The FBI goes full throttle against China

RK Raghavan | Updated on July 17, 2020

Seeing red: The US has assiduously built its case against Huawei   -  Reuters

In a recent speech, FBI chief Christopher Wray squarely accused China of espionage and theft of US technology

There was an unusual speech recently at the Hudson Institute, Washington, a leading US think tank that is bound to draw international attention. This was by Christopher Wray, chief of the fabled Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), who devoted his pungent talk almost solely to China and its alleged brazen involvement in espionage compounded by downright stealing.

Most of us in India may be totally surprised at a civil servant speaking in public with such candour, albeit against a foreign government. We have the tradition and culture which believes that attacks of the Wray kind are the preserve of the political leadership. The ordinary civil servant will necessarily have to sound staid and stale, even when armed with explosive information regarding misconduct of an external power.

Wray is no humdrum civil servant. A Yale Law School product and a former Assistant Attorney General in the George Bush administration, he was hand-picked three years ago for the high profile job by President Trump. This was after the latter dismissed the controversial James Comey, who fell out of favour with the administration for his findings in the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election.

Comey and Wray are of different mettle; the former a high profile chief, and Wray a steady plodding professional. Interestingly, at the Senate confirmation hearing in July 2017, Wray did not endorse the theory that the Comey opinion was a ‘witch hunt’ against Trump, as the administration would want the world to believe. Wray’s approach to the matter was enough to establish that he was not a ‘yes-man’, who sailed with the establishment. No doubt an inauspicious beginning for a new FBI Director like Wray, especially under a mercurial and unconventional boss such as Trump.

In his Hudson Institute talk (July 7) Wray pulled no punches. He squarely accused the Chinese government of violating American criminal laws and international norms. He disclosed that there was a 1,300 per cent increase in espionage cases linked to China.

He added that more than one thousand instances each of counter-intelligence and theft of US technology linked to China were under the FBI lens. He was categorical that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was guilty of coercion, that included hacking of companies and government to gain unauthorised and illegal access to information. Wray charged the CCP further of paying researchers to steal technology and industrial secrets.

The Huawei connection

Expectedly, he brought up the subject of Huawei Corporation, the multinational company founded in China in 1987 by Ren Zhengfei, who was once in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Given Zhengfei’s connections with Beijing, there is ground to believe that the company has links to CCC. Many speculations hover around the suspicion that it is subservient to the Chinese government and that it regularly feeds the latter with sensitive data ferreted out of its systems sold all over the globe.

Many countries strongly believe that Huawei hardware has a built-in feature that facilitates snooping into the customers.

It is an entirely different matter that most of the accusers have still not chosen to walk out of Huawei because there is no complaint against the quality of Huawei products.

Huawei has taken the stand that it is more sinned against than sinning. In particular it says that its detractors have not been able to produce proof of its misfeasance. Incidentally, in terms of volume of sale of smartphones, Huawei is second only to Apple. This fact is used by it to disseminate the impression that the campaign against it was inspired by its rattled competitors in the US and outside.

Opposition to Huawei has been built assiduously over the years by the US with drummed up support from the rest of the world, especially Europe.

The company has been accused of misdeeds of different hues. This at a time when the company was itching to make billions of dollars out of its much sought after 5G technology, the current international rage.

President Trump issued a decree in May 2019 against American telecom firms using foreign-made equipment, without however naming Huawei, although the latter was the specific target. Australia and Canada have already followed suit.

After its wishy-washy stance last year, the UK has just announced that mobile providers in the country were being prohibited from buying new Huawei 5G equipment. They have further been directed to remove all 5G kits in their systems by 2027. This change in the UK’s stand is attributed to the newer and newer sanctions imposed by Washington on Chinese technology companies.

India had earlier proposed to negotiate with Huawei in wrapping up a 5G deal. Given the present tensions in relations between India and China, it will not be surprising if Huawei is kept out of the huge 5G rollout contemplated in the months to come.

Wray concluded his Hudson talk with a warning that China had an all-pervasive design to expand its influence through cyber intrusions and corrupting trusted insiders. Its target is research ranging from ‘military equipment to wind turbine’ and from ‘rice to corn seeds’.

According to Wray, the company also employs its Thousand Talents Program to lure back Chinese scientists in the US to mainland China who would be asked to bring back home innovations successfully tried in the US.

Wray cited two cases. Hongjin Tan, a permanent US resident, stole trade secrets worth more than $1 billion from an Oklahoma-based petroleum company where he was employed. Tan was found out in course of time and was prosecuted and convicted a few months ago. Similarly, Shan Shi, a Texas-based Chinese, was convicted recently for theft of some features of naval technology.

Talent hunting is another favourite method used by the Chinese to build intelligence infrastructure abroad, and this has come to the FBI’s notice. Wray appealed to Americans that if they suspected being targeted by the Chinese, they should report it to the local FBI office.

False propaganda?

A few observers, especially those who look upon the US government as a deliberate spreader of false propaganda against anyone who stood up to it, could be sceptical of all that Wray said against the Chinese during his long Washington speech. The point is Wray cannot be ignored wholesale.

Any numbers of independent sources have endorsed the suspicion against the Chinese government and its appetite for expansion. After our own recent skirmishes in Ladakh with the Chinese army, we in India cannot also be complacent.

It will be preposterous on my part to advise the government in this matter. The average Indian however needs to know of the insidious threats from the Chinese government and its agencies. There is I suppose also an active international intelligence community that keeps sharing inputs on how to blunt the Chinese machinery which is never at rest.

The writer is a former CBI Director and a former High Commissioner to Cyprus

Published on July 17, 2020

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