Trump administration considering mass expulsions of alleged Chinese spies

United States ChinaThe administration of United States President Donald Trump is considering the possibility of expelling from the country dozens of Chinese diplomats, journalists, and others, who are believed to be undercover spies. The expulsions relate to a spiraling information war between Washington and Beijing, which has erupted in recent weeks as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Earlier this month, the Chinese government announced that it would expel 13 American journalists from three major newspapers, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post. Beijing also stipulated that all American news organizations operating in China had to provide its government with detailed information about their financial assets, employee structure and other organizational information. The journalists claimed that they were expelled for trying to report about the status of the COVID-19 pandemic inside China.

Around the same time, President Trump and senior members of his administration, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, began referring to the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2, known as novel coronavirus) as “the Chinese virus” or “the Wuhan virus”. The term refers to the Chinese province where the virus is believed to have originated. President Trump claims that he decided to use the term “Chinese virus” in response to unsubstantiated claims by government officials in Beijing that the novel coronavirus was brought to China by members of the US military.

On Thursday The New York Times reported that the Trump administration was considering expelling from the US a large number of Chinese citizens who work as diplomats or journalists. In some cases, the White House is reportedly considering shutting down the bureaus of some Chinese media outlets in the US. According to a number of administration officials, many Chinese journalists based in the US are in reality undercover intelligence officers, who regularly report to the Ministry of State Security —China’s primary external intelligence agency. Some of these alleged undercover intelligence officers —known in the world of intelligence as ‘non-official cover’— are allegedly embedded with China Global Television Network, the foreign-language arm of the state-owned China Central Television (CCTV), according to some American officials.

On March 2, the Trump administration abruptly imposed quotas on the number of foreign citizens who are permitted to work for Chinese media organizations in the US. The Chinese media groups complied with the new directive in a timely manner, by recalling over 60 of their staff members to China. However, the White House now believes that a significant number of the 100 Chinese journalists who continue to operate in the US are undercover intelligence officers.

Meanwhile, on March 25, China’s English-language government-owned newspaper The Global Times raised eyebrows by repeating allegations that the novel coronavirus was brought to China by an American cyclist, who visited Wuhan in October of last year to compete in the Military World Games. Such allegations, which propagate the view that the novel coronavirus originated in the US, are quickly growing in popularity in Chinese social media platforms.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 27 March 2020 | Permalink

Militaries around the world scramble to contain impact of COVID-19

COVID-19 ChinaMilitary forces around the world are scrambling to contain the impact of COVID-19 on military readiness, as the virus continues to infect troops and commanders at an alarming rate. On Tuesday, the Polish government announced that General Jaroslaw Mika, who serves as general commander of Branches of the Armed Forces, had tested positive for the coronavirus. General Mika is believed to have contracted the virus during a military conference that took place in the German city of Wiesbaden, where North Atlantic Treaty Organization commanders gathered to plan an American-led military exercise.

Also on Tuesday, the United States Department of Defense said that the commander of the US Army in Europe, Lieutenant General Christopher Cavoli, participated at the Wiesbaden conference, along with several other US Army staff members. They are currently being tested for exposure to COVID-19. Meanwhile the Reuters news agency reported that the US Pentagon acknowledged that “the US military’s official tally of servicemembers and related personnel who have been infected by the coronavirus likely undercounts the actual total”. Sources told the news agency that the low age and good health of American troops was “a mixed blessing of sorts”, since it allows US servicemembers to survive the virus but at the same time reduces their symptoms that would normally trigger testing for COVID-19.

The government of Taiwan said on Tuesday that over 400 members of its armed forces had entered self-imposed quarantine in order to prevent a possible COVID-19 outbreak among military personnel. This brings the total number of Taiwanese servicemembers who are currently in quarantine to over 2,000, which includes two generals. The country’s Minister of Defense, Yen De-fa, insisted on Tuesday that the virus had not impacted Taiwan’s military readiness.

