Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Official: I will no longer travel to China

February 7, 2021

Well, here’s the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Tibet, Xinjiang, South China Sea, Taiwan, Hong Kong. And a ridiculous number of individual cases of persons taken hostage by a state.

In the words of the late, great Gill Scott Heron: ‘It follows a pattern, if you know what I mean…’

The straw is the case of an Irish businessman, recounted below in the Irish Independent.

I am less diplomatic than the thoroughly decent Winston Lord, who is quoted. What I say is: ‘Fuck Xi Jinping and his miserable, proto-fascist government.’

I should also say that I hope you will believe me that it is pure coincidence that it is the case of a white male that has brought me this point. He just happened to be that straw.


…..

In February 2019, Richard O’Halloran flew to Shanghai for a series of meetings and has been ‘held hostage’ by the authorities ever since. The Irish Government is facing growing calls to step up its response 

Close knit: The O’Halloran family in happier times with Isabella, Tara, Ben, Scarlett, Richard and Amber all together

Close knit: The O’Halloran family in happier times with Isabella, Tara, Ben, Scarlett, Richard and Amber all together
Peter Goff
February 06 2021 02:30 AM


As Dublin prepares to light up buildings red to celebrate Chinese New Year, an Irish businessman detained in Shanghai for “corporate ransom” has now missed two Christmases with his wife and four young children.
Richard O’Halloran, a 45-year-old Dublin businessman, has been told he must pay $36m to the Chinese authorities before he can leave the country. His plight has put the potential hazards of doing business with China under the spotlight.


Critics say this is the latest example of Beijing’s lack of respect for the rule of law, international norms and human rights, while there have also been calls for the Irish Government to be more assertive.
Winston Lord, a former US ambassador to China, says O’Halloran’s situation was “a very sad and frustrating and indeed cruel case”. “This is a slippery slope and unless countries push back firmly on this kind of unfair detention, it can lead to greater and greater outrages,” he says.
The businessman’s wife, Tara O’Halloran, said last week on RTÉ radio that “we are crying out to the Government to step in and take control and demand he is released because he is innocent and he is not getting enough help”.


She said he had a serious lung condition, has suffered seizures in China, has had to be resuscitated twice, has regular panic attacks and that his mental health was at a low ebb.
“We are pleading for him to come home on humanitarian grounds, his health is deteriorating, he is very ill,” she said. “It can’t go on much longer; he won’t survive much longer over there on his own.”
President Michael D Higgins wrote to Chinese President Xi Jinping on December 23 and received a reply on January 29 suggesting the authorities on both sides “maintain communication and co-ordination to create conditions for an early and proper solution to the case”.
Lord says he was encouraged by the correspondence, “but it never should have got to this point”.
“I’m reluctant to criticise a friendly government, but I have to say in all candour that until this recent move by the Irish President, which I warmly welcome, the Irish Government’s performance in this has been disappointing, to put it is as diplomatically as I can,” he says.

“It has an interest, both in terms of protecting its own citizens but also just in pure humanitarian terms, and also for its reputation, to move aggressively to try to resolve this situation. And I think they’ve been very slow and tepid in their efforts until recently.”The Department of Foreign Affairs said that while it could not comment on the details of an individual case, it “continues to provide all possible consular support and assistance to Mr O’Halloran and attaches the utmost importance to his welfare”. It said the case has been raised regularly at “senior political and diplomatic level” with the Chinese authorities.

The statement added that Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney “remains actively and personally engaged, and senior officials in Dublin, Beijing and Shanghai continue to do everything possible to ensure that Mr O’Halloran can return home”.
‘We can’t see any progress’
In response, Tara O’Halloran told RTÉ: “That is not enough. A couple of phone calls and a couple of emails to the authorities is not enough. They need to take a stance and stand up and say that he is being illegally detained; they have no basis for holding him. We can’t see any progress and I am literally begging for help. I’m begging them and begging them and begging them. For two years I’ve been begging them.”

Close knit: The O’Halloran family in happier times with Isabella, Tara, Ben, Scarlett, Richard and Amber all together

Close knit: The O’Halloran family in happier times with Isabella, Tara, Ben, Scarlett, Richard and Amber all together
Richard O’Halloran, a relative of the late Fine Gael taoiseach Garret FitzGerald, is a director of China International Aviation Leasing Service Co Limited (CALS Ireland). The complex case that he has found himself embroiled in centres on an Airbus A330 airplane that CALS has leased to Finnair, according to David Maughan, partner with law firm William Fry, which acts for CALS.
The chairman of CALS, Min Jiedong, was arrested in China on charges of running an illegal crowdfunding scheme and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. There is no evidence that he used the money to buy the Airbus but the authorities are targeting it because it is a major asset connected to him. In February 2019, O’Halloran flew to China to hold meetings with colleagues after Min was arrested. When he attempted to board his return flight after a week of meetings, he was detained and told he would not be able to leave China. The charges against Min predate O’Halloran’s time with the company, and Min had agreed to buy the plane 10 months before he had joined CALS, Maughan says.

