma is almost wholly funded the Chinese government. The three co-founders of the Chinese firm have also been charged with corporate espionage targeting a US firm.

On May 28 Yu’s brother, Gongda Xue, was arrested in Basel, Switzerland. According to the US government, Gongda used GSK data stolen by his brother to carry out drug experimentation at the Friedrich Miescher Institute for Biomedical Research, where he worked as a post-doctoral trainee between 2008 and 2014. On Tuesday, the Swiss Federal Office of Justice (FOJ), ruled in favor of a request by the US government to extradite Gongda so he can be tried in Pennsylvaia. According to the FOJ, the Chinese scientist will be extradited as soon as his 30-day appeal period expires.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 17 July 2019 | Permalink