FBI Opens a New China-Related Counterintelligence Investigation Every 10 Hours, Director Says


China is ramping up illegal activity to subvert the U.S. during the pandemic, according to FBI Director Chris Wray.

Of the FBI’s nearly 5,000 active counterintelligence investigations across the country, “almost half” are related to China, with the bureau opening a new China-related counterintelligence case every 10 hours, according to FBI Director Chris Wray.

Wray, speaking Tuesday at an event hosted by the Hudson Institute, said China is escalating improper and sometimes illegal activity in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, using a mix of sophisticated cyber-intrusion techniques and the corruption of “trusted insiders” to siphon America’s intellectual property.  

Specifically, Wray said China is employing economic espionage to target American aviation, robotics, agriculture and health care sectors—part of a broader plan to subvert American economic dominance that has resulted in a 1,300% increase in economic espionage cases linked to China over the past decade. Already, Wray said the American people are victims “of what amounts to Chinese theft on a scale so massive that it represents one of the largest transfers of wealth in human history” and poses a major national security threat.

“China is engaged in a whole-of-state effort to become the world’s only superpower by any means necessary,” Wray said. “The greatest long-term threat to our nation’s information and intellectual property, and to our economic vitality, is the counterintelligence and economic espionage threat from China. It’s a threat to our economic security—and by extension, to our national security.”

To accomplish its ends, Wray said China uses “a diverse range of sophisticated techniques,” from using brutish cyber-intrusion tactics to penetrate and steal trade secrets to the corruption and bribing of “trusted insiders.” Wray cited several high-profile examples of each, including the hacking of credit reporting agency Equifax in 2017 by four Chinese military officers. The FBI charged the hackers—members of the People’s Liberation Army and Chinese intelligence agencies—in 2020, only after they made off with trade secrets and personal data on 145 million Americans.

However, Wray said China is making use of less overt forms of influence as well, such as its talent recruitment programs, wherein China attempts to “entice scientists to secretly bring our knowledge and innovation back to China.” Wray pointed to scientist Jongjin Tan, a 36-year-old Chinese national and lawful permanent U.S. resident, as a clear example of this sort of influence. In November 2019, Tan pleaded guilty to stealing proprietary information worth more than $1 billion from his employer, a U.S. petroleum company. Tan was recruited by China after he joined China’s Thousand Talents Program.

“To achieve its goals and surpass America, China recognizes it needs to make leaps in cutting-edge technologies. But the sad fact is that instead of engaging in the hard slog of innovation, China often steals American intellectual property and then uses it to compete against the very American companies it victimized—in effect, cheating twice over. They’re targeting research on everything from military equipment to wind turbines to rice and corn seeds,” Wray said.

Further, Wray said China is using social media platforms “to identify people with access to our government’s sensitive information” and attempting to target those individuals to try and exfiltrate it. “Just to pick one example, a Chinese intelligence officer posing as a headhunter on a popular social media platform recently offered an American citizen a sizeable sum of money in exchange for so-called ‘consulting’ services,” Wray said. “That sounds benign enough until you realize those ‘consulting’ services were related to sensitive information the American target had access to as a U.S. military intelligence specialist.”

The case, however, had a “happy ending,” Wray said, with the FBI and armed forces handling it from there.

“I wish I could say that all such incidents ended that way,” Wray said.