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Will Beijing’s balloon wake up America?

It’s well past time to take China’s spy threat seriously

A Chinese spy balloon floats over Billings, Mont., on Feb. 1. Larry Mayer/The Billings Gazette via Associated Press

Will Beijing’s balloon wake up America?

Sometimes it takes a ridiculous event to highlight a serious problem.

For the past several days a Chinese spy balloon drifting across the United States captured national attention, until on Saturday a U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor shot it down off the coast of South Carolina. The balloon caper provoked a frenzy of media coverage, late-night television lampooning, internet memes, political posturing, and even a ChatGP-generated haiku (truly a sign of the times).

According to news reports, this is not the first time China has launched a spy balloon to surveil the United States. However, it is the first time that it came to public attention. The result was embarrassment in Beijing, anger in America, a cancelled trip to China by Secretary of State Tony Blinken, and an obliterated balloon in Carolina coastal waters.

I don’t not mean to trivialize the legitimate security concern that the balloon may have been surveilling American military bases and other facilities, but the farcical aspects of the episode should not divert our attention from the much more grave threat: the massive espionage campaign being waged by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) against the United States and our allies. For at least three decades the CCP has been engaged in the most sustained and comprehensive spying effort by an adversary nation in American history. It is certainly the most extensive since Soviet intelligence services first began penetrating the United States in the 1930s.

This CCP campaign has been relentless in its ambition and reach. It seeks to purloin America’s business, science, and technology expertise; steal our national security secrets; influence our educational and political systems; and recruit our citizens to spy for China. It amounts to perhaps $500 billion or more in intellectual property theft from American companies every year. It is the threat that most worries the American intelligence community, and it is only growing in severity and sophistication.

What does this look like in practice? Chinese spy satellites are constantly looking down on American territory from outer space and are overhead even as you read this. Chinese cyberattacks are at this moment bombarding the computer systems of almost every U.S. government agency, major company, and university. Chinese intelligence officers, supported by Chinese companies, are overseeing the most extensive hacking, data mining, biodata theft, and electronic surveillance efforts in world history. To take just one example: If you—or more likely your kids—have TikTok on your smartphones, those devices are probably being used to monitor the keystrokes and files, share all the phone data with Beijing, and promote an algorithm beholden to the CCP’s messaging. (Friendly advice, which I echo from Klon Kitchen: if you or your kids have the TikTok app, delete it and quit using it).

China has also become much more sophisticated in its tradecraft in recent decades.

CCP espionage and information operations also target American universities, seeking to purloin sensitive technological research, recruit spies, and influence perceptions of China. Just as one example, the University of Texas-Austin, where I am now a faculty member, recently detected and shut down what appears to have been a potential CCP influence operation housed on our campus.

China has also become much more sophisticated in its tradecraft in recent decades. One of my first encounters with Chinese intelligence efforts came 20 years ago when as a new State Department official, I was introduced to two Chinese journalists by a Chinese scholar of casual acquaintance. The journalists claimed an interest in the role of religion in American culture. So I invited them to attend a service at Capitol Hill Baptist Church, where I was a member at the time.

That Sunday, I became suspicious of these “journalists” when they dozed off during a customarily riveting (though, truth be told, customarily long) sermon by our pastor, Mark Dever. Afterwards they showed no interest in discussing the service, and instead peppered me with questions about sensitive State Department policies. It quickly became apparent that they were likely spies, a suspicion that I confirmed the next day when I reported them to the State Department’s Diplomatic Security office, which handles counter-intelligence.

These two spies of yesteryear may have been bumbling, comically inept, and easily discovered. Yet in the years since, CCP intelligence capabilities have become much more effective and formidable.

I say all this not for fearmongering or hysteria, and certainly not to foment any animus against the Chinese people. They are most often victims of their government’s oppression. Many of the Chinese citizens studying and working in the United States face particularly acute pressure and intrusive surveillance from CCP intelligence services.

Rather I want to encourage a clear-eyed understanding of the threat. For too long, too many Americans—across virtually every sector in business, academia, entertainment, sports, and yes even churches—have been either oblivious or naïve to Beijing’s malevolent efforts. If now a feckless spy balloon adrift over Montana has alerted America to this menace and galvanized our nation’s attention, then the CCP’s clumsy caper will have cost it even more than just the intelligence the United States collects from the balloon’s debris.

William Inboden

William is a professor and director of the Hamilton Center for Classical and Civic Education at the University of Florida. He previously served as executive director and the William Powers Jr. chair at the William P. Clements Jr. Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin. He has also served as senior director for strategic planning on the National Security Council at the White House and at the Department of State as a member of the Policy Planning Staff and a special adviser in the Office of International Religious Freedom.

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