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Heads of FBI and MI5 issue strong warning about threat to the West from China

Also Wednesday, U.S. intelligence officials issued a report about Chinese attempts to influence local and state elections.

Speaking alongside his British counterpart in London, FBI Director Christopher Wray issued his starkest warning yet about the national security threat to the West from China, even as intelligence officials in Washington released a report about Beijing’s efforts to influence state and local politics in the U.S.

In a first-ever joint appearance Wednesday with the director of Britain’s MI5, the U.K.’s domestic intelligence agency, Wray raised the possibility that China might be inching closer to invading Taiwan, noting that Beijing has been taking steps to shield its economy from sanctions that would come after such a move.

“In our world, we call that kind of behavior a clue,” he said, adding that were an invasion to happen, “it would represent one of the most horrific business disruptions the world has ever seen.”

The Chinese Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment. The Chinese Foreign Ministry said Wednesday, "In order to mislead the public, the U.S. has worked hand in glove with NATO to hype up competition with China and stoke group confrontation.”

MI5 Director General Ken McCallum said the appearance at his agency’s headquarters was the first time FBI and MI5 leaders have held a public event together. He echoed a point Wray and U.S. politicians from both parties have been making in recent years — that a long-standing hope about China’s evolution had been dashed by its behavior under President Xi Jinping.

“The widespread Western assumption that growing prosperity within China and increasing connectivity with the West would automatically lead to greater political freedom has been shown to be plain wrong,” McCallum said. “But the Chinese Communist Party is interested in our democratic, media and legal systems. Not to emulate them, sadly, but to use them for its gain.”

Both officials reaffirmed previous concerns about Chinese economic espionage, both through hacking and using human spies. And they said China is using threats, bullying and economic power to obtain Western intellectual property in a strategy designed not to trade peacefully with the U.S. and Europe, but to supplant them as the dominant world power.

“The most game-changing challenge we face comes from an increasingly authoritarian Chinese Communist Party that’s applying covert pressure across the globe,” McCallum said. “This might feel abstract, but it’s real, and it’s pressing. We need to talk about it. We need to act.”

Wray said, “The Chinese government poses an even more serious threat to Western businesses than even many sophisticated businesspeople realize.”

McCallum said his agency is running seven times as many China-related investigations as it was four years ago. Wray has said the FBI is opening a new China-related counterintelligence investigation every 12 hours

Not long after the two officials spoke in London, the U.S. National Counterintelligence and Security Center — which is part of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence — made public an unclassified bulletin warning of a broad effort by China to influence state and local government officials in the U.S.

“Some of the goals of [Chinese government] influence operations in the United States are to expand support for [People’s Republic of China] interests among state and local leaders and to use these relationships to pressure Washington for policies friendlier to Beijing,” the report says. “Leaders at the U.S. state, local, tribal, and territorial levels risk being manipulated to support hidden [Chinese government] agendas.”

The report says China offers free trips to state and local officials, seeks to exploit city-to-city partnerships and dangles economic investments in front of struggling localities, as long as they support Beijing’s interests. 

In November, Wray said Wednesday, “the Chinese Embassy warned U.S. companies that — if they want to keep doing business in China — they need to fight bills in our Congress that China doesn’t like.”

The report said China is focused on state and local governments because the bipartisan consensus in Washington has grown increasingly hostile to Beijing.

A 2019 study conducted by a Chinese university and a Chinese Community Party think tank analyzed and ranked each of the 50 U.S. governors based on whether their attitudes toward China were considered friendly, hard-line or ambiguous, the report said. The study also included their ages, genders, political affiliations, work histories and states by economic size, geographic location and level of trade with China.

“In Washington, voices advocating a tough stance on China seem to have become mainstream and have growing momentum,” the study said, according to the unclassified intelligence report. “Therefore, as Washington’s attitude towards China toughens, the attitudes of the states are critical.”