Chinese Spy Slept with Politicians, Helped Fundraisers During Obama Administration
December 9, 2020
A suspected Chinese intelligence operative developed extensive ties with politicians, including a US congressman, and formed a political network for China’s main civilian spy agency between 2011 and 2015, according to Axios after a yearlong investigation.
This alleged operation shows a rare window into how Beijing has tried to gain access to and influence US political circles. The Chinese Communist Party favors Democrat politicians gaining power in the United States after walking over President Obama during his administration.
Chinese national named Fang Fang or Christine Fang, initially targeted up-and-coming politicians in the Bay Area and eventually across the country who had the potential to make it big on the national stage, Axios reported.
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.
Private but unclassified information about government officials — such as their habits, preferences, schedules, social networks, and even rumors about them — is a form of political intelligence. Collecting such information is a key part of what foreign intelligence agencies do.
Among the most significant targets of Fang’s efforts was Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), according to Axios.
Fang took part in fundraising activity for Swalwell’s 2014 re-election campaign, according to a Bay Area political operative and a current U.S. intelligence official. Swalwell’s office was directly aware of these activities on its behalf, the political operative said. That same political operative, who witnessed Fang fundraising on Swalwell’s behalf, found no evidence of illegal contributions.
Federal Election Commission records don’t indicate Fang herself made donations, which are prohibited from foreign nationals.
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.”
What happened: Amid a widening counterintelligence probe, 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.
Between the lines: 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.
In the years since the Fang probe, the FBI has prioritized investigations into Chinese influence operations, creating a unit in May 2019 within the bureau solely dedicated to countering Beijing’s activities at the state and local levels. U.S. national security officials believe the threat posed by China has only grown with time.
“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.
The FBI declined to comment. The Chinese Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.
Details: Axios spoke with four current and former U.S. intelligence officials about the case over a period of more than a year. They requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media about the case.
Axios also spoke with 22 current and former elected officials, political operatives, and former students who knew Fang personally when she was based in the United States.
Between 2011 and 2015, Fang’s activities brought her into contact with many of the Bay Area’s most prominent politicos.
She volunteered for Ro Khanna’s unsuccessful 2014 House bid, according to a former campus organizer and social media posts. (Khanna, a Democrat, was elected to the House in 2016.) 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.
Fang helped with a fundraiser for Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) in 2013, according to a flyer from the event Fang shared on Facebook. She appeared in photos over multiple years with a host of California politicians, including Khanna, Swalwell, Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.) and then-Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.).
Gabbard “has no recollection of ever meeting or talking with her, nor any recollection of her playing a major role at the fundraiser,” a spokesperson said in an email to Axios.
Fremont City Councilmember Raj Salwan, whose name appears on the flyer, 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.
Chu’s office said they have no records of Christine Fang. Honda said he had no memory of meeting Fang.