During the trial, both the prosecutor and Min told the court that O’Halloran had no involvement in Min’s crowdfunding in China and should be allowed to return to Ireland.“He is not guilty of any crime, nor has he been charged with any crime. He is being illegally detained… I would call this corporate ransom,” Maughan says.

O’Halloran testified as a witness four times in Min’s prosecution, and following Min’s sentencing he was subpoenaed to an enforcement court to give a financial account of CALS Ireland. On each of these five occasions, the Chinese authorities denied requests from the Irish Embassy to have representatives attend as observers. The court appointed an interpreter but O’Halloran was not allowed any legal representation in court, nor was he given any documentation relating to the appearances, Maughan says.

As part of a proposal to secure O’Halloran’s release, CALS sent the Chinese court $200,000 some weeks ago as a “good-faith payment”, Maughan says, but when the money arrived in China, police interrogated O’Halloran for six hours about the source of the funds. “During that interrogation the police said that the sum of $6m should be paid to resolve the case, and they also told him that his exit ban had been lifted,” he says.
O’Halloran booked the next flight home, “but when he got to the airport, he was denied access to board the aircraft,” Maughan says, “and he was escorted out of the airport by seven police officers wearing bodycams”.
At the latest hearing on February 2, in front of three judges, “they said that he was very healthy, despite all his many health issues, and is personally responsible to pay back the figure of $36m,” Maughan says.
“We were flabbergasted. The Chinese side picked this number of $36m, which no one knows where it came from. We haven’t been party to any of the proceedings.”

Response: Simon Coveney “remains actively and personally engaged" in the Richard O'Halloran case, according to the Department of Foreign Affairs

Response: Simon Coveney “remains actively and personally engaged” in the Richard O’Halloran case, according to the Department of Foreign Affairs
He says they had made several proposals to the Chinese ambassador in Dublin and to Coveney to try to resolve the issue, including resigning his position, handing over control of the bank accounts to the courts, or allowing the Chinese court to take over Min’s shares in related companies — including one in the Cayman Islands that owns the plane — so they could then control the assets.
In 2019, CALS agreed with a third party after a public tender process to sell the aircraft. “But the Chinese courts turned down Richard’s request that the aircraft be sold. Unfortunately, due to the global pandemic, the aircraft is worth half of what CALS had agreed to sell the aircraft for,” Maughan says.

Another proposal involved O’Halloran returning to Dublin and continuing to work for CALS to manage the five remaining years of the lease on the plane to Finnair, at which point the plane could be sold or flown to China. None of the proposals were accepted, Maughan says.
“If the Chinese side took the shares off Min, Richard O’Halloran would be home next week — if someone would take a big picture approach,” he adds. “There are plenty of solutions here if the Chinese wished to engage. I welcome Xi’s comments but it will take engagement. And I would not be optimistic, based on what the three judges said; that Richard and the board come up with $36m.”
Barring visitors from leaving is a tactic used widely in China, and the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs now advises travellers to China that “Chinese authorities may place an exit ban on an individual to prevent them from leaving the country”. It adds that an exit ban “may be placed on an individual, their family or an employer; or in a criminal or civil matter, including a business dispute”.

The travel advisory says “such bans, which are distinct from detention or imprisonment, are part of the Chinese legal process and may endure for months, or longer”.
The US State Department uses stronger language, saying China “arbitrarily enforces local laws, including by carrying out arbitrary and wrongful detentions and through the use of exit bans on US citizens and citizens of other countries without due process of law”.
Charles Parton, a fellow of the Royal United Services Institute and a former British diplomat who spent more than two decades working in or on China, says that the taking of “hostages” was not unusual in commercial disputes in China.

“It’s quite a common tactic at a local level, provincial or below, where they’ve got contacts in the local government and in order to get their way in an argument with a foreign company, they deliberately take a hostage in this way,” he says.
Tara O’Halloran said in the recent interview that for a long time she had not spoken out about her husband’s plight because she had been advised that quiet diplomacy would be the best approach.
“We had faith in the Irish Government that they were going to help us, that they were going to intervene, help us, and we were advised not to go public because it might upset the Chinese, that they might retaliate, they might decide to keep him longer. But I can’t sit back and let him be there for another two years,” she said.
Observers say that, in most cases, exit bans never come to light because the parties involved do not publicise them in the hopes of finding a quiet resolution.

