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May 16, 2024
Notes from the Pentagon

Chinese spy defects, reveals Beijing’s secrets

By Bill Gertz
A former spy who worked for China’s secret political police has defected to Australia and recently went public with details about Beijing’s intelligence operations.

The former intelligence officer who was identified by name only as “Eric” worked for the Chinese Ministry of Public Security from 2008 to early 2023, the Australian public broadcaster ABC reported.

The ex-spy revealed how the MPS, regarded as the main political security unit for the ruling Chinese Communist Party, targets dissidents and perceived opponents of China internally and abroad. According to the former intelligence operative, the MPS has a secret unit called the Political Security Protection Bureau, or First Bureau, that operates as a key tool of repression.

Its mission is to work around the world tracking, kidnapping and silencing critics of the Communist Party, especially those who criticize President Xi Jinping.

“It is the darkest department of the Chinese government,” Eric told ABC. “When dealing with people who oppose the CCP, they can behave as if these people are not protected by the law. They can do whatever they want to them.”

The disclosures are a rare case of an intelligence defector from China spilling secrets. According to ABC, the former spy defected to the Australian Security and Intelligence Organization as a “walk-in,” telling an official at its headquarters he was a Chinese spy.

The secret MPS unit is engaged in gathering intelligence on party and government opponents regarded as enemies of the state. Some of the victims of the unit have been forcibly repatriated to China for prosecution.

MPS agents use various cover for their operations, including one operative who posed as a property executive and another who impersonated an anti-communist activist in order to penetrate overseas political groups.

The former spy’s operations took place in China, India, Cambodia, Thailand, Canada and Australia. In one case, the MPS planned to kidnap a Radio Free Asia cartoonist, Wang Liming, who goes by the online handle Rebel Pepper, according to the defector.

Holden Triplett, a former FBI agent who worked in the bureau’s Beijing office, told ABC he dealt frequently with the MPS.

“The MPS portrays itself as a police service, … but in my mind, they’re anything but that,” Mr. Triplett said. “Their job is to protect the party’s status. … And when I say ‘status,’ I mean control. … The party has to remain in control.”

The MPS is one of several party and state security agencies under direct control of the Communist Party, along with the Ministry of State Security, the civilian intelligence agency, and the People’s Liberation Army military intelligence service. Another quasi-intelligence service is the party’s United Front Work Department, which is engaged in aggressive overseas influence operations.

The ABC report made no mention of MPS operations in the United States, but the FBI and Justice Department have uncovered several Chinese intelligence operations linked to the security service that target Americans. In April 2023, the Justice Department charged 40 MPS officers and two cyber officials with “transnational repression.” The MPS agents were accused of targeting Americans and U.S. residents whose political views and actions were opposed by Beijing, including those who advocate replacing the communist system in China with a democratic one.

China also has been accused of harassing and kidnapping dissidents in the United States as part of what the FBI has code-named Fox Hunt operations.

Former Marine pilot sought by U.S. linked to China hacking operation
A former Marine Corps pilot who was arrested in Australia on charges of illegally training Chinese aircraft carrier pilots at one time worked with a Chinese hacker convicted of stealing military aircraft secrets from Boeing, according to a court filing in Australia.

A lawyer for Daniel Duggan, who is fighting extradition to the United States, was in contact with a convicted Chinese military hacker named Su Bin, Reuters reported. Bernard Collaery, the lawyer, stated in a court filing that Mr. Duggan may have unknowingly had an improper connection to Su.

The document said Mr. Duggan knew Su as an employment broker for the state-run Aviation Industry Corp. of China, a warplane manufacturer that was blacklisted by the U.S. government. Su is a Chinese national involved in what counterintelligence analysts say is among the most damaging hacking operations by the Chinese government that took place in the 2010s.

He was arrested by the FBI in 2014 and pleaded guilty two years later to his role in a yearslong conspiracy to hack U.S. defense contractor networks and steal sensitive military data that was provided to China. Su was sentenced to four years in prison in 2016.

