China’s Communist Party is an “immense’’ and “breathtaking’’ economic threat to the world, US and British intelligence chiefs warned in an unprecedented joint appearance.
China’s state-sponsored hacking programme is “lavishly resourced” and bigger than that of every other major country combined, said Federal Bureau of Investigation boss Christopher Wray at a first joint appearance in London on Wednesday with MI5 director-general Ken McCallum.
Britain’s MI5 is running seven times as many China probes as it had been in 2018, said McCallum, adding that China is “covertly applying pressure across the globe.’’
Wray said nowhere in the US is safe, citing Chinese agents who travelled to a rural area to dig up genetically modified seeds which would have cost them billions of dollars and years to develop on their own.
“The Chinese government is set on stealing your technology—whatever it is that makes your industry tick — and using it to undercut your business and dominate your market,” he said. “And they’re set on using every tool at their disposal to do it.”
McCallum described China as a “massive shared challenge” while Wray accused Beijing of using cyberattacks to rip off western innovation “on a massive scale.”
He said Beijing was engaging in “a coordinated campaign”, adding that “the most game-changing challenge we face comes from the Chinese Communist Party.”
The UK spymaster focused on industrial espionage while Wray highlighted cybersecurity threats.
McCallum said the threat to UK companies was dire, citing Smith’s Harlow, an aerospace company that signed a deal with a Chinese partner that then reneged, driving the UK firm bust.
Partners ‘Stealing and Copying’
Wray warned western companies against partnering with Chinese firms “only to find the Chinese government and your ‘partner’ stealing and copying your innovation”.
Wray said Microsoft Exchange Server software vulnerabilities that had been exploited by Chinese hackers and Chinese state-sponsored hackers “relentlessly looking for ways to compromise” unpatched network devices and infrastructure.
Wray also cited geopolitical threats, accusing Beijing of using intimidation and repression to shape the world to be more accommodating.
“To take just one example, this spring, the Chinese government went so far as directly interfering in a Congressional election in New York,” he said.
First Public Joint Assessment
It was the first time that the heads of the two intelligence-gathering agencies had jointly presented a threat assessment in public.
“We’re not just in the business of articulating problems, we’re doing something about them, together with MI5, with the private sector itself, with other government partners,” Wray said.
McCallum said the objective was not to close off or separate from China, describing the world’s second-largest economy as “one-fifth of humanity, with immense talent”.
The MI5 boss said China was central to global issues such as economic growth, public health and climate change and noted that the 150,000 Chinese students studying in UK universities was “in almost all cases, good for them and good for us”.
He stressed that UK concern was focused on the Chinese Communist Party and certain parts of the Chinese state, not the Chinese people as a whole.
McCallum urged Britons with suspicions about China contacts to report them to MI5.
“Anything you tell us will be handled with discretion,” he said. “Even better, of course, is to engage before you have a problem – mend the roof when the sun is shining, not when it’s raining hard.”
- George Russell