Parton says while each situation was different, he felt that, in general, people should speak out about these bans. “I think this business of keeping a low profile is not always wise,” he says. “That plays along with their game. I think you should make as much noise about it as one can. This is an example of local rather than central abuse and it should be called out in my view.”
Alexander Dukalskis, an associate professor at University College Dublin’s School of Politics and International Relations, says that, in general terms, the human rights situation has regressed “from an already low level” since Xi Jinping took the reins of the Communist Party of China (CCP) in 2012.
“Human rights lawyers have been systematically repressed under Xi, which further compounds the problem because it eliminates a source of protection. The previous leadership of Hu Jintao was more liberal — by CCP standards — than the current party leadership. More criticism was tolerated in the political sphere and activists were able to operate within certain boundaries,” says Dukalskis, who is author of the forthcoming book Making the World Safe for Dictatorship.
“Things have tightened under Xi, in some areas drastically so,” he adds. “China’s policies of repression in Xinjiang, for example, were already harsh before 2014, but since then they have become draconian, possibly even genocidal.”
On the international stage, China has been accused recently of adopting an aggressive form of “Wolf Warrior diplomacy”, and generally taking a more combative approach to its multilateral relations.
Lord, the former ambassador, says that things were getting worse “both domestically in terms of oppression and internationally in terms of adventurism, and in terms of interfering in other countries and pressuring other citizens”.
As China plays an increasingly important role on the world stage, Parton says countries have to stand up against human rights abuses or the situation will only get worse.
“Bullies are bullies whether they are at the international level or the playground level. And if you give way to bullies, what do you get? You just get more bullying,” says Parton, who worked with the EU delegation in Beijing for his final China posting.

More, later:

This guy is still going to Hong Kong. I guess the Hongkies need him, given what is going on there:

AN Oxford City councillor has announced he will be stepping down from his role with immediate effect as his work requires him to spend an increasing amount of time overseas.

Councillor Paul Harris will no longer represent the ward of St Margaret’s on Oxford City Council.

He was elected in 2018 and is a member of the Liberal Democrat Group on the council and has served as the opposition spokesperson for cleaner, greener Oxford, cycling, tourism and the city centre.

ALSO READ: ‘Lockdown only needed due to PM’s failure’, says Layla Moran

He has combined his work in Oxford with a career as a human rights barrister, often working in Hong Kong. Recent developments there, and restrictions on travel, have meant he has spent increasing amounts of time in Hong Kong and can no longer represent his ward as he would wish.

His seat will remain vacant until a by-election is held and St Margaret’s ward continues to be represented by Councillor Tom Landell Mills.

Councillor Landell Mills will cover the portfolio areas Mr Harris has held for the opposition in the run up to the elections.

Mr Harris said: “I have immensely enjoyed my almost three years as a councillor and will very much miss both colleagues and staff, as well as local residents in St Margaret’s Ward. I am pleased in particular I managed to get the towpath through St Margaret’s re-surfaced at last which was my main promise when I stood for election in 2018.

“The reason for my resignation is that I am relocating to Hong Kong with which I have work and family connections. I am a barrister specialising in human rights and I have been asked to be chairman of the Hong Kong Bar for the year 2021.”

Inside The Economist

February 6, 2021

It’s a funny paper. The wags at the firm called it, when ensconced in a tower in lower Mayfair, the Tower of Truth. That is the gaffe that I remember. Now it has moved.

What made me laugh the most was when they decided to try Economist tv. Ho Ho Ho. Suddenly, it was just a bunch of public school boys pontificating to a tv camera. The hijab was off. They canned that idea pretty fast.
Day is not dumb.

But, I would say, The Economist has a soul.

And, if that soul were encapsulated by a single person. It would be a woman. Called Ann Wroe.

She is an earth mother. An extraordinary editor. And who knows what else. She just, somehow, understood, something.

This week, she did a digital interview. If you watch nothing else in your miserable life, watch Ann.

It’s failed-states’ Wednesday

February 3, 2021

The article below by Max Fisher in the New York Times is very interesting on the disaster that is Myanmar. Far better than anything in the British press.

What Fisher writes chimes with what I saw in Myanmar and why I declined offers to go back there in the time of Ms Aung (she’s really called Ms Suu).

Meanwhile, breaking news in a failed state closer to home is that Mario Draghi is trying to form an Italian government. Ho, ho, ho.

Having gone to Frankfurt to run the European Central Bank and stave off the bankruptcy of his miserable but attractive country, Mario is now going to try to actually change Italy.

Good luck with that!

I guess we’ll soon find out if he really is Super Mario.

More, later:

Could I just mention, while we are on the subject of Italy, that the bung-taking architect of Putin’s insane Black Sea palace, described in Navalny’s wonderful documentary, is none other than Lanfranco Cirillo, who is, of course, Italian. They certainly invented fascism. Did they also invent corruption?

Cirillo is from Brescia, about 50 kilometres east of Milan (remember Berlusconi, or Bettino Craxi, or Poalo Pilliteri, who I interviewed when young?) All from the same neck of the woods. Northern Italians like to blame the south for the country’s problems. But my observation has long been that this is a crock of shit. It is the north of Italy that is the spawn-pool of selfishness and corruption. The south, after all, gave us Gramsci, possibly the last principled Italian. He died in 1937.

