U.S. Justice Department Fires Warning Shot at Chinese Spies

The United States announced a slew of indictments of Chinese espionage.

By , a reporter at Foreign Policy, and , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland and FBI director Christopher Wray hold a press conference.
U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland and FBI director Christopher Wray hold a press conference.
U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland (left) and FBI director Christopher Wray hold a press conference at the U.S. Justice Department in Washington on Oct. 24. Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Top officials from the U.S. Justice Department unveiled a slate of indictments against 13 Chinese nationals accused of spying on behalf of Beijing and seeking to disrupt a U.S. government investigation into Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei. In a broadside against Chinese espionage efforts in the United States, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced indictments in three separate cases in New York and New Jersey on Monday.

The announcement comes as the Justice Department has increasingly cracked down on Chinese intelligence operations in the United States, which have sought to gain access to sensitive technologies, recruit former U.S. officials, and intimidate dissidents into silence. FBI director Christopher Wray noted on Monday that the bureau was opening a new Chinese counterintelligence investigation every 12 hours on average. In 2020, the FBI announced that economic espionage cases linked to China had increased by around 1,300 percent over the past decade. 

The indictments come on the heels of the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th National Congress, which cemented Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s rule over the country for the coming years, bucking recent tradition by enabling him to stay in power for a third term in office. Under Xi’s tenure, China has forged a more combative and assertive role on the world stage. 

Top officials from the U.S. Justice Department unveiled a slate of indictments against 13 Chinese nationals accused of spying on behalf of Beijing and seeking to disrupt a U.S. government investigation into Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei. In a broadside against Chinese espionage efforts in the United States, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced indictments in three separate cases in New York and New Jersey on Monday.

The announcement comes as the Justice Department has increasingly cracked down on Chinese intelligence operations in the United States, which have sought to gain access to sensitive technologies, recruit former U.S. officials, and intimidate dissidents into silence. FBI director Christopher Wray noted on Monday that the bureau was opening a new Chinese counterintelligence investigation every 12 hours on average. In 2020, the FBI announced that economic espionage cases linked to China had increased by around 1,300 percent over the past decade. 

The indictments come on the heels of the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th National Congress, which cemented Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s rule over the country for the coming years, bucking recent tradition by enabling him to stay in power for a third term in office. Under Xi’s tenure, China has forged a more combative and assertive role on the world stage. 

In a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, the Justice Department accused two Chinese intelligence officers, Guochun He and Zheng Wang, of attempting to obstruct criminal prosecution proceedings against a “global telecommunications company” based in China, which CNN reported refers to Huawei, citing a person familiar with the investigation. (The complaint also referred to a February 2020 press release by the Justice Department announcing a superseding indictment against Huawei, in which the department described its investigation into the company as “ongoing.”)

According to the complaint, the Chinese agents paid $61,000 in bitcoin to a U.S. law enforcement official in exchange for information on the prosecution against Huawei, including witnesses, trial evidence, and potential new charges to be brought against the company. Other payments made to the law enforcement official—who was working as a double agent for the United States—included more than $14,000 in jewelry and cash, the complaint added. 

The U.S. government has waged a battle against Huawei for years, citing the Chinese technology giant as a threat to national security and pressuring allies to bar it from their telecommunications networks in a campaign dating back to the Trump administration. 

“This case exposes the interconnection between [Chinese] intelligence officers and Chinese companies, and it demonstrates once again why such companies, especially in the telecommunications industry, should not be trusted to securely handle our sensitive personal data and communications,” Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said in a press conference Monday. 

In New York, seven people alleged to have been working on behalf of the Chinese government were charged with waging a campaign of threats and harassment against a Chinese national resident in the United States, promising to make the victim’s life an “endless misery” unless he returned to China. Two of the alleged perpetrators were arrested on Thursday, Garland said in a press conference on Monday. 

The pressure campaign, which included surveillance and frivolous legal complaints against the victim and his son, was part of a “global extralegal effort” on the part of the Chinese government known as “Operation Fox Hunt,” Garland said, referring to a worldwide effort launched by Beijing in 2014 to force fugitives, dissidents, and whistleblowers to return to China. 

“The government of China sought to interfere with the rights and freedoms of individuals in the United States and to undermine our judicial system that protects those rights,” Garland said. 

In a third case unsealed on Monday, four individuals, including three Chinese intelligence officers, stand accused of having used a fake Chinese academic institute to wage a campaign starting in 2008 that sought to co-opt individuals in the United States to obtain sensitive technologies and stop protests that could have embarrassed Beijing.

Although the Justice Department has sought to aggressively pursue instances of espionage on the part of the Chinese government, the department has faced criticism from civil rights groups that it has unfairly profiled Chinese and Asian American academics. China has been known to use initiatives, such as its Thousand Talents Plan, to gain access to U.S. intellectual property and research. In February, the department announced that following a review, it was ending its controversial “China Initiative,” launched in 2018 under the Trump administration, after a number of academics of Chinese descent said they were wrongly accused of spying for China. 

“We ended the China Initiative earlier this year after a lengthy review and adopted a broader strategy focused on the range of threats that we face from a variety of nation states,” said Matthew Olsen, assistant attorney general for national security, on Monday. 

Rishi Iyengar is a reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @Iyengarish

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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