By Eva Fu
As Chinese authorities escorted the senior Federal Reserve official from his Shanghai hotel room, they demanded he “say good things about China” when back in the United States.
The atmosphere was “frightening,” the official, who remained unnamed, recalled to the Fed.
That was the first of four times the official was detained and interrogated during a 2019 trip to Shanghai. Chinese authorities threatened his family, tapped his phones and computers, and copied contact information of other Federal Reserve officials from his account on Chinese social media app WeChat, according to Senate Homeland Security Committee Republicans who made public the details in a report last July.
The U.S. official recounted Chinese authorities trying to pry “sensitive, non-public economic data” out of him and insisting that he “advise senior government officials” on sensitive economic issues such as trade tariffs while the United States and China were embroiled in a trade war. They forced him to drink liquor and attempted to make him commit to future meetings to allow them to gather economic intelligence.
Unsettling as it is, the incident was but part of a “long-running and brazen” malicious campaign from China over the course of more than a decade to undermine U.S. economic policy and advance Beijing’s ambition to supplant the United States as the global superpower.
Coercion and threats represent only a sliver of the regime’s toolbox used to target the Western political sphere. A Chinese think tank based in Beijing, in partnering with the state-affiliated Tsinghua University, in 2019 rated White House advisors and U.S. governors by their friendliness to Beijing. The group labeled officials as “friendly,” “ambiguous,” or “hardline” after combing through metrics such as age, work history, public statements, trade activities with China, and length of term.
Time, patience, and thoroughness—these are attributes that Michel Juneau-Katsuya, former Asia Pacific chief at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service in the 1990s, sees in the Chinese regime’s craft of infiltration.
“They’ve been capable to work in a very holistic way,” he told The Epoch Times.
China, he noted, doesn’t have a democratic election process that could displace the leadership from power. “So they know that they can plant today something that will be capable to be harvested in five, 10 or 15 years.”
Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), who has advocated for a tougher stance on China, agreed.
“They’re playing the long game,” he told The Epoch Times.
Biding Their Time
Few if any U.S. leaders, from the federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial levels, are immune to the risk of the Chinese regime manipulating them to bolster its hidden agenda, warned the National Counterintelligence and Security Center in July last year.
By leveraging relationships with U.S. officials—called “using the local to surround the central” in communist slogan terms—Beijing can pressure Washington to back policy outcomes favorable to the regime, such as deepening bilateral economic ties and tamping down criticism of the regime’s abysmal human rights record.
A Chinese spy reportedly drove for the recently deceased Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) for 20 years.
Christine Fang, an alleged Chinese spy working for China’s top intelligence agency, the Ministry of State Security, reportedly used campaign fundraising, networking, and romantic relationships with at least two Midwestern city mayors to gain a footing in their spheres of influence.
Ms. Fang also approached Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) when he was a member of the Dublin City Council, raised money for his 2014 reelection campaign, and facilitated an intern’s placement in Mr. Swalwell’s office, according to Axios.
The connection prompted a two-year investigation from the bipartisan House Ethics Committee, which in May ultimately decided not to take any action against the California lawmaker, but cautioned Mr. Swalwell to remain aware of “the possibility that foreign governments may attempt to secure improper influence through gifts and other interactions.”
The United Front network, which helps the Party control the Chinese diaspora, also plays a role in co-opting well-placed individuals for Beijing’s interests.
Lu Jianwang, one of the two alleged operators of a secret Chinese police station in New York, together with his brother, has given tens of thousands of dollars to New York politicians in recent years, including vice chair of the Democratic National Committee Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.), New York Mayor Eric Adams, and New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, campaign finance records show.
People walk by a building (C), which is suspected of being a secret police station on behalf of China’s regime, in New York’s Chinatown on April 18, 2023. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
“Local level officials, state officials are just not going to be as aware of or as attuned to some of these influence efforts—they’re just trying to create jobs,” Sarah Cook, a senior China analyst at the Freedom House, told The Epoch Times.
“The CCP is very good at taking advantage of that, to get people to side with them, to get people in the United States to have a stake in what the CCP also wants. Then later, that can be activated to create situations that are more problematic.”
“I think people at the earliest part of that relationship, don’t realize that,” she added.
As with Ms. Fang’s case, the Chinese influence operations begin early in the local leaders’ careers.
“They’re very, very patient, they have time on their side. Their determination and their focus is remarkable,” Mr. Juneau-Katsuya said of the regime.
