As Sino-American economic ties have increased, there have, in recent years, been repeated claims that China is engaging in systematic economic espionage. In response to the indictment of six Chinese nationals on charges of economic espionage, Chinese media sources have claimed that the U.S. is guilty of ethnic persecution. Specifically, the focus on potential Chinese spies has led Global Times, a news organ of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), to state that:
The U.S. has a history of indulging in persecution of certain groups of immigrants by using the Espionage Act. We hope Chinese-Americans won’t suffer from this because of China’s rise [sic].
Whereas the official Chinese government statement was less harsh, it is clear that Beijing considers this issue a serious problem. The CCP often expresses the full scope of its displeasure by allowing state-affiliated news outlets to publish provocative statements on contentious foreign affairs issues. This allows the Chinese government to issue a comparatively moderate statement, thus appearing measured and collected, while avoiding blame over the statements of outlets such as Global Times.
While the actual degree (if any) of ethnic profiling in economic espionage investigations is debatable, there has indeed been a significant uptick in allegations of economic spying in the U.S. Specifically, the FBI has reported a five-fold increase in economic espionage indictments since 2008. Among those Chinese nationals involved in this latest case, three are in academia, with another three individuals working for American tech firms.
With regards to the academic suspects, they consist of two professors from Tianjin University, as well as an electrical engineer, all of whom were graduate students attending the University of Southern California. All three individuals have been accused of stealing designs for micro-electric devices which have both commercial and military applications. The remaining suspects were working for Avago Technologies and Skyworks Solutions: both companies are involved in creating components for various sophisticated mobile devices.
Of the six individuals in question, only one – Tianjin University professor Zhang Hao – is likely to be arrested, as the remaining five persons are in China. Since Beijing does not have an extradition treaty with the United States, Zhang Hao is likely the only one to be tried. Zhang was taken into custody at Los Angeles International Airport, having arrived in the U.S. to attend a conference. The circumstances surrounding Zhang’s arrest have led some Chinese media outlets to accuse the U.S. of entrapping Zhang by inviting him to the aforementioned conference.
Moreover, this latest economic espionage case involving Chinese nationals is likely to sour an upcoming U.S. visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping in the fall. Economic spying generates significant anti-Chinese feelings within the American political establishment, and among the general public, who blame underhanded Chinese tactics for lost American jobs and competitiveness. This in turn bolsters China hawks who pressure Obama to take harder stance on China.