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Christine Fang

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In December 2020, an investigation by Axios was published that detailed the suspected activities of Christine Fang (Chinese: 方芳; pinyin: Fāng Fāng),[1] a Chinese national who has been suspected by United States officials of having conducted political espionage for the Chinese Ministry of State Security (MSS) while she was in the United States from 2011-2015.[note 1][3] According to the outlet, the case itself was noteworthy because it had: shown the methods that China used in the United States to infiltrate U.S. politics and spread Chinese influence; demonstrated China’s strategy of cultivating long-term relationships; caught up sensitive people despite U.S. officials saying they did not believe that any classified information was received by or sent from Fang and sharpened the liminality of Chinese American identity.[2] While Fang's suspected activities prior to the Axios investigation had already drawn scrutiny from federal law enforcement agencies, the subsequent reactions to its publication drew further scrutiny from Republicans and the media.

Background[edit]

Fang entered California State University, East Bay in 2011 and was involved in political activities which included being the president of the Chinese Student Association (CSA) and the Asian Pacific Islander American Public Affairs (APAPA). While there she used those positions as platforms to allow her to move in political circles across all three levels of American government.[2][4][5][6]

According to her activity records on the Chinese social media platform Renren, Fang was presented with a “certificate of honor” which was awarded by the San Francisco Chinese consulate for her work as the president of the CSUEB CSA.[2] While Axios said that it was common for CSA presidents to be in frequent communication with Chinese consular officials, it also said that "Fang's relationship to the San Francisco consulate was especially close."[2]

Suspected espionage[edit]

According to Axios, Fang was suspected of conducting political intelligence activities in the United States from 2011-2015 through several ways, including her personal charisma, sexual/romantic relationships, campaign fundraising, and networking.[7][2] While most of her activities were concentrated in the San Francisco Bay Area, she targeted other areas of the United States as well.

Prior to Fang's departure from the U.S., she had:

  • fundraised for Eric Swalwell’s 2014 re-election campaign in her capacity as a "bundler"[note 2] and helping place an intern in his D.C. office.[8] Axios described Swalwell as amongst the most significant target of Fang's political influence efforts[2] FBI gave Swalwell a "defensive briefing" in 2015, informing him that Fang was a suspected Chinese agent.[9]
  • volunteered for Ro Khanna's 2014 Congressional House election campaign. Khanna's office said that Khanna remembered seeing Fang at several political gatherings for Indian Americans, but that was the limited contact with her. Khanna's office also said that the FBI did not brief them on Fang's activities and that her name did not appear in their 2014 campaign staff records, although they said that their records did not include all volunteers.[2][5]
  • helped with a 2013 fundraiser event for Tulsi Gabbard in which Fremont City Councilmember Raj Salwan also participated. A Gabbard spokesperson said that she "has no recollection of ever meeting or talking with her, nor any recollection of her playing a major role at the fundraiser" while Salwan said he was "unaware of Fang's role in the event" and that her name was "added to the flyer by other Asian American leaders."[2][4]
  • organized a 2012 town hall for Judy Chu.[2][6] Chu’s office said they had no records of Fang.[2]
  • interacted with then-Representative Mike Honda, then-San Jose city Councilmember Ash Kalra and then-mayor of Cupertino Gilbert Wong at a March 2014 Sister Cities International conference which was held at Chinese Embassy in D.C.[2][5] Wong said that Fang introduced him to the mayor of Shenzhen - both cities have major tech industries - and served as a translator between the two; Honda said he had "no memory of meeting Fang"and a Kaldra representative said he "did not remember meeting Fang."[2]
  • volunteered at Bill Harrison’s office and helping coordinate talks about creating a sister city in China with Fremont, California, of which Harrison was then the mayor. Harrison said in August 2015 that he was contacted by the FBI after Fang's egress from the United States who told him about her suspected activities in the Bay Area.[5][2]
  • attended events for Ed Lee, the former mayor of San Francisco.[2]
  • engaged with two midwestern city mayors in relationships which were of either a sexual intercourse or romantic nature.[2]

The Justice Department has filed no public charges against Fang and she, according to intelligence officials and her former political acquaintance, has not returned to the U.S. since.[2]

Pre Axios-investigation response[edit]

In 2015, according to U.S. counterintelligence officials, Fang's activities were interrupted when she was put under investigation by the FBI, which led to her leaving the U.S. The FBI probe had been initiated through her contact with another suspected Ministry of State Security officer who was working out of the San Francisco embassy that the FBI had been monitoring. A counterintelligence official said that Fang's interaction with that officer in addition her movement profile - her travels throughout the United States, leading to her involvement with several U.S. politicians - were among the reasons why she was put under surveillance.[2] Some of the actions that federal authorities took against Fang included:

