History

6 surprising targets of Chinese espionage

For America, there's a pretty clear idea of what our intelligence agencies should do, and it's mostly about keeping tabs on new enemy weapons, terrorists plots, and counterespionage. But, American technology and innovations are also a coveted target for other countries, especially ones like China that are developing rapidly.

And China has the money and the culture to do something about it. They have proven capable of stealing secrets, partially to support military programs and partially to support the state-run companies that are in charge of keeping the people happy so President Xi Jinping can keep concentrating on wandering the Hundred Acre Wood.


(He reportedly hates being compared to Winnie the Pooh, so that's just the best)

Here are six targets of Chinese espionage that you probably wouldn't guess:

1. Farms

The site of some of the most sinister thefts of secret technology.

(Photo by Don Graham)

Perhaps the most surprising target of foreign espionage, especially Chinese, is American farms. America has some of the most advanced farms in the world, both in terms of the machinery used and the seeds that are grown there. The seeds and machines are so advanced, in fact, that it creates friction with normal farmers who are banned from repairing their own machines and cannot grow new seeds from their crops (they have to purchase a new batch of seeds from the manufacturer, instead).

China needs to feed millions of mouths, but doesn't want to spend all the time and money to do the research required. Instead, they've sent agents across the U.S. and other nations to steal seeds from suppliers, like Monsanto and Pioneer, either illegally purchasing them or straight ripping them out of the ground.

2. Self-driving cars and other automation

Self-driving cars like, the Waymo, could remake the economy, and China doesn't want to get left behind.

(Photo by Dllu)

While self-driving cars seem like a luxury more than anything else, the underlying tech is challenging to create and could, potentially, be extremely lucrative. Add to that the fact that deep-learning algorithms for one task can give you a better idea how to create algorithms for another task, and it's easy to see why nations, especially China, would target the companies making the new vehicles.

Prosecutors allege that a former Apple employee was stealing tech for a new employer in China when he was arrested in the airport with stolen trade secrets from an autonomous car project.

3. Microbes

Microbes are an important part in the manufacture of some drugs and recently, chemicals. Yeah, China and other countries like those.

(Agricultural Research Service)

Really any important biological discovery, especially medicinal, could go here, but a particular microbe case is instructive. Ching Wang, a man of Chinese descent who discovered an anti-parasitic drug in the 1970s, told the New Yorker that he received a phone call a little after he and his colleagues published their paper.

The caller worked for a state-run pharmaceutical company in China and was wondering if Wang could fly himself out to China with a sample of the microbe, just for funsies. Wang didn't go, obviously, but China needs advanced medicine that it isn't always willing to research. When China can get people to hand over crucial information, extort such information from companies, or simply steal it from non-secured computers, they can bound forward in science overnight.

4. Universities

Universities are centers of learning and research that China would love to rip off.

(Photo by Ulrich Lange)

Speaking of which, universities are a great place for espionage agents, and it's not about the co-eds. Many advanced projects being done in a country are typically the result of a partnership between governments, corporations, and universities.

And, as you might imagine, universities are typically the weakest links in these partnerships. So, they're often the target of spies.

While there used to be only a couple thousand active contracts driving defense-applied research at any given time, a 2007 report showed that that number had risen to above 50,000 by 2006. Needless to say, there's a lot of great research being done in places like MIT.

5. Wind and solar companies

Chinese wind farms are often made possible by technology that was stolen from an American company that nearly went bankrupt thanks to the theft.

(Photo by Land Rover Our Planet)

China made a pledge to generate more clean energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. To do so, they apparently decided to just steal a bunch of U.S. secrets. In one high-profile case, American company AMSC sold $800 million in tech to Chinese firm Sinovel, putting safeguards in place that would, hopefully, prevent theft of their intellectual property.

Yeah... Those safeguards failed. China got help from an insider to download source code, reversed engineer the tech, installed it on all of their projects, and then didn't pay the $800 million. A U.S. court recently decided a case against Sinovel for $59 million.

The lawsuit might have gone better, except the Chinese military allegedly broke into AMSC's servers to steal their legal strategy against the Chinese firm.

6. Free samples

The Chinese Meng Shi, or "Brave Soldier," is a vehicle that isn't at all a ripoff of the AM General Humvee that American troops and their allies drive.

(Photo by Morio)

​Oddly enough, despite all of China's thefts, companies are still super eager to do business with state-run corporations and other entities in the country just to keep their foot in the door. Some even give free samples, something China encourages and regularly takes advantage of.

That's likely how China was able to domestically produce the Meng Shi, the "Brave Soldier." AM General tried to sell them a Humvee and left behind a free sample after a visit in the 1980s. Later, China purchased a few for "oil exploration." Then, the Meng Shi rolled off the line looking distinctly Humvee-like.

For its part, China insists that the appearance is a coincidence stemming from the vehicles' similar missions. And besides, the Meng Shi is better on every metric, at least according to papers written by military officials and not subjected to peer review.