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Chinese spying in the U.S. has become so widespread that the FBI is launching an average of two counterintelligence investigations a day to counter the onslaught, FBI Director Christopher Wray said in an interview.
Wray has become the U.S. government’s most outspoken critic of the Chinese government’s spying. In an exclusive NBC News interview, he said the sheer scale of Chinese efforts to steal U.S. technology shocked him when he became FBI director in 2017.
“This one blew me away. And I’m not the kind of guy that uses words like ‘blown away’ easily," he said.
Wray said the FBI is opening a new China related counter-intelligence investigation on average every 12 hours, with over 2,000 such cases currently underway.
“There is no country that presents a broader, more severe threat to our innovation, our ideas and our economic security than China does,” he said.
In a speech Monday at the Reagan Library in California, Wray warned that China’s economic espionage has reached a new level, “more brazen, more damaging than ever before.”
The Chinese government has repeatedly insisted that it doesn’t steal U.S. business secrets. But the FBI has accused Chinese spies of targeting a wide range of U.S. innovations — including Covid vaccines, computer chips, nuclear power plants, wind turbines and smartphones, for example.
Last November a Chinese intelligence officer, Xu Yanjun, was convicted of trying to steal closely guarded technology developed by GE aviation for making jet engine fan blades from composite materials. Investigators said he helped hackers in China get access to company computers and tried to persuade a GE engineer to travel to China.
GE alerted the FBI, and the engineer was given altered documents to let the scheme play out so investigators could build a criminal case. He faces a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison.
Sometimes a company’s technology is stolen by planting spies inside company, the FBI said. But other cases involve theft committed remotely through computer intrusions. 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 corporate data that their hackers have stolen, is greater than every 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 said amounts to Chinese officials exporting their oppressive tactics.
"China may be the first country to combine that kind of authoritarian ambition with cutting-edge technical capability. It’s like the surveillance nightmare of East Germany combined with the tech of Silicon Valley,” 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 student protesters who were killed in 1989 at Tiananmen Square. After doing so, Kong said China’s Ministry of State Security visited his parents in China to warn them about his activism.
Wray emphasized that the source of the trouble is China’s leaders, not its citizens.
“I’m referring not to the Chinese people, not to people of Chinese descent or heritage," 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 overreaching, especially with a Trump-era national security program called the China Initiative, created to address Chinese economic espionage in universities and research institutions. The groups say federal agents too often go after academic researchers for paperwork offenses that have no effect on national security.
Last month, the Justice Department dropped its case against a mechanical engineering professor at MIT, Gang Chen, after the federal government determined that he had no obligation to declare Chinese affiliations when submitting grant proposals, such as being an adviser to the Chinese Scholarship Council and a review expert for China’s National Natural Science Foundation.
FBI officials, while acknowledging some missteps, said the bureau’s focus is on efforts to steal from American companies, not on academia.
“We don’t investigate based on race, or ethnicity, or constitutionally protected activity,” Wray said. “In fact, in many cases, Chinese Americans are some of the people most victimized by the Chinese government’s tactics that we’re describing.”
While other nations, including North Korea, Russia and Iran, have carried out sustained attacks on American computer networks, Wray said China stands in a class by itself.
“There’s just no other country that presents a broader threat to our ideas, innovation and economic security than China.”