Court documents in his case revealed that between 2008 and 2014, Su helped People’s Liberation Army hackers obtain more than 630,000 files from Boeing on the C-17 military transport.

The files were supplied to Aviation Industry Corp. and used to produce a new Chinese military transport known as the Y-20.

The hacking operation also obtained data related to the F-22 and F-35 jet fighters that were also used by the Chinese military for its warplanes.

A Chinese military summary of the hacking operation obtained by U.S. intelligence revealed that the development of the C-17 cost U.S. taxpayers $3.4 billion in a hacking operation that cost the Chinese military just $393,201.98.

“We made appropriate investment and reaped enormous achievement,” the summary stated.

Secrets related to the F-35 obtained by the Su-led Chinese military hacking group were also used to build China’s advanced J-20 fighter jet.

“The Chinese have a sophisticated network of tens of thousands of human spies and computer hackers targeting American military and technological secrets,” said Michelle Van Cleave, a former senior U.S. counterintelligence official. “What they can’t acquire legally through trade, or creatively through mergers and acquisitions, they are prepared to steal. And it’s getting harder all the time to stop them.”

Mr. Duggan has denied allegations that he violated U.S. export control laws related to training Chinese military pilots. A naturalized Australian, he was arrested in 2022 after returning after six years in Beijing.

U.S. authorities uncovered correspondence with Mr. Duggan on electronic devices seized from Su, Mr. Collaery, his lawyer, stated in a March court filing in Australia. The messages showed that Su paid for Duggan’s travel from Australia to Beijing in May 2012, U.S. extradition documents filed with the Australian court stated.

Analyst sees TikTok’s role in Chinese cognitive warfare
The Chinese-owned video app TikTok is a major element of what the Chinese military calls “cognitive warfare,” according to a national security expert.

Ian Oxnevad, senior fellow in national security at the National Association of Scholars, stated in a recent report that TikTok serves as “one of [China’s] foremost cognitive weapons.”

The military defines cognitive warfare as activities to alter the attitudes and behaviors of people and populations for political purposes by degrading rationality and changing perceptions of reality.

President Biden in April signed legislation that contains a provision requiring TikTok to divest from its Chinese owner, ByteDance, within a year or face a U.S. ban.

The app is already banned in 18 nations over concerns China’s government is covertly gathering personal data of its users and the propaganda impact of its pro-China content rules.

Last week, TikTok sued the U.S. government over the law, setting off a political battle over efforts to curb Chinese influence operations and protections under U.S. free speech. Mr. Oxnevad stated that the looming legislative death sentence is unlikely to curb TikTok as an enabler of college campus chaos under a new owner.

Army Gen. Paul Nakasone, until recently director of the National Security Agency, has stated that about one-third of American adults get their news from TikTok and 1 in 6 children in the U.S. are regular users. The app is suspected of collecting data that includes user histories and locations as well as biometric data that is shared with ByteDance in China.

Its content has been described as an “AI-powered subversion weapon,” by Vinod Khosla, a major investor in Open-AI. Some of its videos encourage teens to kill themselves, and antisemitism is also said to be promoted on the app.

According to Mr. Oxnevad, ByteDance is also influencing American students by contributing to colleges and universities. The company announced in 2020 that it would donate $10 million to medical scholarships awarded for “diversity, equity and inclusion.”

TikTok also played a role in recent anti-Israel protests, he stated, noting that a recent study found TikTok users are more likely to believe Jewish people are dishonest in business, disloyal to the United States, and have too much power in the media. Forcing the sale of TikTok will not resolve those issues, Mr. Oxnevad said.

“There is a good chance that TikTok’s algorithms, which contain its secret sauce of subversion, would not be included in a forced sale of the app to an American buyer,” he said.

Removing Chinese control will not guarantee that a new TikTok will be better or halt what Mr. Oxnevad said is a program to erode societal cohesion and the mental capacity of young Americans.

“China’s strategy to make America angry and stupid with an app has proven remarkably successful,” he said.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on X via @BillGertz.

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