The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has already arrested nearly 80 percent of the total number of arrests it made in China-related cases this year as it did in all of 2019, officials said Thursday, identifying the Asian superpower as the biggest law enforcement threat to the U.S.
FBI counterintelligence chief John Brown told a conference at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington that the bureau had already arrested 19 people in cases in which the Chinese government was involved in the first 37 days of 2020, compared to 24 in all of last year and 15 five years earlier.
“We believe that no country poses a greater threat than Communist China,” Brown said.
“Today investigations related to China make up a greater percentage of our counterintelligence workload than at any other time in the FBI’s history.”
The FBI’s director, Christopher Wray, said the bureau currently has around 1,000 open investigations of Chinese technology theft pending in its 56 regional offices, which he said span “just about every industry sector.”
China takes advantage of academic openness in the U.S. to steal technology using “campus proxies” and through the establishment of “institutes on our campuses,” he said, referring to the Confucius Institutes that the U.S. Senate permanent subcommittee on investigations said last year should be shut down if there is no improvement in transparency around their dealings with U.S. universities.
Wray called for a coordinated effort by the U.S. government to battle the growing threat of China to U.S. law enforcement.
China is targeting defense information, technology used in renewable energy and electric vehicles, and high-end medical technology through hacking and the recruitment of people with access to such research and trade secrets, the officials said.
Director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center William Evanina, who has estimated that Chinese theft of trade secrets costs the U.S. hundreds of billions of dollars annually, warned at Thursday’s event that “the long-term existential threat to the security of our nation is real.”
In 2018, the U.S. Justice Department created an effort known as the China Initiative to battle the threat of Beijing-backed espionage.
Last year, authorities expelled two Chinese diplomats who have been accused of accessing a military base in Virginia, and also jailed former U.S. intelligence officials on China-related espionage charges.
In January, authorities arrested head of Harvard University’s chemistry and chemical biology department, Charles Lieber, and charged him with making false statements about his involvement in the Chinese government-backed Thousand Talents Program that offers incentives to mainly Chinese scientists abroad to bring their research back to China.
In an emailed statement to Reuters news agency, the Chinese embassy in Washington called the allegations made at Thursday’s conference “entirely baseless,” and countered that “the people-to-people exchange between China and the U.S. is conducive to stronger understanding between the two peoples and serves the fundamental interests of our two countries.”
According to a report by the Associated Press last year, the FBI had been reaching out to colleges and universities across the country to warn them of the threat of economic espionage on their campuses.
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