  • putting her under electronic surveillance[2][10]
  • apprising Swalwell of their concerns about his relationship with Fang through a defensive briefing after which, according to a current U.S. intelligence official, he immediately cut off all ties to her.[2]
  • apprising Harrison of their concerns about Fang's suspected activities and his relationship with her after her egress from the United States.[5][2]
  • providing other local and federal politicians with defensive briefings about Fang. One defensive briefing in the spring of 2015 was held with congressional leaders from both the Democratic and Republican Party to inform them of the suspected Chinese operation, after which, according to Nancy Pelosi, the congressmembers ceased communication with the suspected spies, including Fang.[11][2]
  • providing White House officials with defensive briefings about Fang.[2]

Post Axios-investigation response[edit]

On December 18, 2020, both leaders of the U.S. House of Representatives (Kevin McCarthy and Nancy Pelosi) received an FBI briefing regarding Swalwell's ties to Fang at McCarthy's request.[12][13] After the briefing, McCarthy said that the briefing only raised more questions than it had answered and that the only thing it did answer was that Swalwell "should not be on Intel."[12]

Congressional and non-Congressional Republicans who criticized Swalwell for his relationship with Fang included Ted Cruz,[14] Richard Grenell,[15] Tom Cotton,[16] Rick Scott,[17] Donald Trump Jr.,[18] Kayleigh McEnany,[19][18] Kevin McCarthy,[18][20] Liz Cheney,[21] Jason Chaffetz[22] and Marco Rubio,[23] with Rubio reportedly saying he intended to hold a Senate Intelligence public hearing on Fang's case if his party was to win the special Georgia runoff election.[24] House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy called Swalwell a "national security threat".[25] Swalwell responded in an interview with Politico by insinuating the political nature of the reports about his connection to Fang, suggesting the information was leaked to hurt him because of his criticism of President Donald Trump.[26] An article in New York said that his defense was unconvincing.[27] In an interview with CNN the day after, Swalwell said that he immediately cooperated with the federal investigation into Fang and, in highlighting one of the findings in the Axios article, was certain that he did not share sensitive information with Fang while also reiterating his insinuations about the political nature of the reports.[28] Swalwell was further defended by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who accused the Republicans of political opportunism as she said that both parties were apprised of the suspected spying operation at the same time.[11] Khanna issued a separate response to the report in which he warned of the need for the FBI to strike the proper balance between ensuring the security of the country and upholding the privacy and safety concerns of Asian American communities.[2][3] Writing for the Diplomat, James Palmer warned that the partisan reactions from both the Democrats and the Republicans to the reports risked creating an environment in which US counterintelligence against both Russia and China would be unable to function.[29]

In the media, Swalwell's general relationship with Fang has been characterized as problematic, particularly given the high-profile role that he occupied - a member of the House Intelligence Committee - within the intelligence community.[27][30][31][32] In December 2020, seventeen House Republicans wrote a letter to the Speaker Nancy Pelosi that read: "Because of Rep. Swalwell’s position on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, his close interactions with Chinese intelligence services, however unintentional they may be, are an unacceptable national security risk. HPSCI handles some of the most sensitive information our government possesses — information critical to our national defense. As such, we urge you to immediately remove Rep. Swalwell from his position on the House Intelligence Committee."[33][34]

Some have tied the findings from the report to larger political issues. James Carafano said that Fang's case was a microcosm of China's influence operations over local American legislatures and tied it to what he said was great power competition between the United States and China.[35] Two segments on Sky News Australia pointed to Fang's suspected espionage as evidence of what they saw was the efficacy of China's influence campaigns.[36][37] The Hindustan Times said that Fang's activities "appeared to have been a part of a larger Chinese spying operation in the United States," citing comments made by FBI director Christopher Wray in June 2020 that the bureau had more than 2,000 active investigations into Chinese activities in the US and the US shut down of the Chinese consulate in Houston in July 2020.[4] An article in Newsweek said the findings in the report was a fit with China's pattern of intelligence gathering "as identified by the FBI"[38] and an editorial in the Taipei Times cited Fang's case as an example of what it said was Communist Party of China-backed espionage that Taiwan could help the United States in countering.[39]

See also[edit]

  • Chinese espionage in the United States
  • China–United States relations

Notes[edit]

