Imagine a US military aircraft flying off the coast of China in an attempt to gather intelligence and communications data.
Above international waters, the aircraft is within its rights. But China sends a fighter plane to harass him.
As the Chinese fighter flies a few meters from the American plane, a gust causes a collision, causing the aircraft to fall towards the China Sea.
This event is not fictitious: it happened in April 2001. It ended in the death of the Chinese pilot and the temporary captivity in China of the 24 members of the crew of the American plane. A crisis quickly forgotten in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001, which occurred a few months later.
“The collision between the two planes was accidental,” said James Bamford, former columnist at Foreign Policy magazine and author specializing in intelligence services. But imagine what would happen if it happened again tomorrow morning, and it was believed that China had just shot down an American military plane. With the hardline Republicans we have in Congress, it could start a war with China,” he said, adding that such reconnaissance flights near China happen almost every day.
Data collection by superpowers like the United States and China has been at the forefront this year since China’s notorious spy balloon was shot down near North Carolina last month after a high-profile crossing of the American continent.
Chinese interference in Canada is also making headlines with the multiplication of revelations showing how Canada seems to have become a playground for Chinese spies.
According to James Bamford, Westerners have been naive for too long about the Chinese Communist regime’s ability to operate and gather intelligence from the heart of the world’s democracies.
To collect data, the Chinese regime employs both advanced technologies and very simple methods, says Bamford, author of the brand new book Spyfail – Foreign Spies, Moles, Saboteurs, and the Collapse of America’s Counterintelligence.
For example, China uses satellites to access images showing military installations of countries around the globe, including US military installations. However, to capture communications, spy balloons are more practical than satellites, because they are closer to the ground.
“China launches its balloons from Hainan Island in the south of the country. From there, balloons can fly 20 km above US military installations on the island of Guam in the Pacific Ocean, for example, or the Aleutian Islands near Alaska, where the military US has critical military installations. »
Chinese intelligence also targets international communications, which are difficult but not impossible to intercept, Bamford said.
“For example, you can’t have access to the communications that go through the big undersea optical cables that cross the oceans. But near China, on an island 30 km from the coast, the cables are resurfacing, and information can be transmitted by microwave. This is a point that is interesting for the Chinese. »
And the Chinese regime is hugely successful in collecting data. Last year, FBI Director Christopher Wray said his agency opened a new counterintelligence investigation into China every 12 hours.
“That’s probably about 2,000 investigations,” Wray said. And that’s not to mention its cyber theft, or hacking program, which is bigger than that of all the other major countries combined. »
John Pike, defense expert and director of the firm Global Security in Virginia, notes that espionage is often associated with the Cold War era, between the United States and the former USSR. However, what was happening at that time was nothing compared to what we are experiencing now, he said.
“We live in a golden age of data collection,” he says.
For example, the Chinese regime employs a large number of agents who live and work in the United States, Canada and elsewhere. Last year, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) arrested Yuesheng Wang, a 35-year-old researcher from Candiac who worked for a Hydro-Québec transport electrification research center. Indicted, the alleged spy “obtained trade secrets” to benefit China, police claim, allegations that have not been tested in court.
“The Chinese government has a large number of personnel in the West. Their role is not to hit the big bucks of intelligence, but rather to collect small amounts of data on a regular basis, Pike says.
James Bamford agrees.
“The Chinese are very aggressive in the area of human data collection, and they are hugely successful. »
In 2020, Alexander Yuk Ching Ma, an expert with years of career in the CIA and FBI since the early 1980s, was arrested and charged with being a spy for China, he notes.
To transmit his data, Alexander Yuk Ching Ma did not have to use very sophisticated methods: he only had to travel to China a few times a year, bringing USB keys with him.
“The Chinese government put him up in a hotel in Shanghai, listened to what he had to say, gave him money. Then he would return to Honolulu to work. It is an embarrassing failure for the FBI. The data this person has had access to is simply amazing. And we’re here worrying about a balloon going over the United States for a few days…”
The system does not work both ways, and the Americans do not have similar numbers in China, a difficult environment for a spy, notes John Pike.
