Monday, 12 September 2016

China’s insecure history of nuclear spying

Some time later this month the prime minister will make a decision on whether the  alleged security concerns raised over Chinese investment in, and technological development of, the planned Hinkley C and Bradwell B new nuclear plants respectively.

We know her chief policy advisor, Nick Timothy wrote on the Conservative Home web site last October, when working for a conservative think tank:

Security experts – reportedly inside as well as outside government – are worried that the Chinese could use their role to build weaknesses into computer systems which will allow them to shut down Britain’s energy production at will. For those who believe that such an eventuality is unlikely, the Chinese National Nuclear Corporation – one of the state-owned companies involved in the plans for the British nuclear plants - says on its website that it is responsible not just for “increasing the value of state assets and developing the society” but the “building of national defence.” MI5 believes that “the intelligence services of…China…continue to work against UK interests at home and abroad.’” (“The Government is selling our national security to China“, 20 October 2015;

Ironically, at the beginning of the month, the United States Chamber of Commerce issued 116 page report on threats to international free trade in information technology, highlighting the role played by China’s national security laws to exclude US ( and others’)  companies from selling into the Chinese market. The report notes:


 While globalization of the ICT sector has been one of the most powerful drivers of global economic welfare during the past several decades, a number of factors—particularly at the policy level—are now threatening to slow or even reverse that trend.

In particular, some national governments, by intentionally or unintentionally defining security concerns in an overly broad manner, are applying intense pressure on the ICT sector to localize rather than globalize. Such pressures are manifesting in laws and regulations that expressly require the indigenization of R&D, manufacturing, and/or assembly of products or localization of data, or that otherwise effectively preference products and services that localize assembly, source code development and storage, or the storage of data.”  Preventing Deglobalization, 1 September 2016


The report states on national security threats: “The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (“NPC”) passed the country’s most comprehensive piece of national security legislation in July 2015, a sweeping National Security Law that establishes an expansive framework on security and that describes in broad terms how the country’s leadership understands its security interests.

The new law’s breadth is evident in its assertion that China’s security interests extend far beyond its physical borders, even into the depths of the oceans, the Arctic, outer space, and, of course, cyberspace.102 It describes national security as encompassing political security, military security, social and cultural security, ecological security, agricultural security, and much more……

At the end of December 2015, the NPC Standing Committee enacted a Counter-Terrorism Law, which went into effect on January 1, 2016. Drafts of the law wereoriginally released in November 2014 and February 2015 and attracted significant controversy. The Counter-Terrorism Law reinforces the government’s broad powers to investigate and prevent incidents of terrorism, and requires citizens and companies to assist and cooperate with the government in dealing with such matters. It also imposes new obligations on companies in certain sectors. Non-compliance or non-cooperation can lead to significant penalties, including fines on companies and criminal charges or detention for responsible individuals.”

Writing in the The Wall Street Journal on 7 September, Andrew Browne observed:” China plays by its own rules nowadays…. It bullies Washington’s regional friends and allies.. China is using national-security laws and other means to exclude U.S. technology companies from swaths of its vast market..” (“China’s Subtle War Against U.S. Dignity”;

In light of the Chinese Government’s own stated security concerns and enacted law, it is worthwhile recalling how China abused s other states’ own security laws with its extensive overseas spying apparatus.

A month ago the press extensively reported on an industrial espionage case involving  a Chinese nuclear engineer. One report explained “In a 17-page indictment, the US government said nuclear engineer Allen Ho, employed by the China General Nuclear Power Company, and the company itself had unlawfully conspired to develop nuclear material in China without US approval and ‘with the intent to secure an advantage to the People’s Republic of China’”. (“Nuclear espionage charge for China firm with one-third stake in UK's Hinkley Point,” Guardian, 11 August 2016;

Two months ago the US Justice Department issueda press release, which recorded in part”

“Kan Chen, 26, of Ningbo, China, in Zhejiang Province, was sentenced to 30 months in prison and three years of supervised release for conspiring to violate the Arms Export Control Act and International Traffic in Arms Regulations; attempting to violate the Arms Export Control Act and International Traffic in Arms Regulations; and violating the International Emergency Economic Powers Act.

On June 16, 2015, Chen was arrested by HSI agents on the Northern Mariana Island of Saipan following an eight-month long investigation into his illegal conduct and has remained in custody.  He pleaded guilty to the offenses listed above on March 2, 2016.

“The United States will simply never know the true harm of Chen’s conduct because the end users of the rifle scopes and other technology are unknown,” said U.S. Attorney Oberly.  “No matter their nationality, those individuals who seek to profit by illegally exporting sensitive U.S. military technology will be prosecuted.  It is important that we take all necessary steps to prevent our military technology and equipment from being exported and possibly used against our service members and our allies overseas.”

(“Chinese National sentenced to 30 months in prison for smuggling high tech US military hardware to China,” :  June 29, 2016;

But this is not a recent phenomenon: Seventeen years ago, the New York Times revealed under the headline “China Stole Nuclear Secrets For Bombs, U.S. Aides Say”, ( 6 March 1999; that Working with nuclear secrets stolen from an American Government laboratory, China has made a leap in the development of nuclear weapons: the miniaturization of its bombs, according to Administration officials.”

The New York Times published a detailed update on September 26, 2000, stating in part:

On March 6, 1999, The New York Times reported that Government investigators believed China had accelerated its nuclear weapons program with the aid of stolen American secrets. The article said the Federal Bureau of Investigation had focused its suspicions on a Chinese-American scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Two days later, the government announced that it had fired a Los Alamos scientist for ''serious security violations.'' Officials identified the man as Wen Ho Lee. Dr. Lee was indicted nine months later on charges that he had transferred huge amounts of restricted information to an easily accessible computer. Justice Department prosecutors persuaded a judge to hold him in solitary confinement without bail, saying his release would pose a grave threat to the nuclear balance. This month the Justice Department settled for a guilty plea to a single count of mishandling secret information. The judge accused prosecutors of having misled him on the national security threat and having provided inaccurate testimony. Dr. Lee was released on the condition that he cooperate with the authorities to explain why he downloaded the weapons data and what he did with it.”

The story was followed up by the Guardian’s sister Sunday paper, The Observer, ran a detailed revelation headlined: "China steals US nuclear secrets,” 7 March 1999) with a follow up in August 1999 (“China Crisis, 22 August 1999;

In between, the London Evening Standard ran a front page revelation from Washington on 25 May that year “China’s army of spies in U.S.”- which unveiled China controlled several thousand ‘front companies’: The 700-page [Congressional committee] document describes a massive and voracious theft of American know-how in addition to the recently well-publicised espionage that succeeded in stealing nuclear secrets from a supposedly secure weapons laboratory run by the US Energy Department. President Clinton has falsely claimed he was not told about the spying.

The report discloses that China uses an extensive network of small and large businesses operated by Chinese nationals in the US to penetrate civilian technology centres. There may be more than 3,000 such firms, mainly concentrated in California and Massachusetts, which are connected to the Chinese espionage apparatus.

China requires, as normal practice, that many of the thousands of students, tourists and other Chinese visitors to the US seek out information that might be used for military purposes. Christopher Cox, chairman of the committee which issued the report, says Chinese espionage has been going on for two decades, and continues.”

Today’s concerns over China undermining nuclear security thus have a detailed history

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