  1. Axios describes the relationship between Fang and the MSS in the following way: "A suspected Chinese intelligence operative developed extensive ties with local and national politicians, including a U.S. congressman, in what U.S. officials believe was a political intelligence operation run by China’s main civilian spy agency between 2011 and 2015...U.S. counterintelligence officials said they believe Fang acted at the direction of China’s Ministry of State Security (MSS), the country’s main civilian spy agency."[2]
  2. Axios describes a bundler as a person who can "persuade others to write checks for campaigns; they can bring in substantial sums of money as well as deepen the campaign’s engagement with target communities, making bundlers a valuable and thus potentially influential ally to a candidate."[2]

References[edit]

  1. "疑似中國女諜 方芳外型姣好 手腕靈活 曾活躍灣區政界". World Journal (in 中文). December 9, 2020. Archived from the original on 2020-12-11. Retrieved 2020-12-11. Unknown parameter |url-status= ignored (help)
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 2.11 2.12 2.13 2.14 2.15 2.16 2.17 2.18 2.19 2.20 2.21 2.22 2.23 2.24 "Exclusive: Suspected Chinese spy targeted California politicians". Axios. December 8, 2020. Archived from the original on December 10, 2020. Retrieved December 10, 2020. Unknown parameter |url-status= ignored (help)
  3. 3.0 3.1 "Suspected Chinese Spy Targeted Democratic Politicians Including Reps. Swalwell, Khanna Before Fleeing in 2015". Mediate. December 8, 2020.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Raj, Yashwant (December 8, 2020). "How a suspected Chinese spy targeted California politicians for 5 years". The Hindustan Times. Archived from the original on December 9, 2020. Retrieved December 10, 2020. Unknown parameter |url-status= ignored (help)
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 "Report: Suspected Chinese spy targeted Bay Area politicians, then disappeared". San Francisco Chronicle. December 8, 2020. Archived from the original on December 10, 2020. Retrieved December 10, 2020. Unknown parameter |url-status= ignored (help)
  6. 6.0 6.1 "Accused Chinese Spy Had Sexual Encounter With Ohio Mayor: Report". Heavy. December 9, 2020. Archived from the original on December 10, 2020. Retrieved December 10, 2020. Unknown parameter |url-status= ignored (help)
  7. "Video: Key takeaways from our investigation on a suspected Chinese spy". Axios. December 8, 2020. Archived from the original on December 9, 2020. Retrieved December 10, 2020. Unknown parameter |url-status= ignored (help)
  8. ZEFFMAN, HENRY (2020-12-10). "Accused Chinese spy Christine Fang lured aspiring politicians into honey trap". www.theaustralian.com.au. Retrieved 2020-12-15. Unknown parameter |url-status= ignored (help)
  9. "Eric Swalwell and the spy: A lesson in how China is undermining us". The Hill. December 14, 2020.
  10. GRZEGOREK, VINCE (December 8, 2020). "Which Ohio Mayor Had a Sexual Encounter with an Alleged Chinese Spy in a Car That Was Under FBI Surveillance?". CityBeat. Archived from the original on December 8, 2020. Retrieved December 10, 2020. Unknown parameter |url-status= ignored (help)
  11. 11.0 11.1 "Pelosi defends Swalwell, says Congress should fight "undue Chinese influence"". axxios.
  12. 12.0 12.1 "FBI Briefs Reps. Pelosi, McCarthy on Rep. Swalwell's Ties to Suspected Chinese Spy". NPR. December 18, 2020.
  13. "McCarthy, Pelosi receive FBI briefing on Swalwell". The Hill. MSN. December 18, 2020.
  14. "'Little did I know': Ted Cruz slams Eric Swalwell in viral tweet about ties to alleged Chinese spy".
  15. "'America This Week': COVID lockdown hypocrisy; Grenell on US rep's ties to Chinese spy". Sinclair Broadcast Group. WJLA. December 9, 2020.
  16. "Sen. Cotton Calls on Swalwell to Explain Ties to Christine Fang: 'There is Nothing Classified About Eric Swalwell's Life'". medaiate.
  17. "Sen. Rick Scott calls for Rep. Eric Swalwell to be removed from the House Intelligence Committee". yahoo.
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 Zeffman, Henry (December 9, 2020). "Democrat Eric Swalwell linked to spy suspect Christine Fang". The Times. Archived from the original on December 10, 2020. Retrieved December 10, 2020. Unknown parameter |url-status= ignored (help)
  19. "Swalwell scandal: Dems' hypocrisy 'breathtakingly remarkable,' White House says". Fox News. 9 December 2020. Archived from the original on 10 December 2020. Retrieved 10 December 2020. Unknown parameter |url-status= ignored (help)