He said that Chinese intelligence officers-turned-defectors had detailed to him how they were instructed to be model citizens in the Western world for five to 10 years, working their way up the ladder in society before being “activated.”
“When the security service or the police tried to do a background check, they find absolutely nothing,” he said. “So they are extremely, extremely deep undercover agents in that perspective,” Mr. Juneau-Katsuya said.
‘Lie in Plain Sight’
Taiwan, Uyghur, Falun Gong, Tiananmen Square. The list of the Chinese Communist Party’s trigger words goes on. And the regime has made it clear that no one—in China or anywhere else—should go against its will.
Late at night on March 28, a day after the House overwhelmingly passed Rep. Chris Smith’s (R-N.J.) Stop Forced Organ Harvesting Act of 2023, a furious email from the Chinese embassy’s minister counselor Zhou Zheng arrived at the inbox of an aide to the congressman.
The email, written from a Gmail account registered under Mr. Zhou, declared the bill “absurd” and claimed the “so-called ‘forced organ harvesting’ in China is a farce.”
The bill was the first ever such legislative piece to curb the state-sanctioned killing of prisoners of conscience for their organs, an atrocity that an independent London tribunal in 2019 concluded has taken place in China for years “on a significant scale.”
Mr. Zhou, in true Beijing fashion, demanded that the United States stop “baseless hype and anti-China moves and stops preceding [sic] this legislation.”
Mr. Smith said the claims in the email were “a big lie in plain sight.”
“The Falun Gong practitioners and the Uyghurs are being killed for their organs, and it’s tens of thousands every single year, as we know,” he told The Epoch Times.
“Perfectly healthy people being put down in a gurney drugged in order to effectuate two to three of their organs being taken out involuntarily—and they kill them—that is murder. That’s crimes against humanity.”
The New Jersey Republican on April 14 wrote to the Chinese embassy requesting a visa to visit Xinjiang, the northwestern Chinese region where an estimated 1 million Uyghurs are being held in detention camps. He hasn’t heard back.
A few weeks before the email to Mr. Smith, counselor Li Xiang with the Chinese embassy wrote to Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), insisting he retract his bill ordering the declassification of information surrounding COVID-19 origins, which had been signed into law on March 20.
Mr. Hawley shrugged it off. “The Chinese government wrote to me and demanded I withdraw my Covid origins bill,” he wrote in a social media post on March 9. “Hahaha. Not a chance.”
An Uyghur woman protests in front of policemen on a street in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region, China, on July 7, 2009. (Guang Niu/Getty Images)
Mr. Li also hit a wall when he tried to block a scheduled congressional hearing on the origins of COVID-19. Nor was he successful with his warning to House lawmakers not to meet with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen during her visit to Los Angeles.
The audacity of the regime in making demands of an elected member of Congress “incensed” Rep. Ashley Hinson (R-Iowa), one of the recipients of the threatening letter.
“Basically, I just said, ‘No, you can’t tell me who I can and can’t meet with and I’m going to go ahead and meet with her,’” Ms. Hinson told The Epoch Times. “And that’s what we did.”
“The fact that somebody was bold enough to assume that they could send me an email like that, and threaten and bully me—incredulous.”
“I will not be bullied, my mind is not going to be changed on an email like that, where you are deliberately trying to undermine my ability to do my job.”
(Left) Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) is on the Chinese regime’s sanction list over his human rights advocacy. (Right) The Chinese regime had sent a threat letter to Rep. Ashley Hinson (R-Iowa), who said she refused to be “bullied” by the regime. (Samuel Corum/Getty Images, Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Despite receiving backlash, what keeps Beijing’s officials going, according to Ms. Cook, is that although it may not work this time or with some “veteran CCP critics,” it can “make people think twice about a critical action next time.”
Mr. Smith and Mr. Hawley are both on the regime’s sanction list over their human rights advocacy. They may “find it gratifying and a mark of their impact to get a letter from the Chinese consulate—but that’s not true for everyone.”
Those who are not familiar with the Chinese state-directed maneuverings are more vulnerable to the CCP’s bullying, said Ms. Cook, especially if they aren’t aware of how often it happens. Some of the threats voiced are just bluffs, she said.
If Chinese officials “remind” U.S. leaders of the potential economic consequences, someone newer to an elected office or a lawmaker who is introducing a policy action that provokes Beijing may decide to “avoid the controversy” next time, even if they carry through on the current action.
