- FBI director Christopher Wray issued a dire warning against China’s growing influence during a Senate intelligence hearing on Tuesday.
- He cited the variety of ways that China is implementing its plan to replace the US as the foremost global power, including infiltrating American academia.
- China’s Confucius Institutes are ostensibly language learning centers, but often serve as vehicles for Chinese propaganda at universities around the world, including the US.
- Intelligence experts also cited Chinese cybersecurity threats as a major concern in 2018.
FBI director Christopher Wray reiterated a commonly held view on Tuesday that China is seeking to become a global superpower through unconventional means — but framed the threat China poses to the US as not just a governmental one, but as a societal one, too.
Speaking before the Senate Intelligence Committee alongside the heads of other US intelligence agencies, Wray told Senators that China is using a host of methods to undermine American military, economic, cultural, and informational power across the globe that rely on more than just China’s state institutions.
“One of the things we’re trying to do is view the China threat as not just a whole of government threat, but a whole of society threat on their end,” Wray said, “and I think it’s going to take a whole-of-society response by us.”
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats expressed a similar sentiment after Sen. Marco Rubio asked him about China’s plans to overtake the US as the world’s supreme world power.
“There is no question that what you have just articulated is what’s happening with China,” Coats said. “They’re doing it in a very smart way; they’re doing it in a very effective way; they are looking beyond their own region.”
Coats said multiple agencies are conducting “intensive studies” to understand the ways China is looking to carry out its global agenda.
The double-edged sword of open academics
Wray pointed to China’s use of unconventional intelligence sources at US universities as a salient example of China’s reach.
In intelligence jargon, “collectors” are individuals who collect intelligence on behalf of agencies or governments. And he said they’ve infiltrated American universities.
“I think in this setting, I would just say that the use of non-traditional collectors — especially in the academic setting, whether it’s professors, scientists, students — we see in almost every field office that the FBI has around the country,” Wray said.
“They’re exploiting the very open research and development environment that we have which we all revere, but they’re taking advantage of it,” Wray added, noting that there is a “naivete” amid academics about the risks posed by foreign nationals at universities.
As Wray mentioned, the openness of academia in general contributes to an open flow of ideas across the globe and the overall advancement of human knowledge and innovation.
To this end, US universities admit over a million international students, and Chinese students make up the largest share of these students. Nearly 329,000 Chinese nationals were enrolled in American colleges during the 2015-2016 school year, according to TIME.
While there is no evidence that a majority of Chinese students or academics pose any threat to US interests, there are a number of education efforts that the Chinese government uses as vehicles for soft power.
The first of these are the Confucius Institutes, which Rubio alluded to during his questioning of Wray and Coats at the Senate hearing.
These institutes mirror many other foreign-language education entities that countries fund around the world, but with a couple caveats. Rather than existing as stand-alone bodies, they are inserted into US universities, and in addition to teaching Mandarin Chinese, they also reportedly engage in disseminating Chinese propaganda and restricting what professors and students should say.
As a result of the dangers to open expression posed by these institutes, the University of Chicago and Pennsylvania State have already closed the Confucius Institutes on their campuses. Other global universities have followed suit.
Confucius Institutes also have a strong presence on the African continent, where China is also in the process of growing its economic and political power. Africans in countries like Zambia and Zimbabwe are encouraged to view China as a positive economic force and a source of progress and opportunity as part of the “Look East” policy many African countries have implemented.
As a result of this push, the number of African students in China has skyrocketed over the last 10 years.
Chinese cybersecurity threats
During Tuesday’s Senate hearing, the top US intel chiefs drew attention to Chinese cybersecurity strategies.
“Frankly, the United States is under attack,” Coats said, “by entities that are using cyber to penetrate virtually every major action that takes place” within the US.
The Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community, also released Tuesday, outlines China’s online capabilities in detail.
“China will continue to use cyber espionage and bolster cyber attack capabilities to support national security priorities,” the report concluded. Coats added that China’s cyber activity is at much lower levels than it was before September 2015, but is still threatening
Most Chinese cyber operations that the US has detected targeting private industry are against defense contractors, IT, and communications firms. The assessment said these companies are often ones that support the international operations of both the US government and the private sector.
As a result of these findings, several intelligence heads reaffirmed the necessity to beef up US counterintelligence efforts in cyberspace. Many indeed identified it as one of the top priorities for the intelligence community in the coming year.
With so many facets of American society under threat, Wray said it would take a lot more than just work from intelligence agencies to combat China.
“It’s not just the intelligence community,” he said, “but it’s raising awareness within our academic sector, within our private sector, as part of the defense.”