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The intel on China’s counterintelligence threat to America

China’s assault on US technological know-how is so pervasive that in 2018 the attorney general formed the “China Initiative” specifically to combat the problem.

Harvard University professor Charles Lieber leaves the Moakley Federal Courthouse in January with his wife Jennifer, right, in Boston. Lieber, chair of the department of chemistry and chemical biology, was charged with lying to officials about his involvement with a Chinese government-run recruitment program through which he received tens of thousands of dollars.Charles Krupa/Associated Press

The ruling Communist Party of the People’s Republic of China is engaged in an unprecedented long-term campaign of espionage and intelligence collection against American businesses, universities, research facilities, and other sensitive locations. There is nothing speculative about this concern. Eighty percent of federal prosecutions for economic espionage allege direct involvement of the Chinese government. About 60 percent of all prosecutions for economic espionage have at least some connection to China. Chinese theft of research and technology costs our country between $225 billion and $600 billion a year. As FBI Director Christopher Wray recently told Congress, “There is no country that poses a more severe counterintelligence threat to this country right now than China.”

We in New England have been directly harmed by this aggressive campaign. For example, American Superconductor Corporation, a wind energy company based in Devens, lost over 700 jobs and more than $1 billion in shareholder equity when a Chinese company, Sinovel, stole proprietary software used in wind turbines. Sinovel was eventually convicted on federal criminal charges, but that was small consolation in light of the layoffs and drop in share value due to lost technology.


American Superconductor is not an outlier. In 2018, federal prosecutors in Boston charged a Chinese national with conspiring to illegally export sonar buoy technology — used to track submarines — to a Chinese entity linked to the People’s Liberation Army. In December 2019, a Chinese national, Zaosong Zheng, was charged with stealing biological agents from the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and trying to smuggle them to China.

Our universities are at risk as well. In late January, Harvard professor Charles Lieber was charged with lying to federal authorities about his involvement in a Chinese talent-recruitment program, Thousand Talents. Lieber, whom the Chinese allegedly paid a whopping $50,000 a month, is a world-renowned researcher in nanotechnology. Boston federal prosecutors also recently charged a university researcher with omitting on her immigration paperwork that she is a lieutenant in the People’s Liberation Army.


Make no mistake: China is trying to fill its strategic gaps at the expense of other nations. As outlined in its own Made in China 2025 initiative and most recent Five-Year Plan, China is striving for self-sufficiency in key research and technical sectors, and it is doing so by stealing technology from foreign countries, replicating it for domestic use, and then replacing the original, foreign tech with its own, first in the domestic market and then globally.

Beyond the cases described above, in the last six months the FBI and the Justice Department have investigated and charged similar conduct by Chinese nationals in Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee, and elsewhere. The FBI is now investigating China-related cases in all 50 states, encompassing all 56 FBI field offices.

China’s assault on US technological know-how is so pervasive that in November 2018 the attorney general formed the China Initiative specifically to combat the problem. The Boston US attorney is one of the five steering committee members for the initiative, which has provided guidance to US attorneys nationwide on prioritizing aggressive, innovative prosecutorial strategies for countering this threat.

We rightly celebrate the culture of openness in US academia, and foreign visitors who study, innovate, and start businesses here make our country stronger. We know that most Chinese students and researchers in the United States are here for legitimate academic purposes. But some are not. The Chinese government routinely recruits some percentage of Chinese nationals and others to assist in intellectual property theft.


China takes a broad approach to these efforts, using not just intelligence officers but academics, businesspeople, students, and other civilians to achieve its strategic objectives. We must likewise embrace a holistic approach to countering the threat. Federal authorities routinely develop partnerships with private institutions to enhance awareness, and we all share the goal of confronting this problem while maintaining a welcoming atmosphere for foreign researchers. Universities and businesses should urge transparency in dealings with foreign entities, including the Chinese government. Federal agents and prosecutors cannot do the job alone.

Andrew Lelling is the US attorney for Massachusetts. Joseph Bonavolonta is the special-agent-in-charge of the FBI’s Boston field office.