Christine Fang is a Chinese national who is suspected of being a spy and has had ties to American mayors and other politicians, including Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif.
Swalwell has said he has cooperated with law enforcement and cut off all ties to Fang once he knew there were concerns she was a spy.
However, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., has said Swalwell shouldn’t serve on the House Intelligence Committee, while House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has defended her fellow California Democrat.
What questions should Swalwell face about his relationship with Fang? Does it raise any national security concerns?
What is China’s strategy here, and does it have a “long-term” approach?
Dean Cheng, senior research fellow in the Asian Studies Center in the Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy at The Heritage Foundation, joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss.
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Rachel del Guidice: I’m joined today on “The Daily Signal Podcast” by Dean Cheng. He’s a senior research fellow in the Asian Studies Center in the Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy at The Heritage Foundation.
Dean, thanks again for coming on “The Daily Signal Podcast.” It’s always great to have you.
Dean Cheng: Thank you for having me.
Del Guidice: Well, something that is hot in the news right now is a report that came out on Tuesday. Axios reported, it was actually last week that found a suspected Chinese intelligence operative developed extensive ties with local and national politicians, including U.S. congressmen, in what U.S. officials believe was a political intelligence operation run by China’s main civilian spy agency between 2011 and 2015. Axios found this over a yearlong investigation.
Dean, … just to start off, what all is going on here?
Cheng: As always with intelligence investigations, we’re getting only some of the details. But what appears to have been going on is that a Chinese woman, a Chinese citizen, who goes by the name Fang Fang [aka Christine Fang], apparently, was here in the United States as a student.
And while she was here as a student, seems to have established ties to a variety of people, some of whom have become more senior politicians since.
The most prominent example, of course, is Representative Eric Swalwell of California, who happens, I believe, to be on the House Intelligence Committee. But also with certain people who are now mayors and other political representatives is quite likely in the process, given she was, I believe, in San Francisco. Probably also established ties to people in the tech sector as well.
Del Guidice: Well, Axios reported that Christine Fang, as you mentioned, is a Chinese national. Do we know anything else about her and what her goals were in this endeavor?
Cheng: Well, I believe that she has gone back to China as, no surprise, she didn’t respond, apparently, to any Axios inquiries. So, it’s an interesting question. Did she start off as a potential Chinese intelligence officer? Did she get recruited after she came to the United States? All of these are important questions, but without access to more specific details, a lot of that is going to be speculation.
What we do know more broadly is that China engages in what’s sometimes termed “the million grains of sand approach.” That they basically collect data through a variety of means, students, professors, business people, journalists, as well as intelligence officers, that often seem to be minor details or just inconsequential.
But the Chinese approach is that if you “hoover” up, if you literally vacuum up enough data, and you keep at it over time, you can create very impressive, very detailed dossiers, models, and pictures of everything from scientific projects to individual personalities to how organizations are structured to decision-making processes.
Del Guidice: What does this whole situation, Dean, say about how China has tried to gain access to and influence U.S. political circles?
Cheng: What we need to recognize is that China views the world very differently from us. One of those aspects is that there is no civil society. Nothing is beyond the reach of the Chinese Communist Party.
And what that means in turn is that they can employ a far wider variety of means to gather information. The second thing to keep in mind is that China has a very long-term view of the world.
From the United States, we are governed by our political process. Two-year House of Representative terms, a four-year presidential terms, six-year senatorial terms. [Chinese President] Xi Jinping was going to be in power for at least 10 years. And now he basically has ended term limits in China.
So, he will be in charge for as long as he wants. Chinese programs regularly are 10, 20 years long. One of their big science and technology programs began in 1986 and is still running 34 years later. So, the Chinese approach to intelligence gathering and influence operations is, you start collecting as soon as possible, as early as necessary. And who knows what fruit might be born 20, 30 years later?
And I think that, insofar as there is a tie between Rep. Swalwell and Christine Fang, that would be a payoff. They didn’t necessarily know that there would be a payoff 30 years ago or 20 years ago or 10 years ago or five years ago. But eventually, if you back enough horses, some of them will win.
Del Guidice: Well, Christina Fang reportedly had sexual relationships with two mayors. Dean, why would mayors be targeted by China? And what kind of information could China be wanting to gain from them?
Cheng: Well, I’m certainly not going to start talking about recruitment methodologies. Suffice to say that there are a wide variety of those.
Why would you target mayors? Because mayors, sometimes that’s the end of the line. That’s all you’re going to be. But sometimes, you use the mayoralty as a platform for leaping ahead. Look at Michael Bloomberg, he was mayor of New York City, but he ran for president.