“They may be caught by surprise, and if they are local officials receiving an intimidating letter from a big national and repressive government like China’s, then that’s two entities that aren’t operating at the same level,” she said. “And depending on the situation, they may actually have more to lose in terms of, say, investment in their district.”
An example occurred in California in 2017 when then-state Sen. Joel Anderson tried to push the state legislature to take a symbolic stance against the Chinese regime’s persecution of Falun Gong.
Two days after his resolution unanimously passed through the state’s judiciary committee, a round of letters flew from the Chinese consulate in San Francisco to California state senate members.
Immediately, a “chilling effect” set in on Mr. Anderson’s colleagues who had previously been supportive of the resolution. During the final week of the Senate session, Mr. Anderson tried at least 18 times to bring the measure to a floor vote, to no avail.
His colleagues “didn’t want to talk about it,” he later told The Epoch Times. And “the only difference between supporting it or not supporting it” was the letter.
The Party’s tactics for gaining influence have become increasingly aggressive over the years. Where money fails, espionage and outright intimidation come in.
A child of a UK lawmaker outspoken about China had their university place jeopardized when the institution received threats of losing all Chinese funding; another politician’s child was barred from boarding a Chinese airline flight owing to their surname.
Canadian parliamentary member Michael Chong, who has confronted Chinese repression as Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, learned in May that a Toronto-based Chinese consulate official, Zhao Wei, has been gathering information about his family in Hong Kong in order to target them with sanctions beginning in 2020, even though Mr. Chong had intentionally cut off contact with them for years to insulate them.
The regime’s mix of reward and retaliation appears to have paid off to a certain extent.
In the conservative state of Utah, up to 25 lawmakers have routinely taken trips to China every other year since 2007, with Chinese state media featuring their jubilant quotes in order to amplify Beijing’s agenda.
The Chinese embassy brokered an email exchange in which Chinese leader Xi Jinping wrote a note thanking Utah fourth-graders for their Chinese New Year greetings, prompting a Republican legislator to say on the state Senate floor he “couldn’t help but think how amazing it was” that the Chinese leader Xi Jinping took the time to write such a “remarkable” letter, according to an Associated Press investigative report.
After being approached by a Beijing advocate, another Utah state legislator introduced a resolution in 2020 expressing solidarity with China early in the COVID-19 pandemic. The resolution passed, although the governor declined to sign it.
A similar resolution, proffered by Chinese embassy officials, was rebuffed in Wisconsin.
Asked in September during a Senate intelligence committee hearing whether the Chinese regime has been successful in changing policy outcomes, Glenn Tiffert of the Hoover Institution answered “absolutely yes,” and pointed to Beijing’s successful manipulation of corporate America through economic incentives.
President Joe Biden participates virtually in a meeting on the Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors (CHIPS) for America Act, at the White House on July 25, 2022. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
President Joe Biden last May called out the regime for lobbying against a bipartisan measure to bolster U.S. semiconductor manufacturing. The U.S.-based Semiconductor Industry Association trade group in July also called on the Biden administration to “refrain from further restrictions” on chip sales to China, just as administration officials mulled updating the restrictions that were rolled out last October aimed at crippling the Chinese chip industry.
“China does not need to insert itself directly into those consultations, because the American firms’ interests themselves point in that direction,” Mr. Tiffert told the senators.
The incentive factor manifests in other forms too: When Rockville City in Maryland was contemplating a sister city agreement with Taiwan’s Yilan City, Chinese diplomats in Washington dangled investment opportunities in front of Rockville city officials and pressed them to scrap the plan, citing Rockville’s unofficial connection with southeastern Chinese city Jiaxing, Mr. Tiffert noted at the hearing.
“Fortunately, the city stood firm,” he said, but partnerships like this with China have become one of the windows for the Chinese to lay claims on U.S. policy.
And when subtle means don’t work, Beijing doesn’t shy away from overt aggression.
In October 2020, two Chinese officials snapping photos of guests at a Taiwan-held reception event in Fiji assaulted a Taiwanese official after being barred from entry. The Taiwanese diplomat suffered head injuries and had to be hospitalized.
A ‘Sophisticated Network’
To conquer an opponent requires an understanding of where they are weak, and one weakness for the West is democracy—the need to have election cycles to “renew ourselves constantly,” said Mr. Juneau-Katsuya.
