Silver Lining? How the COVID-19 Pandemic Could Impact Chinese Espionage Operations in the United States.

I wanted to share my thoughts on something that no one seems to be talking about (at least not publicly) – how the COVID-19 pandemic may affect Chinese espionage operations inside the United States. I’m going to scope the conversation to focus on operations within US college campuses, a target area I assess will be heavily impacted. 


According to the U.S.- China Economic And Security Review Commission, Chinese intelligence operatives have infiltrated the United States national security apparatus since the formation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Over the past two decades, reports of Chinese espionage against the United States have risen dramatically. China focuses on collecting military-technical intelligence to be better prepared for a military confrontation with the United States, as well as critical U.S. technology and other sensitive proprietary information to achieve an economic advantage.


During remarks at the Department of Justice China Initiative Conference in February 2020, FBI Director Christopher Wray referred to the counterintelligence and economic espionage threat from China as “the greatest long-term threat to our nation’s information and intellectual property, and to our economic vitality.” The ambition of the PRC is to surpass the United States as the world’s foremost economic, technological, and military superpower. China seeks to use all available means to purloin American intellectual property, primarily through espionage conducted within the borders of the United States. One of the primary methods China uses to transfer knowledge back to the mainland is the Thousand Talents Program.


Established by China’s central government in 2008, the Thousand Talents Program seeks to “recognize and recruit leading international experts in scientific research, innovation, and entrepreneurship as part of the PRC’s National Talent Development Plan. Their publicly stated mission is to “gather and exploit global wisdom to create a greater China.” Written only in Chinese characters in both the English and Chinese language versions of the Program’s website is the phrase “The motherland needs you. The motherland welcomes you. The motherland places her hope in you.” This “talent transfer” program is a very bizarre hybrid of an overt & clandestine espionage that exists in plain sight.

During 2018 testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, E.W. Priestap, then assistant director of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division, attested that the Thousand Talents Program encourages theft of intellectual property from US institutions. He continued that The Program “offer(s) competitive salaries, state-of-the-art research facilities, and honorific titles, …even if it means stealing proprietary information or violating export controls to do so.”

Chinese theft of or access to export controlled U.S. technology, such as certain non-public research information, continues to be a law enforcement priority.  In the academic context, the space in which the FBI or others can charge and block transfers of research from the U.S. to China is narrow because U.S. export controls, such as the Export Administration Regulations (EAR), do not generally apply to information that is or is intended to be published.  This issue is on display right now with the Department of Justice’s charges against Harvard professor Charles Lieber who was ultimately charged with making a false statement regarding whether his WUT-Harvard Joint Nano Key Laboratory took funding from the Thousand Talents program, despite the underlying concern over sharing potentially sensitive or controlled information to China.

Now let’s think about what is the possible addressable threat surface the CCP can access:


According to The Institute of International Education, the United States is the number one destination for Chinese students studying abroad, accounting for one-third of the total international student body. Over the past decade, the number of Chinese students enrolled in US colleges has more than tripled. For the 2019 academic year, there were 369,548 Chinese students enrolled in US colleges and universities. By way of comparison, the number of American students traveling to China to study is relatively small, numbering 20,996 for the same time period.

Keep in mind that a student does not have to be a credentialed Ministry of State Security (MSS) agent to obtain valuable information from the cutting edge technological developments happening in university research departments every day. Two labs are specifically identified by the U.S. – China Economic And Security Review Commission as having a large presence of Chinese national graduate students. The first is UC Berkeley’s Berkeley Artificial Intelligence Research (BAIR) Laboratory, a national leader in the fields of advanced computer vision, natural language processing, robotics, and machine learning, where twenty percent of graduate students are PRC nationals. Second is the University of Michigan’s Nano Research Group which focuses on materials science that affects America’s energy and biomaterial sectors. It is relevant to note that this lab conducts research sponsored by the National Aerospace and Science Administration (NASA), the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, and the Department of Energy (DOE.)


The US values of openness and freedom are omnipresent on the country’s college and university campuses. The FBI has publicly stated that China is exploiting our open academic environment to steal our technology. College campuses provide excellent environments to conduct any number of espionage goals including information theft, additional asset recruitment, student visa program exploitation, and the spread of misinformation to cause unrest or political discomfort. While it is estimated that very few college students are sent to the United States as full agents of MSS, China does task legitimate students to report targeted information, often by exerting pressure via threats to their family members who remain on the mainland.

During 2018 testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee, FBI Directory Wray stated “The use of nontraditional collectors, especially in the academic setting, whether it’s professors, scientists, or students, we see in almost every field office that the FBI has around the country”, adding “the level of naivete on the part of the academic sector about this creates its own issues. They (PRC) are exploiting the very open search and development environment that we have, which we all revere, but they’re taking advantage of it.”


