Report

Was China’s Houston Consulate Trying to Steal the Coronavirus Vaccine?

China’s efforts to use the Houston consulate to steal science and technology secrets were “particularly aggressive and particularly successful,” Trump administration indicates.

The Chinese Consulate in Houston
The Chinese flag flies at the Chinese Consulate in Houston on July 22. Mark Felix/AFP via Getty Images
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China may have been using its now-closed consulate in Houston as a base of operations for industrial espionage as it seeks to be the first to hit the market with a vaccine for the novel coronavirus, Trump administration officials indicated on Friday.

The Houston facility is near the largest medical complex in the world and a bevy of research universities and critical infrastructure projects. Officials said the consulate has been used at least 50 times in the past 10 years to help recruit members of the Thousand Talents Program, China’s effort to target top Chinese and foreign experts from around the world in cutting-edge fields to bring their skills back to Beijing.

In recent years, China has made a concerted effort to leap ahead in scientific research and technology by targeting Chinese nationals and foreign experts. Chinese Consulate officials in Houston had been directly involved in communications with researchers and guided them on what information to collect, the officials said.

“From where I sit and you look at what happened with the corona outbreak in China in 2019, they have been very clear about their intent to be the first to the market with a vaccine, and the medical connections here aren’t lost on me,” a senior State Department official told reporters on Friday. “The medical connection in Houston is also pretty specific.” It was not immediately clear what trade secrets China was able to target from the facility.

On Friday, China retaliated for the closure of its U.S. consulate, ordered by the State Department on Tuesday, by ordering the closure of the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, China. U.S. officials did not clarify whether Chinese consular officers would leave the Houston facility by the Friday deadline.

Also on Friday, the U.S. effort to push back against Chinese spying took another step forward, after American authorities arrested a fugitive Chinese researcher and uniformed officer of China’s Air Force who was hunkered down in the Chinese consulate in San Francisco. Juan Tang is likely to appear in U.S. District Court on Friday, after the FBI earlier this week arrested three other individuals charged with visa fraud and lying about working for China’s People’s Liberation Army.

Like other consular facilities, the Houston consulate had been long used as a base of operations for Chinese intelligence services, officials said, because of their status as sovereign territory within the United States. But a senior intelligence official said that science and technology intelligence collectors from the Houston area were “particularly aggressive and particularly successful.” Earlier this month, FBI Director Christopher Wray said that the agency opens a new Chinese espionage case approximately every 10 hours.

In July 2019, a Houston businessman, Shan Shi, was found guilty of conspiring to steal trade secrets from a Texas company that makes drilling equipment for the oil industry. Shi, a naturalized U.S. citizen, was acquitted of conspiring to conduct economic espionage on behalf of China.

Also last year, three scientists were ousted from MD Anderson, one of the world’s leading cancer care centers, after the National Institutes of Health raised concerns about potential conflicts of interest or unreported foreign income among a handful of faculty members. The nationalities of the scientists weren’t made public, but investigative reports made reference to China and Chinese institutions. More recently, the United Kingdom and United States have blamed Russian digital intruders for targeting coronavirus vaccine research, including the so-called Cozy Bear hackers linked to 2016 cyberattacks against the Democratic National Committee.

“Their No. 1 mission is our technology and our research,” said James Olson, a former CIA chief of counterintelligence and now a professor at Texas A&M University. “They have a very insatiable appetite for any tech that’s better than they have, because they’ve decided it’s much easier to steal it than to get it on their own.”

In recent years, Texas has become a hotbed for perceived or potential Chinese espionage against U.S. interests.

Last month, Foreign Policy reported that the Trump administration had opted not to block a Chinese company with links to the People’s Liberation Army from building a wind farm near Laughlin Air Force Base, the U.S. military’s largest hub for pilot training. Earlier this month, Texas Republican Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, along with Rep. Will Hurd, asked Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to provide a classified briefing on whether the project would infringe upon Air Force flight training routes.

But even with President Donald Trump amping up his anti-China rhetoric in the runup to the consular closures, some Democrats in Congress said that the White House had gone easy on China on key strategic issues, including backing off on actions against the telecommunications companies ZTE and Huawei, and initially trying to stop sanctions against Chinese officials involved in crackdowns in Hong Kong.

“Clearly what the president is trying to do after cozying up to President Xi [Jinping] for a long time, he’s decided that he’s going to play tough guy with China, especially with respect to blaming them for the spread of the coronavirus,” Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen told Foreign Policy.

“On the one hand the president wants to beat his chest and talk tough now about China, but all his actions, at least in the areas of human rights and democracy, have simply been essentially appeasing President Xi and the government of China,” Van Hollen said.

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Amy Mackinnon is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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