And here come the Myanmar generals…

February 1, 2021

You could not make it up.

Xi Jinping. Vladimir Putin. Myanmar generals.

Covid is now providing cover for every villain on the planet to do his worst (they do all seem to be men).

The generals in Myanmar, having been crushed in a free election, and then saying they wouldn’t do a coup, have done one.

What a mess. The key observations in the linked article come from the venerable Thant Myint-U:

<The author and historian Thant Myint-U wrote on on Twitter: “The doors just opened to a very different future. I have a sinking feeling that no one will really be able to control what comes next. And remember Myanmar’s a country awash in weapons, with deep divisions across ethnic & religious lines, where millions can barely feed themselves.”>

I should say that I am not a big fan of Aung San Suu Kyi. She seems to me to be a hippy and hippies don’t make good leaders if you want economic development and an end to poverty (remember Ghandi?).

About three years ago I was asked by a foundation that works on land reform to go to Myanmar and I met some of Ms Aung’s advisers and ministers. I was appalled by the non-quality and intellectual laziness of much of what I saw. (It was like I imagine having dinner with George Osborne or Boris Johnson would be.)

Still, none of this justifies putting the lunatics back in charge of the asylum.

I should also say that, although I have twice been in the same room as her, I have never actually spoken to the little lady, so there is some room for doubt about my opinion of her.

I also wonder if the Communist Party of China is meddling in this coup. It wouldn’t be a big surprise.

My Lai: Russian version

January 31, 2021

Five thousand arrested in Moscow. Is there no end to ugly news? As if Covid were not enough, every feckin’ dictator in the world is doing their worst.

We will see you in hell, Xi Jinping. And we will see you in hell, Vladimir Putin.

The pair of you will burn in my lifetime. Because the world is not what you think it is.

Some brave photographer in Moscow got another image for the ages:

The sun also sets: Hong Kong version

January 31, 2021

I’m not going to start writing about the illegal misery that the Communist Party of China is raining down on Hong Kong. My only thought is that Xi Jinping may one day have to go into exile and I wonder where would take him? DPRK, I guess, if he brings enough cash. Or Saudi Arabia. Or DRC. It’s not a good choice-set.

If you are interested in Hong Kong and don’t know it, I would highly recommend in this period a lunatic friend’s Big Lychee blog. I suppose I’ll go and visit him when they lock him up. Take him a baguette.



Understanding capitalism, with Sir Philip Green

January 30, 2021

Tony Blair gave Philip Green a knighthood, in 2006.

Green had already been exposed as a tax-evading, foul-mouthed crook.

But Tony Blair thought him rich and charming. Just like he thought Saddam Hussein had Weapons of Mass Destruction. And that god talks to Tony in his sleep.

Well, here is today’s Guardian story about Green’s unravelled empire:

…………………..

About 1,100 unsecured creditors owed total of at least £51m expected to get minimal payout

Sir Philip Green’s family is likely to receive £50m from the sale of Topshop while more than 1,000 suppliers to the high street fashion chain are set to get less than 1% of the money owed to them.

A report by administrators into the collapse of Topshop and Topman seen by the Guardian reveals that the chains owed at least £51m to 1,155 unsecured creditors, who include clothing suppliers and landlords.

This figure does not include monies owed to HMRC. Administrators at Deloitte said the final debts for Topshop were likely to be “materially higher” once tax and money potentially owed to the group’s pension fund are included.

Unsecured creditors owed more than £1m include Daventry district council, for Topshop’s new distribution centre in the area, shopping centres including Liverpool One and Stratford City, and a number of clothing suppliers, including several in the UK and Turkey.Advertisement

At least 706 unsecured creditors to the six other chains in Green’s Arcadia Group fashion empire, which include Dorothy Perkins, Burton, Wallis, Outfit and Evans, are also owed at least £33m. These creditors are expected to receive at least some payout except those to Outfit, who are owed £252,000. All the chains’ debts are also likely to be far higher than the initial estimate which does not include money owed to HMRC.

Administrators say unsecured creditors of Topshop’s main operating company as well as its property and distribution centre arms are “likely, on present information, to [receive] a distribution of less than 1p in the £1”. Creditors to the German arm are unlikely to receive any of the £1.8m that they are owed.

As secured creditors, the Green family’s Aldsworth Equity, which is owed £50m relating to an interest-free loan it made to the group in 2019 at the time of an emergency restructure, will be paid before any funds are distributed to suppliers, landlords and HMRC. Administrators said the timing and amount paid to secured creditors would depend on the amount Topshop is sold for.

Online specialist Asos is in talks about buying Topshop, Topman and Miss Selfridge with the deal expected to total more than £300m.

