China Brief

U.S. Partisanship Is Harming Counterintelligence

The case of an alleged Chinese spy who worked her way into U.S. municipal politics raises tricky questions about how cautious politicians should be.

U.S. Reps. Ben Cline and Eric Swalwell talk during a break on June 17 in Washington.
U.S. Reps. Ben Cline and Eric Swalwell talk during a break on June 17 in Washington. Greg Nash-Pool/Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.

The highlights this week: A recent case shows how U.S. partisanship undermines counterintelligence, why former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg should avoid becoming the next U.S. ambassador to China, and the United States issues sanctions against a former gangster-turned-businessman with ties to the Chinese Communist Party.

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Counterintelligence Can’t Survive U.S. Partisanship

Axios reported on Monday that a suspected Chinese spy, Christine Fang, managed to become close with Rep. Eric Swalwell, then a city councilman, and Rep. Ro Khanna, then a congressional candidate, while working her way into municipal politics in the United States. Fang’s methods appear to have included sexual contact, as FBI surveillance caught her in a sexual encounter with one unnamed mayor, while another older mayor introduced her as his girlfriend.

This case illustrates the time and effort that Chinese intelligence services are willing to put into cultivating low-level politicians, expecting that they might eventually rise to higher positions.

But it also raises tricky questions about the level of caution necessary for politicians when dealing with Chinese nationals—where to draw the line between security and paranoia. China isn’t the Soviet Union: There are numerous Chinese citizens, former citizens, and people with strong family ties to China who play a meaningful role in U.S. political and economic life whose rights should be protected.

In this case, Swalwell appears to have behaved entirely properly. As a municipal representative, he had no reason to believe that China might target him, nor any access to secrets. When warned by the FBI, he promptly broke off all contact with Fang. But the case has quickly become politicized by right-wing commentators who want to discredit Swalwell, who played a key role in Trump’s impeachment. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has already called for Swalwell’s disqualification from the Intelligence Committee.

This is dangerous territory. U.S. counterintelligence efforts against both Russia and China can’t function if Republicans see investigations into Russian influence as an attack and attempt to weaponize China investigations against Democrats in turn. The bulk of responsibility falls on a Republican Party desperate to defend U.S. President Donald Trump’s corruption and complicity, but Democrats blaming any investigation on the Republicans—as Swalwell did in a Politico interview on Tuesday—don’t help.


What We’re Following

Don’t take China, Pete. U.S. President-elect Joe Biden is reportedly considering former presidential contender Pete Buttigieg for ambassador to China. Right now, that’s a poisoned chalice for a number of reasons—never mind that Buttigieg has fluency in several languages, none of them Chinese. First, as former Mexican Ambassador to China Jorge Guajardo pointed out, business between countries as large as the United States and China is done through capitals, not embassies—making the ambassadorship an unlikely role to build a bigger profile.

China also doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage, even for foreign diplomatic staff, meaning that Buttigieg’s husband, Chasten Buttigieg, would need a limited Member of Household tourist visa. And with Republicans keen to link Democrats to China to compensate for Trump’s alleged dealings with Russia, the position would come with political dangers—especially with Beijing equally keen to force gestures of political humiliation on U.S. politicians. Given the state of U.S.-China affairs, the role should go to some skilled and uninteresting bureaucrat, not a politician.

Supersoldier fears. An overzealous story about China’s alleged research on biologically enhanced soldiers caused an NBC correspondent to proclaim, “Imagine a sniper who can see twice as far as a human being.” The story seems to be based off little more than an unsourced claim by U.S. Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe—and U.S. intelligence has a bad habit of perceiving Chinese aspirations as existing programs.

Expect to increasingly see such fears of alleged genetic engineering in China, especially given the national interest in the gene-editing tool CRISPR and cases such as the rogue scientist He Jiankui. Chinese interest in eugenics is real, but the results are likely to be slow, dubious, and of little military utility compared to conventional technology. The capacity for Chinese soldiers to see far beyond normal human vision already exists: It’s called a scope.

No stamps for you. Sometimes the affairs of state between great nations are weighty—but sometimes they are extremely petty. Amid the diplomatic crisis caused by the border killings earlier this year, China has canceled a set of stamps to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations with India. The move is another signal that Beijing has no desire to mend the many fences it’s trampled this year—and that the days of Hindi Chini bhai-bhai are long gone.


Tech and Business

BRI goes gangster. The U.S. Treasury has issued Magnitsky sanctions against Wan Kuok-koi, also known as Broken Tooth, a notorious Triad leader originally based in Macau and later imprisoned on organized crime charges, who now runs a Southeast Asian business network accused of being a front for criminal activity. What is interesting about the U.S. sanctions is that they single out Wan’s role in the Belt and Road Initiative and his alleged position in the Macau branch of an advisory government body used as a reward for those Beijing favors.

Organized crime in Hong Kong and Macau has always easily crossed over to the broader business world. Since the 1980s, it has worked closely with the Chinese Communist Party. It’s not surprising to see it being used to further party goals in other countries.

Trade record. Trump’s trade war with China has finally produced… a record high for the Chinese trade surplus, which hit $75.43 billion last month. China has failed to meet most of the goals set during the part one of the trade deal at the start of 2020, while tourism and education—which normally help the U.S. side of the balance sheet—have been shut down by the pandemic. Meanwhile, as Americans hunker down for the winter, they’re buying electronics and other Chinese goods in record numbers.

Laboratory for repression. Outside understanding of the technology used in China’s campaign of massive repression in Xinjiang continues to grow. New research by Human Rights Watch shows big data is used to target minorities in Xinjiang. Chinese companies including Huawei, meanwhile, are openly boasting that their technology can identify Uighur faces and issue immediate alerts—within China, that is a selling point.


What We’re Playing

Amazing Cultivation Simulator, by GSQ Games

This charming video game, recently translated into English, draws clear inspiration from the Western science fiction colony management simulator RimWorld, but it uses a fantasy Chinese setting. In Amazing Cultivation Simulator, you lead surviving members of a Daoist sect attacked by its rivals to form a new colony and develop martial arts skills and mystical powers to fight rival sects and mystical monsters.

It’s both a fun game and an excellent introduction to the genre of xianxia, or immortal heroes—stories featuring protagonists who have mystical powers thanks to their cultivation of qi. Like Western fantasy, it has premodern inspirations but has developed its own distinct tropes.


That’s it for this week.

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James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer

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