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U.S. Officials View China As America's Primary Long-Term Threat To Power


Robert Mueller's Russia investigation has put a very public spotlight on Moscow's intelligence operations against the U.S. But over the past year, indictments have piled up, one after the other, involving a different foreign adversary - China. NPR justice reporter Ryan Lucas reports.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: For all the attention paid to Russia of late, U.S. officials don't view Moscow as the primary long-term threat to American power and global influence. That distinction lies with China. Here's how FBI Director Christopher Wray recently described Beijing's rivalry with Washington.


CHRISTOPHER WRAY: China's goal, simply put, is to replace the U.S. as the world's leading superpower. And they're using illegal methods to get there.

LUCAS: And it's those illegal methods that have caught the attention of the Justice Department. American officials say China is using cyberattacks to vacuum up U.S. government and business secrets. It's pressuring Chinese students and scientists to pilfer research from American universities and labs. And it's co-opting insiders at U.S. companies to steal confidential trade information.


WRAY: Chinese government is not pulling any punches. They want what we have so that they can get the upper hand on us. And they're strategic in their approach. They're playing the long game.

LUCAS: That strategic approach includes targeting a range of high-tech industries, such as biotechnology, artificial intelligence and aerospace. Those match sectors Beijing tapped for development in its strategic plan released four years ago called "Made In China 2025." John Demers, the head of the Justice Department's National Security Division, recently spelled out for Congress how Beijing operates.


JOHN DEMERS: The playbook is simple - rob, replicate and replace. Rob the American company of its intellectual property. Replicate that technology. And replace the American company in the Chinese market, and one day, in the global market.

LUCAS: In one recent example, a grand jury indicted three people in a Chinese state-owned company in November. They were charged with economic espionage related to the theft of trade secrets from a U.S. semiconductor company. That is just one of a handful of cases the DOJ has brought related to China's alleged theft of American intellectual property. In the last year, the Justice Department has announced charges against more than a dozen people and companies for allegedly attempting to steal economic secrets on China's behalf. The latest case was unsealed in late December.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Well, the U.S. Justice Department has announced a stinging indictment of the Chinese government. It's charging two Chinese nationals with carrying out an extensive hacking campaign.

LUCAS: The DOJ alleges the two Chinese men were part of a hacking group called APT10 and worked in association with China's Ministry of State Security. The hackers penetrated computer networks of more than 45 companies in 12 states, carting off hundreds of gigabytes of confidential data. The pair's hacking efforts ran for 12 years. Trying to continue to conduct traditional spy versus spy espionage against the U.S., one former CIA officer was convicted last year of spying for China, while another former CIA officer is to go on trial this year.

But it is China's relentless cyberattacks against American companies that are a particular source of concern and frustration for the U.S. government. China struck an agreement in 2015 with the Obama administration not to conduct cyberattacks for economic espionage. But U.S. officials say that after an initial drop-off, those attacks have ramped back up. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein did not mince his words when announcing the charges last month.


ROD ROSENSTEIN: We want China to cease its illegal cyber activities and honor its commitment to the international community.

LUCAS: The Justice Department has vowed to push back against China's actions. One way it will do that, Rosenstein says, is by bringing more cases against individuals stealing on China's behalf. Ryan Lucas, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.