On Wednesday, FBI Director Christopher Wray and MI5 Director-General Ken McCallum held a joint press conference in London, addressing the consistent long-term threats posed by the Chinese government. The warning includes threats to the economic and national security of the UK, the US, and its allies in Europe and elsewhere. The agency leaders also particularly warned business leaders that Beijing is determined to steal their technology for competitive gains.
McCallum said that the MI5 has “more than doubled our previously constrained effort against Chinese activity of concern”. He added that they have run seven times as many investigations as they did in 2018. On the other hand, the FBI director indicated, “We consistently see that it’s the Chinese government that poses the biggest long-term threat to our economic and national security, and by our, I mean both of our nations, along with our allies in Europe and elsewhere.”
Wray alleged that the Chinese government is trying to “shape the world” by interfering in the politics of the US and its allies. According to the FBI director, Beijing directly interfered in a Congressional election in New York this year, to obstruct the candidacy of a critic and former protester at Tiananmen Square. Reportedly, this was done by hiring a private investigator to find derogatory information. However, when they could not find anything, they supposedly manufactured a controversy using a sex worker, before suggesting staging a car accident.
Furthermore, Wray indicated that the Chinese government “poses (an) even more serious threat to Western businesses than many sophisticated business people realize”, alleging that they are “set on stealing your technology – whatever it is that makes your industry tick – and using it to undercut your business and dominate your market. And they’re set on using every tool at their disposal to do it”.
At the press conference, McCallum also gave a series of examples linked to China. This included an incident regarding a British aviation expert who was approached online and offered an employment opportunity. According to the MI5 chief, the expert travelled to China twice, before the company began asking him for technical information about military aircraft. The company later turned out to be a front for Chinese intelligence officers. “That’s where we stepped in,” said McCallum.
“Outside of China, their government uses elaborate shell games to disguise its efforts from foreign companies and from government investment-screening programs like CFIUS, America’s Committee on Foreign Investment in the US,” said Wray. Adding to this, McCallum indicated that the risk from China’s Communist Party aggression is not “my stuff… it’s yours”. “The world-leading expertise, technology, research, and commercial advantage developed and held by people in this room, and others like you,” he said.
According to Wray, the Chinese government’s hacking program is “bigger than that of every other major country combined”. Reportedly, Beijing’s government has a long-standing practice of hacking and stealing proprietary information in order to gain economic advantage. As per McCallum, intelligence about cyber attacks has been shared with 37 countries in May, and a sophisticated threat against aerospace has been disrupted.
“We’re not just in the business of articulating problems, we’re doing something about them, together with MI5, with the private sector itself, with other government partners,” said Wray. He further urged the business leaders to partner and cooperate with the FBI and MI5, and provide them with appropriate intelligence to counter the threat.
The agencies believe that this information can also help companies decide if their partnership with China is worth the risk of having proprietary information stolen. Wray also indicated the companies should account for the long view in making decisions about China, as even the FBI and MI5 have chosen to approach this threat from a long-term perspective.
“Maintaining a technological edge may do more to increase a company’s value than would partnering with a Chinese company to sell into that huge Chinese market, only to find the Chinese government and your ‘partner’ stealing and copying your innovation,” said Wray. According to the FBI, these counterintelligence and economic espionage efforts by the government of China and the Chinese Communist Party are seen as a grave threat to the economic well-being and democratic values of the US.
“To be clear, the adversary is not the Chinese people or people of Chinese descent or heritage. The threat comes from the programs and policies pursued by an authoritarian government,” clarified the FBI director. McCallum reiterated that the Chinese government and its “covert” pressure on the world is “the most game-changing challenge we face”. He added, “This might feel abstract. But it’s real and it’s pressing…We need to talk about it. We need to act.”
Meanwhile, the spokesperson of the Chinese embassy in Washington, Liu Pengyu, has rejected these allegations in a statement. China “firmly opposes and combats all forms of cyber attacks… we will never encourage, support, or condone cyber attacks”, read the statement. The diplomat also went on to call these accusations baseless.
In the context of the ongoing tension between China and Taiwan, the FBI director indicated during his speech that if Beijing tries to forcibly take over Taipei, it “would represent one of the most horrific business disruptions the world has ever seen”. After his appearance with his British counterpart, Wray said that he would leave it to others to question the likelihood of this step after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “I don’t have any reason to think their interest in Taiwan has abated in any fashion,” said the FBI director. He added that he hoped that China learns from what happens “when you overplay your hand,” he said, referring to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The FBI director mentioned that there are signs that the Chinese are drawing lessons from Russia’s experience of the war, and have looked into ways to “insulate their economy” against sanctions. “In our world, we call that behaviour a clue,” said Wray, while urging Western companies to remain cautious when doing business with China as it could collapse in the event of an invasion of Taiwan. “Just as in Russia, Western investments built over years could become hostages, capital stranded (and) supply chains and relationships disrupted,” said Wray.