“Because we renew ourselves, also, we are in the process of constantly seeking approval, seeking support, seeking election votes,” he said. The Chinese “understand it so well” that they have their diplomatic missions infiltrate the local Chinese community, turning it into a bargaining chip to get elected Western officials to do their bidding.
The power of that control was on display during the 2021 Canadian federal election. Amid the Conservative Party’s surge in the polls, Chinese state-affiliated entities waged a disinformation campaign to discredit conservative candidates, which some analysts believe resulted in keeping hawkish candidates such as Mr. Chong’s former colleague Kenny Chiu out of the office.
People walk near the Chinatown gate in The Hague, Netherlands, on July 18, 2023. (Lavinia Savu/The Epoch Times)
“The CCP is very clever, and they have a very sophisticated network in place in penetrating many of the diaspora communities,” Mr. Chiu told The Epoch Times’s sister media NTD.
The regime also has something else to their advantage: the sheer volume of people.
Mr. Juneau-Katsuya recalls that during the Korean War, with less sophisticated weaponry on hand, the Chinese opted to send wave after wave of people during assaults, until they overwhelmed—and overtook—their opponents. They have applied the same concept to the intelligence front, he said.
Roughly 60 million ethnic Chinese live outside of China as of 2020, and hundreds of thousands of Chinese students study abroad each year. These overseas Chinese populations are under constant watch of Chinese front groups that report to the local Chinese consulates or embassy, effectively making them a pawn for amplifying the regime’s agenda, Mr. Juneau-Katsuya said.
‘Across the Board’
The depth of Chinese infiltration globally has largely been in the shadows until recent years.
A scheduler for Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), who was on Capitol Hill for 34 years, was fired last October after allegedly attempting to arrange meetings between congressional offices and Chinese embassy officials.
A recent Times of London report said an agent with China’s Ministry of State Security used LinkedIn profiles to entice thousands of British officials with cash and lucrative deals in exchange for state secrets.
In March, British police arrested a man in Edinburgh on suspicion of spying for the Chinese regime. The man, who had studied and worked in China, reportedly forged links to senior conservative legislators as a parliamentary researcher and had helped shape the UK’s policy on China. The Conservative Party in September said it had dropped two would-be Members of Parliament linked to the regime’s United Front network after domestic counterintelligence agency MI5 flagged them as a risk.
During the first five months this year in Canada, concerns over Chinese foreign interference came into the open as more than 350 witnesses testified in front of four parliamentary committees probing the issue. Mr. Juneau-Katsuya said it was a further indicator of Beijing’s success in compromising “every single level” of political strata in his country.
At the Tiananmen Memorial in New York in September, Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), the chairman of the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party, told reporters that “it’s reasonable to assume that all of us in Congress and our staff” are targets for the Ministry of State Security (MSS) and the United Front system.
“We need to be aware of that fact and cognizant of that fact,” he said when asked about the level of vetting of congressional staffers.
“For whatever reason, the MSS doesn’t occupy the same place in people’s imagination or minds that let’s say the KGB did, so it’s hard for people to truly understand the scale and scope of Chinese espionage as a result.”
And because “Hollywood is bought and paid for by China,” in many cases, there are no movies helping put the issue into perspective, he said.
He told The Epoch Times he believes Chinese political interference is occurring “across the board,” and he hopes to educate his fellow colleagues about the nature of Chinese espionage and United Front work so that they can better shield themselves from it.
Tackling a ‘Monster’
Chinese embassy officials haven’t contacted Ms. Hinson, also a member of the House China Committee, since her April meeting with Taiwan’s president.
“I think they know I’m not going to roll over,” she said. But Chinese political meddling, she said, is “alive and well here in the United States, and it’s our job as a committee to go on offense.”
“If they come at me again, I’m ready,” she said. “We need to put forth the best policy package possible without any fear of influence by the CCP.”
In a way, Mr. Juneau-Katsuya sees the task of unmasking the covert Chinese operations as equivalent to trying to tackle a “monster” well-fed by the West that’s now “bigger than us” and “with tentacles everywhere.”
It’s “not an easy job,” he said. But “the genie is out of the bottle and cannot be returned,” and with Western countries binding together, he believes there will be a change—albeit it will take time.
“They are formidable opponents and they’ve been at it for decades now,” he said of Beijing. “They’re subtle, they’re everywhere. So it’ll take a while before we succeed in regaining control.”
Jan Jekielek and NTD’s Steve Lance contributed to this report.