China syndrome"Intellectual vacuum cleaner": China's industrial espionage campaign, I

Published 3 April 2008

In an effort to accelerate its rise to economic and technological hegemony, China is employing its military, intelligence services, trade missions abroad, students sent to foreign universities — and Chinese-born citizens who are sent to form espionage sleeper cells — in a massive industrial espionage campaign against Western companies

Here is the opening paragraph of a story we wrote last year:

During the 1992 U.S. presidential campaign, Ross Perot said that if the proposed North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) were to go into effect, we would all be hearing a “giant sucking sound” made by millions of U.S. jobs heading south for Mexico. There is a new giant sucking sound being heard: That of American and European trade secrets, patents, and other pieces of intellectual property being brazenly and systematically stolen by China in its effort to short-cut its way to global economic pre-eminence.

We went on to quote the 2007 annual report of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, which stated that China’s massive, all-embracing, methodical, and relentless industrial espionage and theft campaign poses the “single greatest risk” to the American technology sector (see HSDW story).

Other have began to notice. In a detailed discussion, the Washington Post’s Joby Warrick and Carrie Johnson wrote about Chi Mak, a Chinese-born engineer who worked for two ecades with a U.S. defense contractor, which rewarded him with promotions and a security clearance. Colleagues remembered him as a hard worker who often took paperwork home at night. Mak’s job gave him access to sensitive plans for Navy ships, submarines, and weapons. He secretly copied and sent these plans via courier to China — fulfilling a mission that U.S. officials say he had been planning since the 1970s. Mak was sentenced last week to 24 1/2 years in prison by a federal judge who described the lengthy term as a warning to China not to “send agents here to steal America’s military secrets.” Warrick and Johnson write that this may already be too late: “According to U.S. intelligence and Justice Department officials, the Mak case represents only a small facet of an intelligence-gathering operation that has long been in place and is growing in size and sophistication.”

The Chinese government, in an enterprise that one senior U.S. official likened to an “intellectual vacuum cleaner” (see our refernce above to a giant sucking sound) has deployed a diverse network of professional spies, students, scientists, and others systematically to collect U.S. know-how, the officials said. Some are trained in modern electronic techniques for snooping on wireless computer transactions. Others, such as Mak, are technical experts who have been in place for years and have blended into their communities. “Chi Mak acknowledged that he had been placed in the United States more than 20 years earlier, in order to burrow into the defense-industrial establishment to steal secrets,” Joel Brenner, the head of counterintelligence for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, told Warrick and Johnson. “It speaks of deep patience,” he said, and is part of a pattern.

Tomorrow: Recent examples of China’s espionage