Suspected Chinese spy ‘honey-trapped’ top US politicians: Report

NEW DELHI: The US intelligence officials have blown the lid off a high-profile “honey-trap” mission carried out by a Chinese woman to target several top politicians, including mayors and a Congressman, according to a report by Axios.
The suspected Chinese intelligence operative developed close ties with several local and national politicians between 2011 and 2015 to gain proximity to political power, the report revealed, quoting current and former US intelligence officials as well as one former elected official.
According to the report, the woman behind the operation was identified as a Chinese national named Fang Fang or Christine Fang, who was acting at the behest of China’s ministry of state security (MSS), the country’s main civilian spy agency.
It said that Fang rose through the political ranks in California’s Bay Area through campaign fundraising, extensive networking, personal charisma and romantic or sexual relationships with at least two Midwestern mayors.
The operation, which came to light recently, reveals the worrying extent of China’s aggressive political-gathering operations that are aimed at influencing foreign policy issues related to Beijing.
How Fang cozied up to politicians
Fang’s friends and acquaintances said she was in her late 20s or early 30s when she was based in the US and was enrolled as a student at a Bay Area university in 2011, the report said.
It said that Fang initially gained prominence by becoming the president of Chinese-American associations at her school and later used her positions to gain access to political circles.
Quoting current and former local officials and students, the report revealed that Fang often invited political figures, business executives, and Chinese consular officials to attend the flurry of high-profile events she organized over a period of several years.
“She used political gatherings, civic society conferences, campaign rallies and campus events to connect with elected officials and other prominent figures,” it said, quoting people who knew Fang.
Through her role in the organizations, Fang developed contacts with multiple politicians, including Democrat Congressman Eric Swalwell, Bill Harrison, the then-mayor of Fremont, Congresswoman Judy Chu and even Indian-American Congressman Ro Khanna.
“Fang attended regional conferences for US mayors, which allowed her to grow her network of politicians across the country. She also engaged in sexual or romantic relationships with at least two mayors of Midwestern cities over a period of about three years,” the report said, quoting an intelligence official and a former elected official on the condition of anonymity.
FBI electronic surveillance further revealed that Fang had at least two separate sexual encounters with elected officials, one of whom was a Midwestern mayor, it said.
“Fang also had a sexual encounter with an Ohio mayor in a car that was under electronic FBI surveillance,” the report said, quoting a current US official.
It added that despite being “very active” in political circles, little was known about Fang’s personal life. Several acquaintances recalled that she appeared to be someone from a wealthy background and drove a white Mercedes, but couldn’t provide much information about her family or her hometown.
‘She was on a mission’
According to Axios, the US officials first took note of Fang’s activities when they were surveying another undercover diplomat in the San Francisco consulate.
A US official told Axios that the suspected officer, who was also focused on gathering political intelligence, was in regular touch with Fang.
Fang was subsequently placed under FBI surveillance and it was found that she had been conducting influence operations by getting close to US politicians, the report said, quoting senior US officials.
“The fact that she was traveling around the country getting close to US politicians was a big red flag,” the report quoted an official as saying, who added that Fang was “on a mission.”
With Fang’s activities raising alarm, senior US intelligence warned several local and national politicians of her activities. They also warned them about other potential Chinese spies in their offices, whose hirings may have been facilitated by Fang.
“US intelligence officials also provided multiple briefings to White House officials and members of Congress on the case,” the report said, quoting a current senior official.
‘She disappeared off the face of everything’
What may have further confirmed Fang’s deep involvement in the Chinese intelligence-gathering operation was her sudden disappearance in 2015.
Fang was planning to travel to Washington DC for an event in June 2015 but cancelled it unexpectedly, saying she needed to return to China, Axios reported, quoting an acquaintance from California on the same trip.
The report said many of Fang’s political contacts in the Bay Area were both surprised as well as confused at her sudden departure from the US.
“When she left kind of abruptly, we all kind of scratched our heads,” former mayor Harrison told Axios.
The former mayor of Cupertino Gilbert Wong, who had seen Fang frequently at political events, told the publication that the Chinese national “disappeared off the face of everything.”
Officials and former political acquaintances told Axios that Fang has not returned to the country to date and has cut off contacts with her US-based friends.
‘Really sensitive people were caught up’
Though the report wasn’t clear about the type of information Fang may have passed on to her superiors, the US officials it quoted believed she did not receive or relay any sensitive or classified knowledge.
However, a top US intelligence official told Axios that the case was a “big deal” since some “really, really sensitive people” were caught up in the operation.
According to the US officials quoted in the report, Fang’s real reason for being in the US was to gather political intelligence and influence key officials on matters related to China.
“Close relationships between a US elected official and a covert Chinese intelligence operative can provide the Chinese government with opportunities to sway the opinion of key decision-makers.
“Beijing may aim to influence foreign policy issues directly related to China, or issues closer to home, such as partnering with Chinese companies for local investment — an issue particularly salient among local-level officials such as mayors and city council members,” the report said.
It said while Fang’s activities ended during the Obama administration, concerns about Beijing’s influence operations have spanned President Trump’s time in office and will continue to be a core focus for US counterintelligence during the Joe Biden administration.
China’s deep infiltration
The report has again brought to focus China’s apparent attempt to boost its presence in global corridors of power by means of spying and infiltration.
Recently, a major data leak revealed that millions of members belonging to the Communist Party of China (CPC) are employed with some of the world’s biggest corporations in the areas of defence, banks and pharmaceutical giants manufacturing coronavirus vaccines.
The leak, obtained by ‘The Australian’ newspaper, has alleged that the ruling CPC has infiltrated the Australian, British and US consulates in Shanghai, with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade using a Chinese government agency, the Shanghai Foreign Agency Service Department, to hire local staff.
Recently, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo accused China of stealing research and intellectual property from Chinese students studying in American colleges.
Pompeo had termed China’s Communist Party as the “central threat of our time”, while highlighting efforts by Chinese security services to pressure and recruit Chinese academics and students as spies.

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