- FBI Director Christopher Wray issued a dire warning about China’s growing influence during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Tuesday.
- He said there were a variety of ways China was implementing a plan to replace the US as the foremost global power, including by infiltrating academia.
- Recent reports have suggested that while China’s Confucius Institutes are ostensibly language-learning centres, they often serve as vehicles for Chinese propaganda at universities around the world, including the US.
- Intelligence experts have also cited Chinese cybersecurity threats as a major concern in 2018.
FBI Director Christopher Wray on Tuesday reiterated a commonly held view among US intelligence officials that China is seeking to become a global superpower through unconventional means – but he framed it as both a governmental and a societal threat to the US.
Speaking before the Senate Intelligence Committee alongside the heads of other US intelligence agencies, Wray said that to undermine the US’s military, economic, cultural, and informational power across the globe, China was using methods relying on more than just its state institutions.
“One of the things we’re trying to do is view the China threat as not just a whole-of-government threat, but a whole-of-society threat on their end,” Wray said. “And I think it’s going to take a whole-of-society response by us.”
In response to a question from Sen. Marco Rubio about whether China was planning to overtake the US as the world’s most dominant power, Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, echoed Wray.
“There is no question that what you have just articulated is what’s happening with China,” Coats said. “They’re doing it in a very smart way. They’re doing it in a very effective way. They are looking beyond their own region.”
Coats said multiple agencies were conducting “intensive studies” to understand the ways China is looking to carry out its global agenda.
The double-edged sword of open academics
Wray pointed to China’s use of unconventional intelligence sources as an example of its reach.
He said “collectors” – what the intelligence community calls people who collect intelligence on behalf of agencies or governments – had infiltrated US universities.
“I think in this setting, I would just say that the use of nontraditional collectors – especially in the academic setting, whether it’s professors, scientists, students – we see in almost every field office that the FBI has around the country,” Wray said.
“They’re exploiting the very open research-and-development environment that we have, which we all revere, but they’re taking advantage of it,” Wray said, adding that there was a “naiveté” among academics about the risks posed by foreign nationals at US universities.
The Institute of International Education found that US universities admitted more than 1 million international students in the 2015-16 school year, nearly 329,000 of which were Chinese students.
While there is no evidence that a large number of Chinese students or academics at US universities poses a threat to US interests, the Chinese government uses several education efforts as vehicles for soft power.
One is the Confucius Institutes, which Rubio alluded to during the Senate hearing.
These institutes mirror many other foreign-language-education entities that countries fund around the world, but with a couple of caveats. Rather than existing as standalone bodies, they are inserted into universities in the US and elsewhere. And Foreign Policy reported last year that though their mission is to promote cultural diplomacy, they disseminate Chinese propaganda and restrict what professors.
In response to the perceived danger to open expression posed by these institutes, the University of Chicago and Pennsylvania State University closed the Confucius Institutes on their campuses in 2014. Other global universities have followed suit.
Confucius Institutes also have a presence in Africa, where China is growing its economic and political power.
Quartz reported in November that people in countries like Zambia and Zimbabwe were encouraged to view China as a positive economic force and a source of progress and opportunity as part of the “Look East” policy many African countries have implemented.
As a result of this push, the number of African students in China has skyrocketed over the past 10 or so years, the Quartz report says.
Chinese cybersecurity threats
During Tuesday’s Senate hearing, the top US intel chiefs drew attention to Chinese cybersecurity strategies.
“Frankly, the United States is under attack by entities that are using cyber to penetrate virtually every major action that takes place” within the US, Coats said.
The Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community, also released Tuesday, outlines China’s cyber capabilities.
“China will continue to use cyber espionage and bolster cyber attack capabilities to support national security priorities,” the report says, adding that while China’s cyber activity is at much lower levels than it was before September 2015, it is still threatening.
It continues: “Most detected Chinese cyber operations against US private industry are focused on cleared defence contractors or IT and communications firms whose products and services support government and private sector networks worldwide.”
Pointing to the findings, several intelligence heads reaffirmed the need to beef up US counterintelligence efforts in cyber. Many identified it as one of the top priorities for the intelligence community in the coming year.
Wray said that with so many facets of American society under threat, it would take a lot more than just intelligence agencies to combat China.
“It’s not just the intelligence community,” he said, “but it’s raising awareness within our academic sector, within our private sector, as part of the defence.”
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