Topshop’s parent company, another secured creditor, is set to receive £327.6m of the proceeds with up to £210m of that cash potentially set aside to pay down Arcadia’s pension deficit, which is estimated to be as much as £300m. Proceeds from the sale of Topshop’s London flagship store are also earmarked for the pension scheme, but it is not clear whether the property will fetch more than its £312m mortgage.https://www.theguardian.com/email/form/plaintone/business-todaySign up to the daily Business Today email

Administrators were called in last November after Arcadia suffered from poor trading and high costs. Topshop, the jewel in Arcadia’s crown which accounts for almost half the group’s sales, recorded a sales slide of 11% in 2019. Only Burton increased sales in the year to August 2019 while sales at Miss Selfridge dived by nearly a quarter.

Administrators say turnover for Topshop “reduced dramatically” after the high street lockdown to control the Covid-19 pandemic came into force in March 2020.

Arcadia agreed to defer contributions to its pension fund for six months from March to August last year. But it could not agree on a further deferral of the contributions, which amount to £25m a month. Attempts to raise £30m in cash to support the running of the business were also unsuccessful.

Nobel for Navalny?

January 23, 2021

As I recall, you cannot get a Nobel prize when you are dead. And Putin may well kill Aleksei Navalny.

Whatever, what Navalny has done, and the courage he has shown the world, is more important than any prize.

The documentary he uploaded as he flew back to Putin’s Russia:

And the phone call where he gets an FSB agent to essentially admit his (and Putin’s) role in the whole thing:

Exit fascists stage left, pursued by lawyers

January 20, 2021

He’s gone. They’re gone.

They played My Way as Trump boarded Air Force 1 for the last time. But it wasn’t really his way. It was the way of a long list of tedious, criminal, populist, anti-democratic, deeply selfish characters in history. I’m not sure what Trump added to the recipe beyond Twitter and his ridiculous hair.

So sense has returned. Along with its good friend democracy. However, thinking about appropriate songs-of-the-day, I’d say that democracy should be Back in Black, the appropriate, sombre, funereal colour for four years that brought the United States uncomfortably close to catastrophe.

If old Joe Biden can remember every day that Trump and his crew were really just a symptom of very real problems in America, we may be in for a better future. As someone deeply pro-American, I do hope so.

California versus Beijing: inside the spook war

December 22, 2020

You cannot beat a great tale of spooks fighting a covert war and Foreign Policy has one. Kudos to the reporter. This is as good as anything about Sino-US relations that I have read in recent times. Here is the original piece, with graphics — as good an invitation to subscribe to the venerable FP as you will get. Parts 2 and 3 are pending in the next couple of days.

CHINA USED STOLEN DATA TO EXPOSE CIA OPERATIVES IN AFRICA AND EUROPE

The discovery of U.S. spy networks in China fueled a decadelong global war over data between Beijing and Washington.

BY ZACH DORFMANDECEMBER 21, 2020, 6:00 AM

Around 2013, U.S. intelligence began noticing an alarming pattern: Undercover CIA personnel, flying into countries in Africa and Europe for sensitive work, were being rapidly and successfully identified by Chinese intelligence, according to three former U.S. officials. The surveillance by Chinese operatives began in some cases as soon as the CIA officers had cleared passport control. Sometimes, the surveillance was so overt that U.S. intelligence officials speculated that the Chinese wanted the U.S. side to know they had identified the CIA operatives, disrupting their missions; other times, however, it was much more subtle and only detected through U.S. spy agencies’ own sophisticated technical countersurveillance capabilities.

The CIA had been taking advantage of China’s own growing presence overseas to meet or recruit sources, according to one of these former officials. “We can’t get to them in Beijing, but can in Djibouti. Heat map Belt and Road”—China’s trillion-dollar infrastructure and influence initiative—“and you’d see our activity happening. It’s where the targets are.” The CIA recruits “Russians and Chinese hard in Africa,” said a former agency official. “And they know that.” China’s new aggressive moves to track U.S. operatives were likely a response to these U.S. efforts.

This series, based on interviews with over three dozen current and former U.S. intelligence and national security officials, tells the story of China’s assault on U.S. personal data over the last decade—and its consequences.

Part 2: Beijing Ransacked Data as U.S. Sources Went Dark in China
Coming Tuesday, Dec. 22

Part 3: As Trump’s Trade War Raged, Chinese Spy Agencies Enlisted Private Firms 
Coming Wednesday, Dec. 23

At the CIA, these anomalies “alarmed chiefs of station and division leadership,” said the first former intelligence official. The Chinese “never should have known” who or where these undercover CIA personnel were. U.S. officials, lacking a smoking gun, puzzled over how China had managed to expose their spies. In a previous age, they might have begun a mole hunt, looking for a single traitor in a position to share this critical information with the other side, or perhaps scoured their records for a breach in a secret communications platform.