If you look at other politicians, you see people who were once mayors of cities who then become governors and presidential candidates, or become representatives and senators. So, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg was a mayor, but he, too, was a presidential candidate and may well have future prospects as well.
Christine Fang also had ties to Congressman Eric Swalwell. He’s a Democrat of California. Swalwell had said that he has cooperated with the government and cut off ties to Fang once he knew that there were concerns that she was a spy.
Del Guidice: However, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, [R-Calif.,] has said Swalwell shouldn’t be on the House Intelligence Committee, while House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, [D-Calif.,] has defended Swalwell. What questions should Swalwell face, Dean, about his relationship with Fang? And does it raise any national security concerns?
Cheng: Well, obviously, and this will probably occur behind closed doors, There needs to be a thorough vetting of—what was it from Watergate? “What did you know, and when did you know it?” What was the extent of your relationship? When did you start it? What did you talk about when you were together? When did you end it? And with any intelligence-related investigation, it’s also relationships.
So, did you get introduced to any other people? Now, this is going to be a little harder. Did other people, perhaps in the same employ as Christine Fang, or somehow linked to Christine Fang, donate to your campaigns? What did your local offices, your campaign offices, have in terms of interactions? Not just with Ms. Fang, but also with potentially other people.
Because we know that, as with Senator Dianne Feinstein, [D-Calif.], there was the problem there of her driver turned out to be a Chinese spy. So, these sorts of relationships go far beyond just direct to also more extended, if you will.
Del Guidice: What do you think overall, Dean, is China’s strategy here, and what is the long-term approach?
Cheng: China’s strategy is, they see the United States as their primary competitor—frankly, as a fundamental threat to the Chinese Communist Party, and they are moving a variety of pieces to try and influence both the United States and its friends and allies. And also third parties to, one, downgrade the threat perception of China.
That is, not to view China as a threat, certainly not to act against Chinese interests. And that spans a variety of things, everything from export controls to tariffs, to whether a Huawei should play a role in 5G networks.
The Chinese want all of these sorts of things to not be a factor. They want to buy influence, and they’re not unique in that regard. Many players, domestic and foreign, want to do that. But they clearly, in particular, want to make sure that the United States is as muted, as limited a challenge, a threat, a rival, to China as possible.
Del Guidice: How many spies, Dean, could there potentially be in the U.S., and do they follow a similar modus operandi to Fang or do different spies approach situations differently?
Cheng: If we’re talking about the range of foreign spies in the United States, let’s be upfront. Every country spies on every other country. That’s just simple reality. So, there are probably thousands and thousands of people who are being employed by a variety of foreign governments, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. Including allies, including neutrals, including poor countries and rich countries.
Everybody does espionage. And because the United States is the largest economy, is certainly one of the most, if not the most, powerful country in the world, every other country is going to want to know, “What is the U.S. thinking? What is the U.S. doing? What are various key power players thinking and doing? Will you act against me? Will you sell me out? Will you care if I get invaded?”
So, there are, I think I could say with confidence, spies from every country, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, and they use everything from money to sex, to compromise, to open recruitment to try and gather information about the United States.
Del Guidice: Lastly, Dean, how should Congress respond to threats such as these, and what about other government agencies?
Cheng: Well, internal security is, first and foremost, the responsibility of the FBI, at least against espionage. Obviously, at the state level, you need cooperation from local law enforcement.
The FBI has nowhere near the manpower necessary to track the thousands and thousands of potential spies from all of these various countries. But what we also need to do, and this is not just Congress, is to recognize that there are espionage threats to the United States.
What we should not do is take the attitude, “Oh, spying is icky.” Famously, [then-Secretary of State] Henry Stimson, I believe, shut down our nascent signals intelligence efforts in the 1920s on the grounds that gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.
We deliberately blinded ourselves. And there’s the organizational aspect, but there’s also just the personal idea that, “Oh, well, this person, that person couldn’t possibly be a spy.” Because, yes, they could be.
And more to the point, “Well, but if I sleep with this person, if I take a little bit of their money, if I pass them a couple of documents, what’s the harm?” The harm is maybe nothing at the moment. But you never know when down the road that might well come back to bite you.
What Congress needs to do, I think, is to recognize that the threat here is so expansive, and in my personal opinion, is at least as great, if not greater than, what [the Justice Department] and others have kept harping on for the last three or four years, which is supposedly radical nationalism, alt-right groups in the U.S.
Is that really the threat, or is Chinese, Russian espionage, Cuban, Syrian, etc., Iranian, more of a threat? That’s something for Congress to decide, but I know where I stand.
Del Guidice: Well, Dean, thank you so much for joining us on the podcast and unpacking this. We really appreciate having you with us.
Cheng: Thank you again for having me.