Chinese officials have not provided information about the effect of the coronavirus on the country’s military. The Chinese-language website of The Epoch Times said last week that, according to unnamed insiders, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army had “forcibly isolated” tens of thousands of servicemembers this month. There are no reports of specific numbers in the Chinese media or non-Chinese news outlets.

Finally, according to Daily NK, a South Korean website that specializes on news from North Korea, approximately 180 North Korean soldiers have died as a result of contracting COVID-19 in the past month. The website cited “a source inside the North Korean military”, who said that Pyongyang had forcibly quarantined at around 3,700 soldiers of all ranks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the country’s military.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 10 March 2020 | Permalink

Chinese cybersecurity firm accuses CIA of 11-year cyberespionage campaign

CIA headquartersA leading Chinese cybersecurity firm has accused the United States Central Intelligence Agency of using sophisticated malicious software to hack into computers belonging to the Chinese government and private sector for over a decade.

The accusation against the CIA comes from Qihoo 360, a prominent cybersecurity firm headquartered in Beijing. On Monday, company published a report of its investigation on its website, written in both Chinese and English. The report identifies the hackers as “the CIA Hacking Group (APT-C-39)”, and says that the group has carried out activities against “China’s critical industries” for at least 11 years.

The report claims that APT-C-39 targets included China’s energy and civilian aviation sectors, Internet service providers, scientific research universities and organizations, and various government agencies —which it does not name. The majority of the hacker group’s targets were located in Beijing, and also in China’s Zhejiang and Guangdong provinces.

According to Qihoo 360, APT-C-39 must be a “state-level hacking organization”, judging by the hacking tools that it used. These tools, such malware named by forensics experts as Grasshopper and Fluxwire, are believed to have been designed by the CIA. They were leaked in 2017 by the international whistleblower website WikiLeaks. American authorities have charged a former CIA programmer, Joshua Schulte, with leaking the malware. Schulte denies the charges.

The Qihoo 360 report also claims that the hours during which APT-C-39 hackers appear to be active correspond to the working hours of the East Coast of the United States. It also suggests that one goal behind the hacking operations against airline industry targets was to access the travel itineraries of senior figures in China’s political and industrial circles.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 04 March 2020 | Permalink

US threatens to de-fund Africa disease control program over Chinese influence

African UnionThe United States has threatened to pull its funding for an Africa-wide disease control program if the African Union decides to accept an offer from China to build the program’s new headquarters. The dispute accentuates a growing competition between Washington and Beijing to exert political control in Africa and places the African Union at the center of a difficult dilemma.

The quarrel concerns the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or Africa CDC, a network of five biomedical research hubs that are located in Zambia, Kenya, Gabon, Nigeria and Egypt. The network was established in 2017 in response to the outbreak of the Ebola epidemic in western Africa. Its mission is to gather data that can help monitor and contain disease outbreaks and other health crises throughout the continent. The network’s central hub is located at the headquarters of the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Africa CDC is an initiative of the African Union, but it is partly funded by outside countries and bodies, including China, the United States, and the World Bank. Washington supported the establishment of Africa CDC with a donation of $14 million, and an offer to pay the project director’s salary, as well as assign scientists to work there from the US CDC. But the United States has expressed concerns about a recent offer by China to double its funding of Africa CDC and to build a the organization’s new headquarters, at the cost of $80 million. Foreign affairs ministers from the African Union’s 55 states began discussing Beijing’s offer on Thursday during a meeting in Ethiopia.

There are some among them who question China’s intentions. They refer to news reports that surfaced in the French press in 2018, according to which the Chinese-built headquarters of the African Union was comprehensively ‘bugged’ by Beijing. According to the reports, the $200 million, 19-storey skyscraper in the Ethiopian capital was hardwired with computer servers that secretly communicate with Chinese government computers, without the consent of African Union network managers.

On Thursday The Wall Street Journal quoted an anonymous United States government official, who said that “if the Chinese build the headquarters [of Africa CDC], the US will have nothing to do with” the organization. The African Union has not commented on The Journal’s article.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 07 February 2020 | Permalink

 

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