But instead, CIA officials believed the answer was likely data-driven—and related to a Chinese cyberespionage campaign devoted to stealing vast troves of sensitive personal private information, like travel and health data, as well as U.S. government personnel records. U.S. officials believed Chinese intelligence operatives had likely combed through and synthesized information from these massive, stolen caches to identify the undercover U.S. intelligence officials. It was very likely a “suave and professional utilization” of these datasets, said the same former intelligence official. This “was not random or generic,” this source said. “It’s a big-data problem.”

The battle over data—who controls it, who secures it, who can steal it, and how it can be used for economic and security objectives—is defining the global conflict between Washington and Beijing. Data has already critically shaped the course of Chinese politics, and it is altering the course of U.S. foreign policy and intelligence gathering around the globe. Just as China has sought to wield data as a sword and shield against the United States, America’s spy agencies have tried to penetrate Chinese data streams and to use their own big-data capabilities to try to pinpoint exactly what China knows about U.S. personnel and operations.

This series, based on extensive interviews with over three dozen current and former U.S. intelligence and national security officials, tells the story of that battle between the United States and China—a conflict in which many believe China possesses critical advantages, because of Beijing’s panopticon-like digital penetration of its own citizens and Chinese companies’ networks; its world-spanning cyberspying, which has included the successful theft of multiple huge U.S. datasets; and China’s ability to rapidly synthesize—and potentially weaponize—all this vast information from diverse sources.

China is “one of the leading collectors of bulk personal data around the globe, using both illegal and legal means,” William Evanina, the United States’ top counterintelligence official, told Foreign Policy. “Just through its cyberattacks alone, the PRC has vacuumed up the personal data of much of the American population, including data on our health, finances, travel and other sensitive information.”

This war over data has taken on particularly critical importance for the United States’—and China’s—spy agencies. In the intelligence world, “information is king, and the more information, the better,” said Steve Ryan, who served until 2016 as deputy director of the National Security Agency’s Threat Operations Center and is now the CEO of the cybersecurity service Trinity Cyber. In the U.S.-Soviet Cold War, intelligence largely came in piecemeal and partial form: an electronic intercept here, a report from a secret human source there. Today, the data-driven nature of everyday life creates vast clusters of information that can be snatched in a single move—and then potentially used by Beijing to fuel everything from targeting individual American intelligence officers to bolstering Chinese state-backed businesses.

Fundamentally, current and former U.S. officials say, China believes data provides security: It ensures regime stability in the face of internal and external threats to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). It was a combination of those threats that created the impetus for China’s most aggressive counterintelligence campaign against the United States yet.

The CIA declined to comment for this story. The Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

In 2010, a new decade was dawning, and Chinese officials were furious. The CIA, they had discovered, had systematically penetrated their government over the course of years, with U.S. assets embedded in the military, the CCP, the intelligence apparatus, and elsewhere. The anger radiated upward to “the highest levels of the Chinese government,” recalled a former senior counterintelligence executive.

Exploiting a flaw in the online system CIA operatives used to secretly communicate with their agents—a flaw first identified in Iran, which Tehran likely shared with Beijing—from 2010 to roughly 2012, Chinese intelligence officials ruthlessly uprooted the CIA’s human source network in China, imprisoning and killing dozens of people.

Within the CIA, China’s seething, retaliatory response wasn’t entirely surprising, said a former senior agency official. “We often had [a] conversation internally, on how U.S. policymakers would react to the degree of penetration CIA had of China”—that is, how angry U.S. officials would have been if they discovered, as the Chinese did, that a global adversary had so thoroughly infiltrated their ranks.

The anger in Beijing wasn’t just because of the penetration by the CIA but because of what it exposed about the degree of corruption in China. When the CIA recruits an asset, the further this asset rises within a county’s power structure, the better. During the Cold War it had been hard to guarantee the rise of the CIA’s Soviet agents; the very factors that made them vulnerable to recruitment—greed, ideology, blackmailable habits, and ego—often impeded their career prospects. And there was only so much that money could buy in the Soviet Union, especially with no sign of where it had come from.

But in the newly rich China of the 2000s, dirty money was flowing freely. The average income remained under 2,000 yuan a month (approximately $240 at contemporary exchange rates), but officials’ informal earnings vastly exceeded their formal salaries. An official who wasn’t participating in corruption was deemed a fool or a risk by his colleagues. Cash could buy anything, including careers, and the CIA had plenty of it.

At the time, CIA assets were often handsomely compensated. “In the 2000s, if you were a chief of station”—that is, the top spy in a foreign diplomatic facility—“for certain hard target services, you could make a million a year for working for us,” said a former agency official. (“Hard target services” generally refers to Chinese, Russia, Iranian, and North Korean intelligence agencies.)

