FBI Warns About Chinese Spies In Academia

This is nothing new, but the FBI is once again drawing attention to the issue of Chinese spies using the openness of academia to steal American research and technology. The theft of advanced technology by rivals of the West is nothing new either: the Soviets developed the atom bomb mainly through espionage, by stealing blueprints for the Manhattan Project in 1945; in fact, the first civilians in US history to be executed for espionage were Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who had helped in that effort.


Ethel and Julius Rosenberg


The Chinese, however, have a considerably easier situation, since they manufacture much of the technology that America creates. This year, the Government Accountability Office set up a sting in which they ordered, via the Internet, through a fake company, military parts for American fighter jets and nuclear submarines. Almost 400 vendors were willing the provide these parts, and 84% of them were Chinese companies. The parts all turned out to be counterfeited US technology. How involved the Chinese government is in all this is hard to say, but even if they aren’t sponsors of the theft, they still allow the vendors to operate with impunity. However, they do crack down on fake police academies.


Following the 2001 Hainan Island incident, the Chinese had access to this US spy plane for three months


But theft of commercial blueprints, is just one part of the enterprise, just to help catch up technologically to the West. So if China wants to be on equal footing, or even surpass the US, it has to be competitive at the research level: by the time a product is manufactured there, the next generation is likely already being finalized in a lab here. Therefore, in order to also be a part of that game, China sends more graduate students to US universities than any other country: almost 80,000. According to the FBI report on the matter, many of these students are in fact double agents, who also work for the Chinese military and attempt to gather as much new technology as they can. Some of the known incidents:

  • Hosts of an international conference downloaded all files from a researcher’s computer onto their flash drive
  • An Asian graduate student provided fellow researchers with the means to photograph equipment in order to reconstruct it
  • A professor later discovered that a Chinese scientist who had been asking about science related to military satellites was actually in the military
  • A Chinese national stole trade secrets from Motorola while working there, possibly at the behest of the Chinese military
  • An American studying in Shanghai was turned by Chinese agents and in return for 70k$, applied for jobs working for the CIA and State Department in order to have access to national security information
  • China has over 3,000 companies in the US whose main mission is to acquire technology

This of course, in addition to the five known cases of Chinese military espionage.

“If it wanted to steal a beach, Russia would send a forklift. China would send a thousand people who would pick up a grain of sand at a time” — David Major, president of the Centre for Counterintelligence and Security Studies

Ultimately however, to condemn Chinese espionage would be disingenuous: every country does it, including the US, and it happens even among allies. Therefore, the FBI’s concern isn’t so much that it’s happening, but rather that the Chinese are too good at it. Over the past decade, the Chinese military has advanced by leaps and bounds, aided by this influx of Western technology and a booming economy. In the modern world, the biggest, and arguably only edge America has left is that of intellectual property. Creatively, the US is unchallenged; but if China is allowed to effectively mimic that resource as part of a fake-it-’till-you-make it strategy, the specter of Chinese global hegemony will not be far off.


From FBI, Bloomberg and Reuters, via Slashdot


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