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Suspected Chinese spy developed ties with local and national politicians, investigation shows

PHOTO CREDITS: THE DENVER GAZETTE

A suspected Chinese intelligence operative developed extensive ties with local and national politicians, including a U.S. congressman Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.).

In what U.S. officials believe was a political intelligence operation run by China’s main civilian spy agency between 2011 and 2015, Axios ran in a yearlong investigation. The alleged operation offers a rare window into how Beijing has tried to gain access to and influence U.S. political circles. The woman at the center of the operation, a Chinese national named Fang Fang or Christine Fang, targeted up-and-coming local politicians in the Bay Area and across the country who had the potential to make it big on the national stage.

Through campaign fundraising, extensive networking, personal charisma, and romantic or sexual relationships with at least two Midwestern mayors, Fang was able to gain proximity to political power, according to current and former U.S. intelligence officials and one former elected official. Even though U.S. officials do not believe Fang received or passed on classified information, the case “was a big deal, because there were some really, really sensitive people that were caught up” in the intelligence network, a current senior U.S. intelligence official said.

Among the most significant targets of Fang’s efforts was Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.). Fang helped place at least one intern in Swalwell’s office, according to those same two people, and interacted with Swalwell at multiple events over the course of several years. A statement from Swalwell’s office provided to Axios said: “Rep. Swalwell, long ago, provided information about this person — whom he met more than eight years ago, and whom he hasn’t seen in nearly six years — to the FBI. To protect information that might be classified, he will not participate in your story.” Federal investigators became so alarmed by Fang’s behavior and activities that around 2015 they alerted Swalwell to their concerns — giving him what is known as a defensive briefing. Swalwell immediately cut off all ties to Fang, according to a current U.S. intelligence official, and he has not been accused of any wrongdoing.

Fang left the country unexpectedly in mid-2015 amid the investigation. She did not respond to multiple attempts by Axios to reach her by email and Facebook. The case demonstrates China’s strategy of cultivating relationships that may take years or even decades to bear fruit. The Chinese Communist Party knows that today’s mayors and city council members are tomorrow’s governors and members of Congress.

“She was just one of lots of agents,” said a current senior U.S. intelligence official.

Beijing “is engaged in a highly sophisticated malign foreign influence campaign,” FBI director Chris Wray said in a July 2020 speech. These efforts involve “subversive, undeclared, criminal, or coercive attempts to sway our government’s policies, distort our country’s public discourse, and undermine confidence in our democratic processes and values,” Wray said.

Fang’s friends and acquaintances said she was in her late 20s or early 30s when she was based in the U.S. and was enrolled as a student at a Bay Area university. She used political gatherings, civic society conferences, campaign rallies, and campus events to connect with elected officials and other prominent figures, according to U.S. intelligence officials, Bay Area political operatives, former students, and current and former elected officials who knew her. U.S. intelligence officials believed she was overseeing likely unwitting subagents whom she helped place in local political and congressional offices (FOX).

Fang attended regional conferences for U.S. mayors, which allowed her to grow her network of politicians across the country.

She also engaged in sexual or romantic relationships with at least two mayors of Midwestern cities over a period of about three years, according to one U.S. intelligence official and one former elected official. At least two separate sexual interactions with elected officials, including one of these Midwestern mayors, were caught on FBI electronic surveillance of Fang, according to two intelligence officials. Axios was unable to identify or speak to the elected officials.

Fang also volunteered for the 2014 House bid of Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., and a 2013 fundraiser for Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii. Khanna’s office said the congressman saw Fang at several gatherings but had no further contact, while Gabbard’s office told the outlet she “has no recollection of ever meeting or talking with [Fang], nor any recollection of her playing a major role at the fundraiser.” Khanna also expressed concern about the FBI investigations having “collateral damage” on privacy. “I respect the need for law enforcement to protect our nation from espionage. [But] we need strict guardrails to make sure the FBI’s investigations do not have collateral damage to the privacy of American citizens or to the legitimacy of Asian Americans in this country,” he said.

U.S. officials believe Fang’s real reason for being in the U.S was to gather political intelligence and to influence rising U.S. officials on China-related issues. Close relationships between a U.S. elected official and a covert Chinese intelligence operative can provide the Chinese government with opportunities to sway the opinion of key decision-makers. Beijing may aim to influence foreign policy issues directly related to China, or issues closer to home, such as partnering with Chinese companies for local investment — an issue particularly salient among local-level officials such as mayors and city council members (Axios).

POLITICS EDITOR: CARSON CHOATE

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