Over the course of their investigation into the CIA’s China-based agent network, Chinese officials learned that the agency was secretly paying the “promotion fees” —in other words, the bribes—regularly required to rise up within the Chinese bureaucracy, according to four current and former officials. It was how the CIA got “disaffected people up in the ranks. But this was not done once, and wasn’t done just in the [Chinese military],” recalled a current Capitol Hill staffer. “Paying their bribes was an example of long-term thinking that was extraordinary for us,” said a former senior counterintelligence official. “Recruiting foreign military officers is nearly impossible. It was a way to exploit the corruption to our advantage.” At the time, “promotion fees” sometimes ran into the millions of dollars, according to a former senior CIA official: “It was quite amazing the level of corruption that was going on.” The compensation sometimes included paying tuition and board for children studying at expensive foreign universities, according to another CIA officer.

Chinese officials took notice. “They were forced to see their problems, and our mistakes helped them see what their problems were,” recalled a former CIA executive. “We helped bring to fruition what they theoretically were scared of,” said the Capitol Hill staffer. “We scared the shit out of them.” Corruption was increasingly seen as the chief threat to the regime at home; as then-Party Secretary Hu Jintao told the Party Congress in 2012, “If we fail to handle this issue well, it could … even cause the collapse of the party and the fall of the state,” he said. Even in China’s heavily controlled media environment, corruption scandals were breaking daily, tainting the image of the CCP among the Chinese people. Party corruption was becoming a public problem, acknowledged by the CCP leadership itself.

But privately, U.S. officials believe, Chinese leaders also feared the degree to which corruption had allowed the CIA to penetrate its inner circles. The CIA’s incredible recruiting successes “showed the institutional rot of the party,” said the former senior CIA official. “They ought to [have been] upset.” The leadership realized that unchecked corruption wasn’t just an existential threat for the party at home; it was also a major counterintelligence threat, providing a window for enemy intelligence services like the CIA to crawl through.

This was a global problem for the CCP. Corrupt officials, even if they hadn’t been recruited by the CIA while in office, also often sought refuge overseas—where they could then be tapped for information by enterprising spy services. In late 2012, party head Xi Jinping announced a new anti-corruption campaign that would lead to the prosecution of hundreds of thousands of Chinese officials. Thousands were subject to extreme coercive pressure, bordering on kidnapping, to return from living abroad. “The anti-corruption drive was about consolidating power—but also about how Americans could take advantage of [the corruption]. And that had to do with the bribe and promotion process,” said the former senior counterintelligence official.

The 2013 leaks from Edward Snowden, which revealed the NSA’s deep penetration of the telecommunications company Huawei’s China-based servers, also jarred Chinese officials, according to a former senior intelligence analyst. “Chinese officials were just beginning to learn how the internet and technology has been so thoroughly used against them, in ways they didn’t conceptualize until then,” the former analyst said. “At the intelligence level, it was driven by this fundamental [revelation] that, ‘This is what we’ve been missing: This internet system we didn’t create is being weaponized against us.’”

There were other ripple effects. By the late 2000s, U.S. intelligence officials had observed a notable professionalizing of the Ministry of State Security, China’s main civilian intelligence agency. Before Xi’s purges, petty corruption within the agency was ubiquitous, former U.S. intelligence officials say, with China’s spies sometimes funneling money from operations into their own “nest eggs”; Chinese government-affiliated hackers operating under the protection of the Ministry of State Security would also sometimes moonlight as cybercriminals, passing a cut of their work to their bosses at the intelligence agency.

Under Xi’s crackdown, these activities became increasingly untenable. But the discovery of the CIA networks in China helped supercharge this process, said current and former officials—and caused China to place a greater focus on external counterespionage work. “As they learned these things,” the Chinese realized they “needed to start defending themselves,” said the former CIA executive.

By about 2010, two former CIA officials recalled, the Chinese security services had instituted a sophisticated travel intelligence program, developing databases that tracked flights and passenger lists for espionage purposes. “We looked at it very carefully,” said the former senior CIA official. China’s spies “were actively using that for counterintelligence and offensive intelligence. The capability was there and was being utilized.” China had also stepped up its hacking efforts targeting biometric and passenger data from transit hubs, former intelligence officials say—including a successful hack by Chinese intelligence of biometric data from Bangkok’s international airport.

To be sure, China had stolen plenty of data before discovering how deeply infiltrated it was by U.S. intelligence agencies. However, the shake-up between 2010 and 2012 gave Beijing an impetus not only to go after bigger, riskier targets, but also to put together the infrastructure needed to process the purloined information. It was around this time, said a former senior NSA official, that Chinese intelligence agencies transitioned from merely being able to steal large datasets en masse to actually rapidly sifting through information from within them for use. U.S. officials also began to observe that intelligence facilities within China were being physically co-located near language and data processing centers, said this person.

