Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian and Zach Dorfman, Axios, December 8, 2020
A suspected Chinese intelligence operative developed extensive ties with local and national politicians, including a U.S. congressman, in what U.S. officials believe was a political intelligence operation run by China’s main civilian spy agency between 2011 and 2015, Axios found in a yearlong investigation.
Why it matters: The alleged operation offers a rare window into how Beijing has tried to gain access to and influence U.S. political circles.
The woman at the center of the operation, a Chinese national named Fang Fang or Christine Fang, targeted up-and-coming local politicians in the Bay Area and across the country who had the potential to make it big on the national stage.
- Through campaign fundraising, extensive networking, personal charisma, and romantic or sexual relationships with at least two Midwestern mayors, Fang was able to gain proximity to political power, according to current and former U.S. intelligence officials and one former elected official.
- Even though U.S. officials do not believe Fang received or passed on classified information, the case “was a big deal, because there were some really, really sensitive people that were caught up” in the intelligence network, a current senior U.S. intelligence official said.
- Private but unclassified information about government officials — such as their habits, preferences, schedules, social networks, and even rumors about them — is a form of political intelligence. Collecting such information is a key part of what foreign intelligence agencies do.
Among the most significant targets of Fang’s efforts was Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.).
- Fang took part in fundraising activity for Swalwell’s 2014 re-election campaign, according to a Bay Area political operative and a current U.S. intelligence official. Swalwell’s office was directly aware of these activities on its behalf, the political operative said. That same political operative, who witnessed Fang fundraising on Swalwell’s behalf, found no evidence of illegal contributions.
- Federal Election Commission records don’t indicate Fang herself made donations, which are prohibited from foreign nationals.
- Fang helped place at least one intern in Swalwell’s office, according to those same two people, and interacted with Swalwell at multiple events over the course of several years.
Between the lines: The case demonstrates China’s strategy of cultivating relationships that may take years or even decades to bear fruit. The Chinese Communist Party knows that today’s mayors and city council members are tomorrow’s governors and members of Congress.
- Beijing “is engaged in a highly sophisticated malign foreign influence campaign,” FBI director Chris Wray said in a July 2020 speech. These efforts involve “subversive, undeclared, criminal, or coercive attempts to sway our government’s policies, distort our country’s public discourse, and undermine confidence in our democratic processes and values,” Wray said.
Between 2011 and 2015, Fang’s activities brought her into contact with many of the Bay Area’s most prominent politicos.
- She volunteered for Ro Khanna’s unsuccessful 2014 House bid, according to a former campus organizer and social media posts. (Khanna, a Democrat, was elected to the House in 2016.) Khanna’s office said he remembers seeing Fang at several Indian American political gatherings but did not have further contact with her. Khanna’s office said the FBI did not brief him on her activities. Khanna’s 2014 campaign staff said that Fang’s name does not appear in their staff records, though they said that their records do not include all volunteers.
- Fang helped with a fundraiser for Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) in 2013, according to a flyer from the event Fang shared on Facebook. She appeared in photos over multiple years with a host of California politicians, including Khanna, Swalwell, Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.) and then-Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.).
The bottom line: U.S. officials believe Fang’s real reason for being in the U.S was to gather political intelligence and to influence rising U.S. officials on China-related issues.
- Close relationships between a U.S. elected official and a covert Chinese intelligence operative can provide the Chinese government with opportunities to sway the opinion of key decision-makers.
- Beijing may aim to influence foreign policy issues directly related to China, or issues closer to home, such as partnering with Chinese companies for local investment — an issue particularly salient among local-level officials such as mayors and city council members.
Why Beijing targets California’s Bay Area
The Bay Area offers ideal conditions for a foreign intelligence operative aiming to identify and target ambitious local politicians with national aspirations.
The big picture: Some of America’s most powerful politicians got their start in Bay Area politics, and China recognizes California’s importance. The MSS has a unit dedicated solely to political intelligence and influence operations in California.
- Silicon Valley is also the world’s most important center for the technology industry, making it a hotbed for Chinese economic espionage. Russian intelligence has also long targeted the Bay Area.
