At a time when the new Imperial era of Reiwa is only two weeks away, two Chinese women have been indicted in the United States. What do they mean to Tokyo and Washington? For the latter, of course, they are part of its hegemonic game with Beijing. Then what about Japan? Let’s start with the facts about those two women.
One is Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of China’s telecom giant Huawei, who was arrested in Canada last December on behalf of the U.S. for allegedly defrauding financial institutions in breach of U.S. sanctions against Iran. She was indicted by the U.S. in January for financial fraud. Huawei products are now banned in many nations.
The other Chinese woman is reportedly from Shanghai and was arrested on March 30 at U.S. President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida and later indicted for unlawful entry into restricted grounds and lying to investigators. When arrested, she had two passports, $8,000 in cash, thumb drives containing malware and an electronic device that detects hidden cameras.
When entering the property the woman identified herself as Zhang Yujing and, posing as a club member, first said she had come to swim. Then, as court documents reveal, she claimed that her Chinese friend “Charles” told her to attend “a United Nations friendship event” to speak with a member of the president’s family about China-U.S. relations.
Since the arrests of the two women, much has been reported and I will not duplicate all of it here. What is more striking, however, is the surprising similarity between the two criminal cases that are seemingly independent of each other. My take is a bit different, and the following are my usual perverse questions.
1. Why is Huawei equipment dangerous?
The allegations are hardly new, experts say. As early as in late 2009, the U.S. National Security Agency reportedly warned AT&T not to use Huawei telecommunications equipment since it might be used for espionage activities by Chinese intelligence services. In March 2010, the Indian government reportedly started banning imports of some Chinese telecommunications devices, including those of Huawei, because special bugging chips might have been installed in the equipment. Later, the governments of Australia, Canada, Germany, France and others followed suit.
2. Isn’t Huawei a private company in China?
Yes, it is. Any private Chinese firm or citizen, however, is subject to the infamous National Intelligence Law of 2017, which obliges individuals, organizations and institutions to assist Public Security and State Security officials in carrying out a wide array of intelligence work, some legal experts say. Huawei has no choice. The law’s Article 7 stipulates that “any organization or citizen shall support, assist and cooperate with state intelligence,” and Article 14 says that state intelligence work organs “may demand that concerned organs, organizations or citizens provide needed support, assistance and cooperation.”
3. Why Zhang was so easily captured in Florida?
Probably because she is an amateur. If what has been reported is true, her information gathering skill was so poor that she could not escape Secret Service agents. I do not believe that she has been professionally trained. This, however, does not mean that she is innocent.
4. Was Zhang a professional spy?
She does not have to be. The intelligence services of China always tend to try to recruit amateurs and Chinese amateurs often tend to cooperate with the Chinese intelligence services, as required by the 2017 National Intelligence Law.
I have a copy of the June 2004 “Intelligence Threat Handbook” by the American Interagency OPSEC Support Staff. The document, although available on the internet, is unclassified but “for official use only,” and provides professional operations security skills to protect critical information.
The handbook states, “The main strengths of the PRC [People’s Republic of China] approach to collection are that the number of potential intelligence collectors is virtually limitless and the individuals who do the collecting know exactly what critical U.S. information will best suit their intelligence needs.” The document also states that the problem is “identifying suspects from among the people who are not intelligence officers, including tens of thousands of PRC nationals who enter the U.S. as students or visitors.” The conclusion, unfortunately, is China’s information gathering “is a system that is inefficient but not ineffective.”
5. What do those two women mean to Tokyo?
How much Huawei equipment have telecommunications services providers installed in Japan so far? Is it safe? Is the Japanese government’s recent ban on Huawei products effective or too late?
Although I am no telecom expert, I am not desperately pessimistic about Huawei’s built-in espionage devices. They must be installed either in the hardware, firmware or software and every one will eventually become detectable and be removed or nullified. What’s more worrisome are the amateur spies.
Unlike the U.S. or other Western nations, Japan still has no effective anti-espionage legislation to protect critical information with tough law enforcement measures and to penalize foreign or Japanese perpetrators of illegal information-gathering with the heaviest punishment.
I do not mean that we should suspect every foreigner or Japanese is a spy. Most of them are good citizens of Japan or of their own nations. What is most alarming is the way the Chinese intelligence services recruit operators from among those good, ordinary Chinese citizens in China and abroad, including those in Japan.
If we have a “Meng Wanzhou” living in Osaka or a “Zhang Yujing” visiting downtown Tokyo, what can we do? It would be too naive for us to believe that incidents of information theft, as happened in the U.S., would never happen in Japan. Are we prepared for this? I do not know.
This question is hardly new, either. As we will shortly enter the new Reiwa Era, isn’t it high time for Tokyo to critically review the nation’s postwar era of utopian pacifism and to seriously consider a new era of counter-espionage measures? Or, is it too late to do so?
Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies.