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The Dragon’s Reach: Chinese Espionage Operations in the United States

Updated: Jul 2, 2022

By Kai Suherwan


Zhihao Kong was a Chinese national that attended Purdue University. After praising the protesters who were killed in Tiananmen Square in 1989, Zhihao received threats from Chinese students who threatened to report him to the Chinese Ministry of State Security (MSS). The Chinese government would threaten his family, warning them that his actions in the United States would have consequences for them. The majority of Chinese nationals within the US are not here for espionage purposes and it is important to stress that there is a difference between the Government of China and the people. That being said, the long arm of the Chinese government extends to our shores, with their operations not only a threat to our national security but also a direct attack on our values.

There are many instances of Chinese operations within the US, Operation Fox Hunt is a prime example. Begining in 2014, it was targeted against what the Chinese Government saw as corrupt officials who had fled the country. While this may sound like a noble cause, the real meaning of what the Chinese government considers “Corrupt Officials” is quite sinister. Xi Jinping’s war on corruption has purged not only blatantly corrupt Chinese officials but also those who are considered dissidents and whistleblowers. This operation had spread to the US with eight individuals being arrested in 2020 for acting on behalf of the Chinese government to harass and repatriate individuals as part of Operation Fox Hunt.

Alongside operations such as this, the Chinese government recruits students studying within the US to conduct espionage, keep tabs on their Chinese nationals and harass exiles. On the issue of espionage, Chinese students have been charged with taking pictures of US military installations. According to the Miami Herald, since 2018 four Chinese nationals have been charged for taking pictures of US military installations in Key West Florida. The case of Zhihao Kong shows how Chinese students hounded him for expressing his views, calling him a “CIA agent and threatening to report him to the embassy and the MSS.” Leaked conversations prove Chinese intelligence officials pressuring Chinese students to spy on dissidents in the US, with the harassment playing out when students in Brandeis University hijacked an online event regarding the cultural genocide of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

The thought of having Chinese agents freely running around the US leaves many questions about what else they could be doing and should be of concern to our national security apparatus. Morally, these agents threaten quintessential American values such as freedom of speech and association. Students and exiles who come to the US should have the freedom to express their views without fear of harassment, and the Chinese government attacks that freedom by recruiting students to keep tabs on their own countrymen and through the harassment of exiles.

So what exactly should the US do to counter these efforts? There are three measures that can be enacted to do so. Firstly, exiles who believe that they are under threat by Chinese agents should be granted protection at their request. The measures enacted for their protection would be akin to the witness protection program. This would have the exiles take new identities and be given housing and basic living expenses by the government. This measure does have its pros and cons though. It would allow exiles to live their lives without fear of being harassed, but at the same time, exiles who want to have their voices heard will not be able to enroll in this program, with them usually being the ones who are at most at risk of harassment.

The second measure would be to open avenues of reporting for students who face harassment. Many students who face these actions are often too scared to speak out. To counteract this, universities would have to encourage students who are victims of harassment to report this behaviour. Avenues of reporting should also be made known, with the process being made anonymous for students who are worried about their identities being revealed. Universities will also have to punish those who are the culprits of these harassment campaigns as well as those who actively stifle discourse on behalf of the Chinese government. If evidence of collaborating with Chinese agencies to spy on other students is found, said students should be expelled from the university and reported to the appropriate authorities.

The third and final measure would be for the US government to offer amnesty and protection to Chinese nationals who come forward with information regarding their taskings from the Chinese government or attempted recruitment. This avenue must of course stay secure, as to not put these people or their families at risk of reprisals. This measure would not only benefit the person coming forward with the information, but also the US intelligence and law enforcement apparatus. Gaining information regarding Chinese operations within the US will not only help us build a case against the Chinese government but also strengthen our defenses against espionage operations within the US,

To end, it is important to once again stress the difference between the Chinese Government and the Chinese people. As someone of Chinese heritage, I understand this better than most. When dealing with issues such as this, I often refer to the saying, “爱国不等于爱党” which translates to “Loving the country is not the same as loving the party.” While the majority of Chinese nationals within the US are not here for nefarious purposes, responsible agencies and institutions must be vigilant for those who act on behalf of China’s intelligence agencies. Those caught will be given due process in accordance with our transparent legal system, in contrast to the opaque and corrupt system of the country that they work on the behalf of.


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