- California’s economy is the largest of all the U.S. states, giving California state lawmakers significant influence over national trends.
Democrats dominate the Bay Area, from mayors to its numerous U.S. congressional districts, and anyone seeking proximity to power needs to be in their political circles.
Context: The FBI’s extensive surveillance of left-wing political groups in the 1960s and 1970s has created a lingering distrust of the bureau that still exists today in Bay Area politics.
The Bay Area has one of the largest and oldest Chinese American communities in the country. Keeping tabs on Chinese diaspora communities is a top priority of China’s intelligence services, U.S. officials said.
- China’s spy services want to influence these communities to become more predisposed to the regime, as well as surveil and stamp out potential organized opposition to the Communist Party.
- Access to local political offices can give Beijing’s intelligence operatives opportunities to collect information on communities of Chinese descent in the United States.
- A high-profile example of this occurred in the 2000s, when China’s Ministry of State Security allegedly recruited a San Francisco-based staffer in Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s office. This person, who was fired when the FBI alerted Feinstein to his activities, was responsible for liaising with the local Chinese community.
What’s at stake: Chinese Americans find themselves in a difficult position in 2020, being squeezed both by influence campaigns from the Chinese government and a rise in anti-Chinese racism in the United States.
- “We want to fight against racism, we want to call it out,” Wong, the former mayor of Cupertino, told Axios. “But if there’s a spy, we definitely support full prosecution and we don’t support China penetrating the Chinese community.”
- “How do we address this issue without infringing on Chinese American rights?” he added.
- Khanna said in a statement: “I respect the need for law enforcement to protect our nation from espionage. [But] we need strict guardrails to make sure the FBI’s investigations do not have collateral damage to the privacy of American citizens or to the legitimacy of Asian Americans in this country.” He underscored his concern about “the chilling effect” of overbroad surveillance on Chinese American political participation.
How Fang rose to prominence among Bay Area politicos
In 2011, Fang enrolled as a student at California State University East Bay, where she served as the president of the school’s Chinese Student Association and president of the campus chapter of Asian Pacific Islander American Public Affairs (APAPA), a national organization that encourages Asian Americans to get involved in civic affairs.
- She used those positions as her initial platform to gain access to political circles. She frequently invited political figures, business executives, and Chinese consular officials to attend the flurry of high-profile events she organized over a period of several years, according to current and former local officials, former students, Bay Area politicos, and social media activity.
- Fang’s first known contact with numerous politicians, including Swalwell, Harrison, Chu, and then-candidate Khanna was through her role as president of these organizations.
- Fang received a campus pride award for the work she did on behalf of the Chinese Student Association during the 2012–2013 academic year.
During this time, Fang maintained unusually close ties to the Chinese consulate in San Francisco.
- It’s common for Chinese student association presidents to communicate frequently with Chinese consular officials.
- But Fang’s relationship to the San Francisco consulate was especially close, according to social media posts, event flyers, photographs, and one current U.S. intelligence official.
As Fang branched out into off-campus politics, she relied heavily on her APAPA affiliation. Many of Fang’s activities were “under the auspices of APAPA,” said one Bay Area political operative, an observation echoed by five other Bay Area political figures and activists.
- Henry Yin, who is president of the APAPA Bay Area region chapter, told Axios in a phone call that he had seen Fang at numerous events and remembered her as being “very active.”
- APAPA is “not involved with foreign countries,” said Yin, adding that the organization tries “to make connections with concerned citizens for the betterment of Asian and Pacific Islanders, and also benefit all citizens at large.”
For Fang, targeting Swalwell made sense. His 2012 campaign — which was something of a longshot bid, pitting a young and relatively inexperienced city official against a longtime incumbent from the same party — relied heavily on Asian American support, said a former congressional staffer from the East Bay.
- That made Swalwell’s ties to the Chinese American community, and particularly APAPA, the Asian American civic organization, especially important.
U.S. intelligence officials believe China’s spy services have become more aggressive and emboldened, including in their U.S.-focused influence and political intelligence-gathering operations. Fang’s case shows how a single determined individual, allegedly working for Beijing, can gain access to sensitive U.S. political circles.