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The Chinese Communist Party’s Human Hack of Western Companies
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The Chinese Communist Party’s Human Hack of Western Companies

There may be a frightening number of potential CCP loyalists in Western companies and consulates around the globe.

Late last week, the British and Australian press were abuzz with a news story that deserves more attention—and scrutiny—here inside the U.S. The story centers on an alleged database of approximately 1.95 million members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) around the world, many of whom work for or who have ties to Western companies or even government agencies. The dataset also reportedly identifies nearly 80,000 branches of the CCP. Hundreds of the individuals identified by name work in defense contracting and pharmaceutical industries. Companies with household names such as Boeing, Volkswagen, IKEA, AstraZeneca, Pfizer, and Rolls Royce, among many others, all reportedly employ CCP members. Some of those identified in the database work for Western consulates as well.

Chinese dissidents surreptitiously downloaded the list from a CCP server in Shanghai in 2016 and have been using it for their own counterintelligence purposes ever since. It was published on Telegram earlier this year and then passed along to the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC), a relatively new and independent body composed of legislators and others concerned about the CCP’s influence across the West.  

“A representative of IPAC received this list from a non-governmental source, but was not in a position to verify it, so handed it to experts,” IPAC said in a statement on Dec. 13. “Journalists have since investigated and their findings are disturbing indeed. IPAC will push for governments and companies to respond setting out how they intend to safeguard their values in the face of infiltration.” 

Thus far, the U.S. government hasn’t officially weighed in on the database’s authenticity. It’s a safe bet that American officials, particularly those working in counterintelligence roles, are well aware of its existence and working to confirm its contents. Meanwhile, The Australian broke the story Down Under while right-of-center press outlets in the U.K., such as SkyNews and the tabloid Daily Mail, have been reporting on it. 

We should not assume that the individuals named in the database are automatically guilty of committing a crime, or that they have conducted espionage on behalf of the CCP. Men and women of Chinese heritage also play vital roles in companies throughout the West. They shouldn’t be demonized. But if the list is accurate, then Western companies face all sorts of questions concerning their security protocols, including their ability to counter the CCP’s economic espionage.  

The CCP isn’t a Western-style political party. It is an autocratic entity with Xi Jinping as its leader. It demands loyalty and servility. If called upon, party members are expected to serve their bosses or otherwise face the consequences. The CCP has developed an elaborate mechanism for enforcing compliance and punishing nonconformity. If members do not comply with orders, they risk being reported to party honchos, who can imprison them or their family members without charge. Thus, it is troubling that the CCP may have placed hundreds, or possibly even thousands, of potential loyalists in companies and consulates around the globe. 

To make matters worse, it is well-known that the CCP has been running an elaborate espionage campaign in the West, deliberately stealing sensitive technologies to fuel China’s economic growth and war machine.  

The Department of Justice, FBI, and National Counterintelligence Security Center (NCSC) have been raising public awareness concerning this campaign for many months, exposing the incentives the CCP provides would-be spies to purloin trade and military secrets. Earlier this year, NCSC director Willian Evanina issued a “call to arms,” arguing that a “whole of society approach” is necessary for “defending the values of America” and ensuring the country’s “economic security.” According to Evanina, Chinese leader Xi Jinping has “one goal,” and that is “to be the global leader geopolitically, militarily and economically.” Xi and his Communist party “will stop at nothing to get there.” And the Department of Justice has documented its extensive efforts to disrupt the CCP’s military and economic espionage over the past two-plus years. You can read the DoJ’s summary from November here.  

Which brings us back to the database provided to IPAC. Again, if the list is accurate, we shouldn’t reflexively denounce all of the individuals on it. By the same token, it is natural to wonder if at least some of these party members are part of the CCP’s human hack of Western companies and diplomatic facilities. The U.S. government is currently dealing with a massive computer hack across multiple agencies. That may be the work of Russian-backed hackers. A human hack may be no less nefarious. In some ways, it could be even more worrisome. 

The CCP has angrily responded to reporting on the database. Wang Wenbin, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, was asked about the leaked list during a press conference on Tuesday.  

“This is [nothing] other than hysterical slanders made by certain anti-China elements to tarnish the image of the” CCP, Wang replied. “Such [an] allegation is logically absurd and has no factual basis, nothing but another version of the ‘China threat theory.’”  

Wang then went on a diatribe, defending the CCP as the “vanguard of the Chinese working class, the Chinese people, and the Chinese nation.” He claimed that the 92 million members of the CCP “are playing an exemplary role in various areas” and other nations “should follow basic norms governing international relations and respect each other’s system and national conditions.” He claimed the Chinese government “honors its commitments and is open and aboveboard in all its actions” and Western governments should accept the CCP as China’s “reality.” 

Wang described the leaked list as a “groundless denigration.” But he did not claim it is a forgery, or that its contents are entirely inaccurate. If it is “groundless,” then does that mean the CCP think Chinese dissidents fabricated it? Wang didn’t elaborate. 

Other CCP-controlled media outlets have tried to cast doubt on the list’s authenticity, but without going so far as to claim it was definitely concocted. For instance, the Global Times quickly published a report saying that the database’s contents are “highly questionable” and it “may also be fabricated.” That same piece also demanded respect for party members. The subtitle of the article reads: “Foreign firms in China voice respect for employees’ political affiliation.” In other words, the CCP’s Global Times wanted to make sure that even if some of the entries in the database are accurate, then its readers know there’s nothing wrong with being a party member. Either way, there’s nothing to see here, the Global Times argues. The CCP outlet added quotes from Volkswagen and IKEA to buttress its case, as both companies apparently defended their employees’ rights to choose whatever political affiliation they desire.   

But belonging to the CCP isn’t the same thing as being a Republican or a Democrat. It means the individual officially belongs to a totalitarian system. We still have much to learn about the leaked list, but we shouldn’t assume it is merely a “groundless denigration,” as the CCP wants us to believe. 

The U.S. is finally waking up to the extent of the CCP’s human spying. As Axios first reported, Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-California), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, had ties to a  Chinese spy named Fang Fang or Christine Fang, who raised money for his re-election campaign in 2014. That scandal is still in the early stages, as other Californian politicians were reportedly targeted by Fang as well. Given what we already know about that and many other cases, we should all want to learn more about the list provided to IPAC. 

Tom Joscelyn is a senior fellow at Just Security.