Politico today offers a disturbing peek into Chinese spy games during the Obama Administration, including a previously hushed-up account of the abduction of an American official in Chengdu:
It was January 2016. The U.S. official had been working out of the American consulate in the central Chinese metropolis of more than 10 million. He may not have seen the plainclothes Chinese security services coming before they jumped him. In seconds he was grabbed off the Chengdu street and thrown into a waiting van.
The Chinese officials drove their captive — whom they believed to be a CIA officer — to a security facility where he was interrogated for hours, and, according to one U.S. official, filmed confessing to unspecified acts of treachery on behalf of the U.S. government.
It wasn’t until the early morning hours of the following day that other U.S. officials — who were not immediately informed by their Chinese counterparts of the consular official’s capture — arrived to rescue him. He was eventually released back to their custody and soon evacuated from the country.
The circumstances surrounding this incident eerily parallel a similar one in Moscow that also occurred on President Obama’s watch. In that case, it was Russia’s FSB that roughed up an American official suspected of espionage on U.S. diplomatic grounds. In both cases, Obama officials took pains to hide the incident from public view while protesting through official channels—though that didn’t stop Moscow from publicly releasing footage of the brawl to humiliate Washington and score propaganda points at home.
Indeed, the Politico story fits into a disturbing pattern of brazen provocations by rival spy services during the Obama years—provocations that were protested in private but never publicly exposed or avenged. As Damir Marusic wrote about the Russian incident at the time, President Obama preferred to compartmentalize such events so as not to endanger cooperation elsewhere:
President Obama seems determined to not be baited by this kind of stuff, even if it is causing lasting frustration and outrage among the men and women serving in the diplomatic and intelligence corps. Indeed, one could easily imagine the President making the case that there is little to be gained from descending to the Russians’ level in such matters.
That thinking seems to have prevailed in the Chinese case as well. And keep in mind that prior to this incident, China had already hacked the Office of Personnel Management and systematically dismantled the CIA’s spy network beginning in 2010.
One can interpret that decision charitably (as a calculation that such things are best resolved through quiet diplomacy) or cynically (as a political decision to avoid a potential scandal during an election year). Regardless, the effect was the same: Obama’s timidity became its own form of recklessness, emboldening rivals who calculated that they could act against Americans with impunity.
And indeed, Beijing’s spooks got the message, and appear to have upped their game. Politico cites several examples: a broadening of recruitment efforts beyond the usual Chinese-American targets, sophisticated cyber attacks that led to “staggering” breaches, omnipresent surveillance of American officials, and frequent searches of their rooms and belongings. Some of these tactics mirror the heavy-handed harassment of American officials that has long been standard practice in Moscow.
And China’s espionage efforts are arguably more sophisticated than Russia’s, and its efforts are expanding. This year alone, two federal government employees have been charged with passing state secrets to Beijing, and allies like Australia and New Zealand are currently mired in domestic dramas about Chinese influence in their university system and Parliament, respectively. The need for vigilance about Chinese espionage has never been greater.
This is a case where President Trump’s Jacksonian instincts and penchant for showmanship may actually serve him well. Rather than burying the danger of Chinese spy games, the Trump Administration should respond publicly to any such provocations, making it abundantly clear that any such behavior will not go unanswered. One of the more interesting details in the Politico story is that the Obama Administration “issued a veiled threat to kick out suspected Chinese agents within the U.S.” during the diplomatic talks around the Chengdu incident. It’s not clear that that threat was ever carried out—but if the FBI is sitting on a Chinese spy ring, now might be a good time to publicly break it up as loudly as possible, and send a message to Beijing.