“The Chinese regime has police everywhere. There are surveillance cameras on every street corner. You may want a Chinese military to approach you with information. But if it happens, it’s a stroke of luck. If you’re the US military, you can’t build your strategy around a wish. You need hard data. »
This is arguably why the United States has a very aggressive surveillance and intelligence-gathering program in China, he says.
This is why the United States sends eavesdropping planes along the coasts of China, which China does not do along the American coasts.
“We’re the only ones doing it. And it can be extremely dangerous. »
This is the estimated value of US trade secrets that the Chinese regime has stolen every year since the early 2000s. 20 years.
Far from being an insignificant target, Canada is very interesting for Chinese spies, and the consequences are already being felt, reports an expert.
In 2017, a new version of China’s national intelligence law was passed.
Put simply, the Chinese regime explicitly requires all Chinese companies and citizens to assist in intelligence gathering on foreign countries and companies.
“An organization or citizen shall support, assist, and cooperate with national intelligence work in accordance with law and keep confidential national intelligence work of which he or she has knowledge,” the law says. The state protects the individual organization that has supported, aided, or cooperated with national intelligence work. »
According to Christian Leuprecht, a professor at the Royal Military College of Canada and Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada is a major target for Chinese government intelligence.
Recent revelations about the influence of Chinese operatives with politicians and the business elite in Canada are just “the canary in the mine”, he says, adding that China’s clandestine influence is “far broader than what is currently surfacing.
The United States and Canada are so interconnected, including through power grids, that a spy can gain a foothold in Canada and have more or less the same effect as if they were south of the border, Leuprecht notes. . “It doesn’t make a big difference what country you’re in,” he says.
It was learned this month that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) were investigating two alleged “Chinese police stations” in Quebec that allegedly created a “climate of terror” among part of the Chinese diaspora.
The two organizations targeted by the RCMP in Quebec are chaired by Li Xixi, who is also an opposition municipal councilor in Brossard and was the subject of a complaint to the Chief Electoral Officer of Quebec (DGEQ) during the last election campaign.
Domestically, the mere fact that the Chinese government has potentially influenced Canadian elections is already enough to undermine public confidence in democratic institutions, says Christian Leuprecht.
“It is already damaging our institutions and our democracy. For example, what politician is going to want to invest in Hydro-Quebec if it is known that the intellectual property will be stolen by the Chinese government? »
Last year, Guy Saint-Jacques, Canada’s former ambassador to China, told La Presse that Chinese industrial espionage on Canadian soil affects high-tech sectors. In 2022, researcher Wanping Zheng, who worked for the Canadian Space Agency for years, was arrested for breach of trust. Police believe he was a mole in the pay of China, police allegations that have not been tested in court.
“We had all kinds of examples of intrusions and technology theft. When I was an ambassador, I asked researchers how they protected their intellectual property. Some were telling me off! They said, “We share knowledge.” Ok…but in some cases there are military applications, and red lights should go on,” explained the former diplomat.
The recent revelations are of great concern to Americans, says Christian Leuprecht.
“They understand the vulnerability it creates for them. There is no doubt that the Biden administration sees us as the weakest link in physical, military, political, and economic security in North America. »
Christian Leuprecht notes that we do not know Canada’s activities in China, but that it is possible. “In principle, the mandate of the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) allows data to be collected in China,” says the professor. Also in principle, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) could get involved in China, but in a very limited way. Section 12 of the National Security Matters Act authorizes CSIS to “collect information about persons and organizations suspected of engaging in activities that could threaten the security of Canada, including espionage, sabotage , politically motivated violence, terrorism and clandestine activities of foreign governments”. CSIS “may take action at home and abroad to mitigate this threat consistent with applicable law,” the federal law says.