Below are some recent examples of PRC-backed espionage operations exploiting academia or involving participants of the Thousand Talents Program:

On 28 January 2020, the Department of Justice charged the Chair of Harvard University’s Chemistry and Chemical Biology Department in connection with aiding the People’s Republic of China. Dr. Charles Lieber specialized in the area of nanoscience and received more than $15,000,000 in grant funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Department of Defense (DOD) which requires the disclosure of financial support from foreign governments. Unbeknownst to Harvard beginning in 2011, Lieber became a “Strategic Scientist” at Wuhan University of Technology (WUT) in China and was a contractual participant in China’s Thousand Talents Plan from in or about 2012 to 2017. The Chinese government paid Lieber $50,000 USD per month, living expenses of up to $158,000 USD, and awarded him more than $1.5 million to establish a research lab at WUT.  In return, Lieber was obligated to work for WUT “not less than nine months a year” by “declaring international cooperation projects, cultivating young teachers and Ph.D. students, organizing international conference[s], applying for patents and publishing articles in the name of” WUT.

Also charged on 28 January 2020 was 29-year-old Yanqing Ye who was identified as a Lieutenant of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and a member of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). On her J-1 visa application, Ye falsely identified herself as a “student” and lied about her ongoing military service at the National University of Defense Technology (NUDT), a top military academy directed by the CCP.  While studying at Boston University’s (BU) Department of Physics, Chemistry and Biomedical Engineering from October 2017 to April 2019, Ye continued to work as a PLA Lieutenant completing numerous assignments from PLA officers such as conducting research, assessing U.S. military websites and sending U.S. documents and information to China. A search of Ye’s electronic devices demonstrated that at the direction of one NUDT professor, who was a PLA Colonel, Ye had accessed U.S. military websites, researched U.S. military projects and compiled information for the PLA on two U.S. scientists with expertise in robotics and computer science.  Furthermore, a review of a WeChat conversation revealed that Ye and the other PLA official from NUDT were collaborating on a research paper about a risk assessment model designed to decipher data for military applications.

Zaosong Zheng, 30, a Chinese national, was arrested on Dec. 10, 2019, at Boston’s Logan International Airport and charged by criminal complaint with attempting to smuggle 21 vials of biological research to China. In August 2018, Zheng entered the United States on a J-1 visa and conducted cancer-cell research at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston from Sept. 4, 2018, to Dec. 9, 2019.

In November 2019, the United States District Court, Northern District of Georgia, filed a criminal complaint against former Emory University neuroscientist Xiojiang Li for failing to disclose income being paid to him by the PRC Government. The charges allege that Li accepted a full salary from Emory paid in part by federal research grants, despite working for a significant portion of the time in China under the Thousand Talents Program.

In September 2018, Ji Chaoqun, 27, a Chinese citizen residing in Chicago, was arrested in Chicago for allegedly acting within the United States as an illegal agent of the People’s Republic of China. Chaoquan arrived in the United States in 2013 on an F1 Visa, for the purpose of studying electrical engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. Ji was tasked with providing the MSS biographical information on eight individuals for possible recruitment, including other Chinese nationals who were working as engineers and scientists in the United States, some of whom were U.S. defense contractors.


The COVID-19 Pandemic is affecting the matriculation of new Chinese nationals to colleges and universities in the United States in a few ways:

  • Travel bans are affecting students who have been on the Chinese mainland recently, and some colleges are reporting that they have students in China who are unable to return for the spring semester.
  • College entrance exams such as the ACT, TOEFL, IELTS, GMAT, and GRE in mainland China are being canceled.
  • Regular visa services at the U.S. embassy in Beijing and consulates in Chengdu, Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Shenyang Provinces have been suspended.

This means that China’s ability to implant new human intelligence collectors into the United States is diminishing and they must implement countermeasures to mitigate the impact.


  • Increasing the efficiency of assets that remain in place by pressuring them to produce more intelligence
  • Expanding the use of US nationals as co-optees

Irrelevant of how the disease continues to persist, the PRC response produced reputational damage that negatively impacts their ability to carry out these operations.

Regardless of the specific future outcome, the Chinese government’s response to the Coronavirus has exposed the more precise goal of the Thousand Talents program — the PRC government is buying specific scientific outcomes, not scientific talent.  In turn, China undermines its ability to recruit or otherwise convince scientists to participate because participating is no longer a zero-sum choice between conducting scientific research for any number of ostensibly neutral organizations. Chinese doctor Li Wenliang, who succumbed to COVID-19 as a whistleblower and target of a Chinese government discredit campaign, made it clear that his utility to the government ended once he went beyond acceptable party lines.  Scientists and doctors considering the Thousand Talents program will have to answer the question of whether such control is acceptable and whether PRC support will be more than momentary and conditional.

Additionally, the outbreak has exposed Chinese economic fragility which makes knowledge transfer programs less enticing to participate in. The opportunity for prosperity in the academic community within the United States is a major influence on whether individuals would wittingly participate in a talent program if they knew it could jeopardize their careers. The recent fragility has shown that future Chinese currency values or promises of opportunity may be impossible to realize.

Even the mighty Chinese propaganda machine is going to have to spin twice as fast to undo this damage.

Thanks for reading.

Many thanks to the wonderful Nate Edwards who provided valuable commentary for this article.

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