It takes a lot to make China’s Communist Party sweat, but Beijing is seriously concerned with the Trump administration’s aggressive stance against its long-standing spying operations and theft of intellectual property and consumer data. In a clear indication of just how worried the Chinese government is, just last week it outlined what it dubbed a “Global Initiative on Data Security” in hopes of gaining allies to alleviate some of the pressure from Washington.
Foreign Minister Wang Yi publicly stated that the purpose of the initiative is to debunk the “groundless accusations” of a “certain country.” This is typical Chinese legerdemain — issue a document full of flowery rhetoric but devoid of substance, as a smokescreen to camouflage what it is doing in fact.
China’s theft of U.S. data was first elevated to the national spotlight in the late 1990s while I was serving in the U.S. House. In response to eyebrow-raising reports and testimony, we voted in 1998 to create a special task force investigating whether China was illicitly obtaining data on U.S. missile and weapons technology. The resulting “Cox Report” confirmed our worst fears; through decades of calculated intelligence operations, China had stolen design information on some of our most sensitive weapons systems.
Sadly, the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations did little to address the problems described in the Cox Report. China continued to spy and steal, while occasionally putting up a fig leaf or two to convince Washington and the world it was reforming past practices.
Today, while the regime’s data collection methods may have shifted somewhat, the national security threat they pose are in fact even more serious than two decades ago. By forging close commercial relationships with social media and internet platform companies — including apps that the American people and our own government use every day — the Chinese government has been able to use 21st century technology to digitally vacuum up a trove of sensitive commercial and government information.
Thankfully, for the first time in years the federal government now is fighting back and also engaging a global movement to check China’s data collection practices.
First, the Trump administration sounded alarm bells on Huawei, the world’s third-largest smartphone company, which it correctly noted was owned or controlled by the Chinese military. Experts found that backdoors built into its technology could easily facilitate espionage for the communist regime.
Then came TikTok and WeChat — ostensibly harmless apps used hundreds of millions of time daily by individuals, but whose parent companies, ByteDance and Tencent, maintain direct ties to the Chinese Communist Party.
Unlike its predecessors, the Trump administration understands clearly that China is working diligently to siphon off far more than the American people’s social media data. This is why the administration announced recently it is investigating the pharmaceutical company Ritedose after our military began working with it to create a coronavirus vaccine. The company was sold in 2017 to AGIC Capital, a Hong Kong-based private equity fund that, according to the Wall Street Journal, “looks for smaller or midsize companies with technology that could be helpful for Chinese industry.”
As troubling as are China’s inroads into America’s health data and records, as a former member of the House Financial Services Committee I am deeply concerned also with the seemingly easy access the Chinese regime has to America’s sensitive financial information.
The U.S. remains the financial engine for the world, a position that China for decades has been attempting by any means necessary to assume for itself. This is precisely why it is so troubling that TikTok’s ByteDance is making strides to set up an online stock brokerage. So too is Xiaomi, one of China’s largest cellphone companies and a serial data aggregator whose founder has for years held high political office in the Chinese government. The company even provided seed money that helped create WeBull, a financial services company used digitally by U.S. investors.
Even worse from a national security perspective is MooMoo, another Chinese financial services firm used by U.S. investors. It is tied not only to Xiaomi, but also to Tencent, the brains behind WeChat, which identifies MooMoo’s parent company as a “strategic investor.”
Despite its public façade of concern, Beijing is anything but an ally in efforts by the U.S. and Great Britain to protect sensitive government data from illicit access. China ranks as the world’s most dangerous tech pirate, and the Trump Administration has every reason to continue pressing China in this regard, despite efforts by the media and by political and commercial interests in our own country to soften its aggressive approach.
Bob Barr represented Georgia’s 7th District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 2003 and served as the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia from 1986 to 1990. He now serves as President of the Law Enforcement Education Foundation based in Atlanta, Georgia.