  20. "McCarthy: Why is Swalwell still in Congress after China spy report?". Fox News. Yahoo. December 8, 2020. Archived from the original on December 10, 2020. Retrieved December 10, 2020. Unknown parameter |url-status= ignored (help)
  21. "Rep. Swalwell under fire for connection with alleged Chinese spy, blames Trump for report". Fox News. Yahoo. December 9, 2020. Archived from the original on December 11, 2020. Retrieved December 10, 2020. Unknown parameter |url-status= ignored (help)
  22. "Chaffetz: Eric Swalwell should be thrown off intelligence committee after being linked to Chinese spy". Fox News. Yahoo. December 9, 2020. Archived from the original on December 11, 2020. Retrieved December 10, 2020. Unknown parameter |url-status= ignored (help)
  23. "Rubio: Swalwell has much to answer for 'if he wants to continue' in Congress". Fox News. Yahoo. December 9, 2020. Archived from the original on December 10, 2020. Retrieved December 10, 2020. Unknown parameter |url-status= ignored (help)
  24. Betz, Bradford (December 15, 2020). "Marco Rubio intends to hold Senate Intel hearing on Fang Fang, Chinese espionage". Fox News.
  25. "Pelosi and McCarthy trade blows over Democratic congressman who once had ties to Chinese spy". The Independent. December 11, 2020.
  26. "Rep. Swalwell says Trump criticism behind spy story". Politico. December 8, 2020. Archived from the original on December 10, 2020. Retrieved December 10, 2020. Unknown parameter |url-status= ignored (help)
  27. 27.0 27.1 Peyser, Eve (December 9, 2020). "The China Sex Spy Scandal Is a Reminder: Don't Govern While Horny". Vox. New York. Archived from the original on December 10, 2020. Retrieved December 10, 2020. Fang’s acquaintance with Swalwell, which reportedly began in 2012, is especially scandalous because he later became a member of the House Intelligence Committee, meaning he has access to sensitive state secrets. Unknown parameter |url-status= ignored (help)
  28. Cohen, Zachary (December 9, 2020). "Democratic congressman says he did not share sensitive information with suspected Chinese spy". CNN. Archived from the original on December 11, 2020. Retrieved December 10, 2020. Unknown parameter |url-status= ignored (help)
  29. "U.S. Partisanship Is Harming Counterintelligence". The Diplomat. December 9, 2020. Archived from the original on December 9, 2020. Retrieved December 10, 2020. Unknown parameter |url-status= ignored (help)
  30. "Exclusive: Suspected Chinese spy targeted California politicians". Axios. December 8, 2020. Archived from the original on December 10, 2020. Retrieved December 10, 2020. U.S. intelligence officials believed she was overseeing likely unwitting subagents whom she helped place in local political and congressional offices. Unknown parameter |url-status= ignored (help)
  31. "Swalwell's dad, brother no longer Facebook friends with Chinese spy after reports on continued ties". Fox News. 9 December 2020. Archived from the original on 10 December 2020. Retrieved 10 December 2020. Both Eric Swalwell Sr. and Joshua Falwell were listed as friends on her Facebook account, raising questions about how close Fang was to the congressman. Unknown parameter |url-status= ignored (help)
  32. Zeffman, Henry (December 9, 2020). "Democrat Eric Swalwell linked to spy suspect Christine Fang". The Times. Archived from the original on December 10, 2020. Retrieved December 10, 2020. While she is not believed to have obtained any classified material, she may have placed “sub-agents” in local and congressional offices. She placed at least one intern in Mr Swalwell’s Washington office. Unknown parameter |url-status= ignored (help)
  33. "17 Top Republicans Ask Nancy Pelosi to Remove Eric Swalwell From Intelligence Committee". Newsweek. December 15, 2020.
  34. "The Swalwell Timeline". The Wall Street Journal. December 17, 2020.
  35. "Jim Carafano: 'You better believe we are a target and China will exercise all their power to undermine us'". Radio.com. 97.1 FM Talk. December 8, 2020. Archived from the original on December 11, 2020. Retrieved December 10, 2020. Unknown parameter |url-status= ignored (help)
  36. Murray, Paul (December 13, 2020). "There are 'many ways' in which China 'gets what it wants'". Sky News Australia.
  37. Morrow, James (December 13, 2020). "Chinese spy found attempting to 'influence and suborn' Democrats". Sky News Australia.
  38. "Eric Swalwell Report Fits Bill of China Spy Pattern Identified By FBI". Newsweek. December 11, 2020.
  39. "EDITORIAL: Chinese infiltration: Taiwan can help". Taiwan Times. December 18, 2020.


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