Chinese espionage in the US is so widespread that the FBI is launching an average of two counterintelligence investigations a day to counter the attack, FBI Director Christopher Wray said in an interview.
Wray has become the US government’s most outspoken critic of Chinese government espionage. In an exclusive NBC News interview, he said the enormity of China’s efforts to steal American technology shocked him when he became FBI director in 2017.
“This one blew me away. And I’m not the kind of guy who easily uses words like ‘blown away,’ he said.
Wray said the FBI opens a new China-related counterintelligence investigation on average every 12 hours, and that there are currently more than 2,000 such cases pending.
“There is no country that poses a broader, greater threat to our innovation, our ideas and our economic security than China,” he said.
In a speech Monday at the Reagan Library in California, Wray warned that China’s economic espionage has reached a new level, “brutal, more damaging than ever before.”
The Chinese government has repeatedly urged not to steal US business secrets. But the FBI has accused Chinese spies of attacking a wide variety of American innovations, including Covid vaccines, computer chips, nuclear power plants, wind turbines and smartphones.
Last November, a Chinese intelligence officer, Xu Yanjun, was convicted of stealing closely guarded technology developed by GE Aviation to make fan blades for jet engines from composite materials. Investigators said he helped hackers in China gain access to company computers and tried to persuade a GE engineer to travel to China.
GE alerted the FBI and the engineer was given amended documents to make the plan come true so investigators could launch a criminal case. He faces a maximum prison sentence of 15 years.
Sometimes a company’s technology is stolen by placing spies in the company, the FBI said. In other cases, however, the theft is committed remotely through computer break-ins. And when it comes to that method, Wray said, China has no equal.
“The scale of their hacking program and the amount of personal and business data their hackers have stolen is greater than in any other country combined,” he said in the interview.
Wray has long accused China of using pressure tactics to block criticism from dissidents and members of the immigrant community in the United States, which he says amounts to Chinese officials exporting their oppressive tactics.
“China may be the first country to combine such authoritarian ambition with cutting edge technical capabilities. It’s like East Germany’s surveillance nightmare combined with Silicon Valley technology,” Wray said.
Wray cited the example of Zhihao Kong, who was a graduate student at Purdue University in Indiana in 2020, when he publicly praised the student protesters who were murdered in Tiananmen Square in 1989. After that, Kong said the Chinese Ministry of State Security visited his parents in China to warn them about his activism.
Wray stressed that the source of the problems is China’s leaders, not citizens.
“I’m not talking about the Chinese people, not about people of Chinese descent or descent,” he said. “What we’re talking about here is the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party.”
Some Asian-American groups have accused the Justice Department and the FBI of being over the top, especially with a Trump-era national security program, the China Initiative, designed to tackle Chinese economic espionage in universities and research institutions. The groups say federal agents too often go after academic researchers for paperwork violations that have no effect on national security.
Last month, the Justice Department dropped the case against Gang Chen, a professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, after the federal government determined he was not required to declare Chinese ties when submitting grant proposals, such as being a consultant. from the Chinese Scholarship Council and a review expert for China’s National Natural Science Foundation.
While FBI officials acknowledged some missteps, the agency’s focus is on attempts to steal from US companies, not academia.
“We do not conduct research based on race, ethnicity or constitutionally protected activities,” Wray said. “In fact, in many cases, Chinese Americans are some of the people most victims of the Chinese government tactics we describe.”
While other countries, including North Korea, Russia and Iran, have carried out persistent attacks on US computer networks, Wray said China is in a league of its own.
“There is simply no other country that poses a greater threat to our ideas, innovation and economic security than China.”