Runaway Chinese researchers were actually agents who formed part of an organised attempt to influence president-elect Joe Biden’s incoming administration, a US intelligence official has said.
“It’s an influence campaign on steroids,” claimed William Evanina, of the Director of National Intelligence’s counter-intelligence branch. “We’re very keen on making sure the new administration understands that influence, what it looks like, what it tastes like, what it feels like when you see it.”
He also claimed Beijing attempted to meddle in US efforts to develop a coronavirus vaccine and the recent elections.
During the recent White House campaign, both Biden and President Donald Trump traded accusations of being influenced by Beijing. Trump focused on business dealings by his rival’s son Hunter Biden in China, while Biden focused on Trump’s Chinese bank account.
During Wednesday’s virtual discussion at the Aspen Institute think tank, John Demers, chief of the Department of Justice’s national security division, said hundreds of Chinese researchers with ties to their country’s military had been identified by FBI investigators over the summer, reports the BBC.
He said the inquiry began when US authorities arrested Chinese researchers who had hidden their affiliation with China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
“Those arrests were just the tip of the iceberg and honestly the size of the iceberg was such that folks didn’t realise how large it was,” he said.
He told the discussion that the FBI conducted dozens of interviews with other individuals, after which “more than 1,000 PLA-affiliated Chinese researchers” fled the country.
“Only the Chinese have the resources and ability and will to conduct such political and economic espionage and other malign activity,” he told the discussion.
The absconded researchers were in addition to a group of 1,000 Chinese students and researchers whose visas were revoked by the US back in September.
The US State Department said back then it would only welcome Chinese students “who do not further the Chinese Communist Party’s goals of military dominance”.
In July, the state department closed China’s consulate in Houston, Texas, accusing Beijing of stealing intellectual property.
Beijing hit back by accusing the US of racial discrimination, but Demers denied on Wednesday that the American authorities were racially profiling Chinese students.
Sino-US relations have plummeted since Trump taunted Beijing over issues ranging from trade to Hong Kong to being the source of the pandemic.