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China’s Fox Hunt

FBI Director Christopher Wray, speaking at a podium.
Christopher Wray; photo courtesy the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)

FBI Director Christopher Wray gave perhaps the most important campaign speech of 2020 last week, describing Chinese threats against expatriate dissidents and intellectual property theft “so massive that it represents one of the largest transfers of wealth in human history.”

Wray is not running for office, but other people are. Three presidential candidate debates are on the calendar this autumn. If the candidates do not explore Wray’s expose of Chinese overseas espionage and repression in detail during at least one, we might as well not have them. In the meantime, voters should read the text of Wray’s address to the Hudson Institute. It is succinct, sobering and thought-provoking.

There was actually little that was new in what Wray said. China’s activities, while often clandestine, are hardly a secret. Wray merely connected the dots to reach a reasonable conclusion: “China is engaged in a whole-of-state effort to become the world’s only superpower by any means necessary.”

Voters should press Donald Trump, who currently leads the world’s most super superpower, and Joe Biden, who wishes to replace him in that role, to describe whether they agree with Wray’s conclusion and, if they do, how they plan to respond. Every candidate running for Congress should answer these questions, too. As Wray noted, China’s aggression is not “just an intelligence issue, or a government problem, or a nuisance largely just for big corporations who can take care of themselves.”

“If you are an American adult, it is more than likely than not that China has stolen your personal data,” Wray observed. He referred to examples including the 2017 Equifax military hack of some 150 million credit and financial histories, and the 2014 theft of 21 million personal records from the federal government’s Office of Personnel Management. The goal, he said, is to apply artificial intelligence to mine this and other data to identify and compromise Americans who can be induced to hand over military and commercial secrets that China can exploit. He added that Chinese espionage is already so extensive that all 56 FBI field offices have ongoing counterintelligence operations. The FBI opens a new case related to China every 10 hours, on average.

“The stakes could not be higher, and the potential economic harm to American businesses and the economy as a whole almost defies calculation,” Wray asserted.

In China, all policy focuses on one overriding goal, which since 1949 has been maintaining the Communist Party’s monopoly on power. In this respect, President Xi Jinping has been seen as a throwback to the party’s founding leader, Mao Zedong. But that comparison seems increasingly inaccurate. Mao led an anti-intellectual, agrarian-focused and inward-looking regime. Having cleared the way to keep himself in power indefinitely, Xi seems to be looking toward an example set in Moscow. His role model might be Vladimir Putin – or Josef Stalin.

Xi’s internment of some 1 million Uighur Muslims for “re-education” recalls Stalin’s gulags. And, as Wray described, the “Fox Hunt” campaign that China has carried out since 2014 has Stalinist echoes, too. Fox Hunt has aimed at forcing expatriate Chinese critics to return home under threat of harm to themselves or their families back in China. The techniques are reminiscent of Stalin’s sustained effort to have his former rival Leon Trotsky killed while in exile in Mexico. Trotsky was ultimately murdered in 1940 by a Soviet agent wielding an ice ax.

“When it couldn’t locate one Fox Hunt target, the Chinese government sent an emissary to visit the target’s family here in the United States,” Wray recounted. “The message they said to pass on? The target had two options: return to China promptly, or commit suicide. And what happens when Fox Hunt targets refuse to return to China? In the past, their family members both here in the United States and in China have been threatened and coerced, and those back in China have even been arrested for leverage.

“I’ll take this opportunity to note that if you believe the Chinese government is targeting you—that you’re a potential Fox Hunt victim—please reach out to your local FBI field office.”

Wray took pains – rightfully so – to note that he was not singling out Chinese Americans, or other overseas Chinese emigres or their families, for suspicion. “For generations, people have journeyed from China to the United States to secure the blessings of liberty for themselves and their families—and our society is better for their contributions. So, when I speak of the threat from China, I mean the government of China and the Chinese Communist Party.”

Perhaps the Beijing regime feels entitled to help itself to Western technology in light of the ancient theft of silkworms by Christian monks who, legend holds, first brought the prized fiber to the West. Perhaps Xi and his henchmen believe their country is due deference as the world’s largest nation by population and second-largest in economic output. This could be why they singled out several critics, including Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, for unspecified sanctions yesterday, in response to American sanctions against officials deemed responsible for Uighur repression.

Wray painted a picture of a new cold war that only one side is fully committed to fighting. Yet he punted on making recommendations beyond greater vigilance and more aggressive law enforcement. This seems like a recipe for America to play an endless game of whack-a-mole.

“Confronting this threat effectively does not mean we shouldn’t do business with the Chinese,” Wray concluded. “It does not mean we shouldn’t host Chinese visitors. It does not mean we shouldn’t welcome Chinese students or coexist with China on the world stage. But it does mean that when China violates our criminal laws and international norms, we are not going to tolerate it, much less enable it. The FBI and our partners throughout the U.S. government will hold China accountable and protect our nation’s innovation, ideas, and way of life—with the help and vigilance of the American people.”

Will that be enough? Would, for example, a successful campaign against telecom maker Huawei’s presence in emerging 5G networks actually influence Chinese behavior? Or would it serve only to encourage further efforts to compromise competing Western businesses? Should we continue to accept an internet in which China has free access to global data, while it lurks in isolation behind its Great Firewall?

These would be excellent questions to pose to presidential and congressional candidates this year. I hope somebody asks them.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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