China cheats — and we let them
Let’s go back to high school. You’re a good student, at or near the top of your class. You’ve got natural gifts but you also work hard for your grades and for your future success. You’ve got a classmate, George, also smart but lazy as a 12-term congressman.
George doesn’t study; he just finds a way to sit near you at test time. You get an A, George gets an A. You got a 1550 on your SAT — hey, so did George. You were a shoo-in for top science project prize, except George’s project coincidently mirrored yours.
George got into Harvard. You missed and settled for Hofstra. You feel cheated and taken advantage of and, worst of all, everyone seemed to know what George was up to, but little was done to stop him. You see, George came from a family that no one much liked but everyone in town wanted to do business with. His family lent out a lot of easy money and undercut prevailing prices. So George was … tolerated.
If countries were high school classmates, Canada and Britain are your lunch table buds, Australia is the party dude, Russia is the brooding wannabe smoking in the boys’ bathroom, and China is George.
China largely has cheated its way to prosperity. In the U.S., research and development is a healthy investment in painstaking science and education and costly trials. In China, research and development is an internet connection and hacking tools.
In the past three decades, China has lifted itself from a rural, trinket-based economy to first-string varsity on the global pitch. Its spectacular rise tracks on a straight-line correlation with the advent and proliferation of the internet. This is no coincidence.
Because of the internet and some dispiriting naïveté, data developed through the time-consuming hard work of others was suddenly accessible for copying and pilfering. Everything from weapon systems to computer hardware and software, telecommunications, industrial processes and energy production became a target.
Suddenly, China began producing and exporting a whole lot of products that looked just like stuff invented in the West. Here, we pay for software licenses, the lifeblood of today’s economy. In China, 99 percent of Microsoft licenses are counterfeit and unpaid for.
Because they didn’t have to recover the considerable sunk costs of R&D or pay for valuable products, China could undercut prices and build massive trade imbalances in their favor. And so, with the hundreds of billions of dollars worth of intellectual property stolen each year from the U.S. and with its resulting trade bonanza, suddenly China was sitting on a nice pile of yuan.
Now, China has announced a goal of global dominance in artificial intelligence by 2030 with a primary application in weaponry. They are currently outspending the U.S. in this area. Easy to do with a massive trade imbalance enabled by theft and forced technology transfer.
To add insult to injury, they became a loan-shark nation furnishing funds to an insatiable U.S. Congress that makes the prodigal son look like Ebenezer Scrooge. In other words, we’ve gone into debt to a nation that has lent us money it essentially stole from us.
Sounds pretty bad, you say. Oh, we’re just getting started. Many in the political class here in the U.S. prefer a policy of averted eyes when it comes to China, including many running for president, favoring instead a focus on climate change.
But with belching, coal-fired China in the room, any steps we take to clean up our own carbon footprint will be like taking a bath in a smoking chimney. Our leaders would have us tax and inconvenience ourselves to the extreme to solve a problem that China is making worse.
Also worsening is an opioid epidemic killing tens of thousands each year in the U.S., fueled by fentanyl smuggled into the country from — you guessed it — China.
China has a specific strategy to become the world’s most powerful economy and lone superpower. How do we know this? Because they openly proclaim it. Not only that, but the methods by which they are striving to achieve this goal are not particularly clandestine.
The FBI considers China to be the top intelligence threat to the United States. FBI Director Christopher Wray recently testified to the Senate Intelligence Committee that he considered the Chinese threat “more deep, more diverse, more vexing, more challenging, more comprehensive and more concerning than any (other) I can think of.”
The reason he made such a stark statement is the immense complexity of the asymmetrical Chinese intelligence strategy. China is taking active steps to not just steal our intellectual property, but also position itself to cripple our critical infrastructure and financial system if needed.
Former National Security Agency director Mike Rogers has testified that China and one or two other countries likely have the ability to shut down significant portions of our power grid on command. And think of our financial system’s vulnerability to cyber intrusions — not to steal money but to corrupt, manipulate, or even eliminate data and throw a trust-based system into chaos.
The FBI sees China executing its plans in a number of ways, but would point to three main vectors.
First is the remote assault on our intellectual property via cyber intrusions as outlined above. Second is their full leverage of our generous access to U.S. academia via hundreds of thousands of student visas and even preferential admittance to universities over U.S. students.
Third is their exploitation of our capitalist system itself as they insinuate Chinese companies into our supply chain, engage in joint ventures, and sell Chinese products such as Lenovo and Huawei to our companies and government agencies as platforms for gathering sensitive data.
In 2017, China was so bold as to pass a law requiring its citizens to collect intelligence as they engage in business and academics worldwide and cooperate with Chinese intelligence agencies. Can you imagine U.S. citizens being required to report their business dealings to the FBI or CIA?
This threat — and it is a threat — is difficult to counter. The first line of defense is to shine a light on its reality and understand with whom we are dealing. The shame of it all is that the Chinese people are brilliant and entirely capable of developing economic prosperity in an honest and trustworthy way and being a major contributor to a peaceful world. But their corrupt and cynical leadership is too fearful to let that happen. Sadly, they’re stuck being George for now. And nobody likes George.
Kevin R. Brock, former assistant director of intelligence for the FBI, was an FBI special agent for 24 years and principal deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). He is a founder and principal of NewStreet Global Solutions, which consults with private companies and public-safety agencies on strategic mission technologies.