For U.S. intelligence personnel, these new capabilities made China’s successful hack of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) that much more chilling. During the OPM breach, Chinese hackers stole detailed, often highly sensitive personnel data from 21.5 million current and former U.S. officials, their spouses, and job applicants, including health, residency, employment, fingerprint, and financial data. In some cases, details from background investigations tied to the granting of security clearances—investigations that can delve deeply into individuals’ mental health records, their sexual histories and proclivities, and whether a person’s relatives abroad may be subject to government blackmail—were stolen as well. Though the United States did not disclose the breach until 2015, U.S. intelligence officials became aware of the initial OPM hack in 2012, said the former counterintelligence executive. (It’s not clear precisely when the compromise actually happened.)

When paired with travel details and other purloined data, information from the OPM breach likely provided Chinese intelligence potent clues about unusual behavior patterns, biographical information, or career milestones that marked individuals as likely U.S. spies, officials say. Now, these officials feared, China could search for when suspected U.S. spies were in certain locations—and potentially also meeting secretly with their Chinese sources. China “collects bulk personal data to help it track dissidents or other perceived enemies of China around the world,” Evanina, the top U.S. counterintelligence official, said.

Many felt the ground give way immediately. For some at the CIA, recalled Gail Helt, a former CIA China analyst, the reaction to the OPM breach was, “Oh my God, what is this going to mean for everybody who had ever traveled to China? But also what is it going to mean for people who we had formally recruited, people who might be suspected of talking to us, people who had family members there? And what will this mean for agency efforts to recruit people in the future? It was terrifying. Absolutely terrifying.” Many feared the aftershocks would be widespread. “The concern just wasn’t that [the OPM hack] would curtail info inside China,” said a former senior national security official. “The U.S. and China bump up against each other around the world. It opened up a global Pandora’s box of problems.”

Others were more resigned, if no less disturbed. “You operate under the assumption that good tradecraft”—and not the secrecy provided, in theory, by cover—“will protect your assets and operations,” said Duyane Norman, a former senior CIA official. “So OPM wasn’t some kind of eye-opener. It was confirmation of new threats we already knew existed.”

There were other bad omens. During this same period, U.S. officials concluded that Russian intelligence officials, likely exploiting a difference in payroll payments between real State Department employees and undercover CIA officers, had identified some of the CIA personnel working at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. Officials thought that this insight may have come from data derived from the OPM hack, provided by the Chinese to their Russian counterparts. U.S. officials also wondered whether the OPM hack could be related to an uptick in attempted recruitments by Chinese intelligence of Chinese American translators working for U.S. intelligence agencies when they visited family in China. “We also thought they were trying to get Mandarin speakers to apply for jobs as translators” within the U.S. intelligence community, recalled the former senior counterintelligence official. U.S. officials believed that Chinese intelligence was giving their agents “instructions on how to pass a polygraph.”

But after the OPM breach, anomalies began to multiply. In 2012, senior U.S. spy hunters began to puzzle over some “head-scratchers”: In a few cases, spouses of U.S. officials whose sensitive work should have been difficult to discern were being approached by Chinese and Russian intelligence operatives abroad, according to the former counterintelligence executive. In one case, Chinese operatives tried to harass and entrap a U.S. official’s wife while she accompanied her children on a school field trip to China. “The MO is that, usually at the end of the trip, the lightbulb goes on [and the foreign intelligence service identifies potential persons of interest]. But these were from day one, from the airport onward,” the former official said.

Worries about what the Chinese now knew precipitated an intelligence community-wide damage assessment surrounding the OPM and other hacks, recalled Douglas Wise, a former senior CIA official who served deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency from 2014 to 2016. Some worried that China might have purposefully secretly altered data in individuals’ OPM files to later use as leverage in recruitment attempts. Officials also believed that the Chinese might sift through the OPM data to try and craft the most ideal profiles for Chinese intelligence assets seeking to infiltrate the U.S. government—since they now had granular knowledge of what the U.S. government looked for, and what it didn’t, while considering applicants for sensitive positions. U.S. intelligence agencies altered their screening procedures to anticipate new, more finely tuned Chinese attempts at human spying, Wise said.

The Chinese now had unprecedented insight into the workings of the U.S. system. The United States, meanwhile, was flying with one eye closed when dealing with China. With the CIA’s carefully built network of Chinese agents utterly destroyed, the debate over how to handle China would become increasingly contentious—even as China’s ambitions grew.

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a three-part series. The second part, to be published Dec. 22, covers how U.S. intelligence under Barack Obama struggled as Xi Jinping consolidated his power. The third part, to be published on Dec. 23, covers the Donald Trump era and the growing cooperation between Chinese intelligence and tech giants. Zach Dorfman is a senior staff writer on national security and cybersecurity for Aspen Digital, a program of the Aspen Institute, and a senior fellow at Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. Twitter: @zachsdorfman


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