How a suspected Chinese spy targeted California politicians for 5 years
A suspected Chinese intelligence operative had sought to develop ties to several national and local elected officials and politicians in California between 2011 and 2015, including some from the Indian American community, Axios news publication has said in a report based on interviews with multiple current and former US intelligence officials and elected officials during a year-long investigation.
The publication reported that US officials do not believe this operative received or passed classified information but it quoted one current intelligence officer saying this “was a big deal, because there were some really, really sensitive people that were caught up”. But no evidence has been found or been alleged of any wrongdoing and the US has filed no public charges against this person.
This Chinese national, who was called Christine Fang or Fang Fang, left the United States in 2015. She appeared to have been a part of a larger Chinese spying operation in the United States that have since come to light. The US shut down the Chinese consulate in Houston in July with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo calling it a “hub of spying and IP (intellectual property) theft”. FBI director Christopher Wray has said the bureau has more than 2,000 active investigations into Chinese activities in the US.
The operative, who was said to be in her late 20s or early 30s, was enrolled as a student at California State University East Bay and used political gatherings to get close to her targets. The Axios report carried pictures of this woman with several politicians, who, to be fair, pose freely for pictures with supporters, volunteers and even strangers without really checking their antecedents.
One of her “most significant targets”, the Axios report said, was Eric Swalwell, a Democratic member of the House of Representatives who ran for the party’s presidential nomination in 2019. Fang had taken part in fundraising activity for Swalwell for his 2014 election, according to the report, and had also placed an intern in his office. The congressman broke off ties with her after he received what is called a “defensive briefing” from federal investigators who had Fang under surveillance.
Swalwell’s office said in a statement to Axios: “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.”
Fang had also volunteered for Indian American Ro Khanna’s unsuccessful run for the House of Representatives in 2014, the report said, and added, “Khanna’s office said he remembers seeing Fang at several Indian American political gatherings but did not have further contact with her. Khanna’s office said the FBI did not brief him on her activities. Khanna’s 2014 campaign staff said that Fang’s name does not appear in their staff records, though they said that their records do not include all volunteers.”
Raj Salwan, a Fremont City Councilmember whose name appeared with Fang and others on a fundraiser flyer for Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard in 2013, told Axios he “was unaware of Fang’s role in the event and her name was added to the flyer by other Asian American leaders”.
Gabbard told Axios she “has no recollection of ever meeting or talking with her, nor any recollection of her playing a major role at the fundraiser”.
Ash Kalra, who is now a member of the California state assembly, was seen with Fang and then member of the House of Representative from California Mike Honda, at a 2014 event at the Chinese embassy in Washington DC. Kalra was then a member of the San Jose city council. His office told Axios he does not remember meeting Fang.
Honda, who was unseated by Khanna in 2016, has said he has no memory of meeting Fang and the office of another California House Representative Judy Chu, who was seen in a picture with Fang, told the news publication they have no records of Fang.
US counterintelligence officials told Axios they believed Fang was acting on the direction of the Ministry of State Security, China’s main civilian spy agency. US officials focused on her because of her contacts with an MSS operative who was working undercover as a diplomat at the Chinese consulate in San Francisco. Fang interacted with this undercover operative numerous times but c