For anyone who thinks the People’s Republic of China wouldn’t jeopardize a lucrative business environment, think again. Think: Hong Kong.
In a series of articles for Lawfare, a U.S. blog on national security issues, Bill Priestap and Holden Triplett look at the commercial gain of espionage in the realm of business and academia and how they can best protect themselves from nation-state threats.
Referring to warnings from Chinese government officials that U.S. nationals in China might find themselves in violation of Chinese law if the U.S. continues to prosecute Chinese scholars in American courts for espionage, Priestap and Triplett advise business travellers to be on the alert. Businesspeople, they say, are the most likely Americans to be detained in China as they’re both highly visible and lack the immunity protection of government employees, a more provocative target but less vulnerable.
At the heart of this clash between world powers is something the authors say neither side can get past and that is how they each lever and perceive law enforcement.
For the PRC, Priestap and Triplett argue that law enforcement is more about power than justice, with national security the goal at all costs. Businesses in China are a “key component” to securing that end goal and espionage for commercial gain is viewed as the “critical research information” to ensure that goal is met.
This activity is likely organized and supported by an intelligence service of the PRC, which believes that its intelligence services should assist PRC companies, both public and private, with acquiring sensitive technology and research. At times, that acquisition may be legal and blatant, but just as often it may be illegal and surreptitious.
U.S. law enforcement action in response to espionage is perceived as “political activity” by the PRC, say Priestap and Triplett. It is seen as the U.S. taking offense with the PRC over its moves to protect its national security interest which the success of their businesses both domestically and globally is central to.
While the United States believes its arrests are justifiable law enforcement action, the PRC views this as U.S. political activity – because, from the perspective of the PRC government, that’s what law enforcement is for.
The party’s threat of detainment is therefore a response in kind, they write. But “despite the high probability of such a detainment,” the authors fear businesses have “lured themselves into a false sense of security, believing the PRC would never jeopardize the country’s business environment for such a minor victory.” They point to Hong Kong as a prime example of why businesses should proceed with extreme caution.
Unfortunately, many PRC-watchers expressed just such pragmatic logic about a potential crackdown in Hong Kong. Any heavy-handed action, they thought, would be so destructive to the incredibly lucrative business environment that PRC authorities would avoid it at all costs. Yet in the past couple of years in response to mass demonstrations, PRC authorities have prioritized national security over the business environment, especially with the introduction of a new national security law.
Their advice to businesses in the U.S. is to “fully acknowledge the myriad risks and prepare accordingly”.
Such preparation could begin with determining whether the business possesses assets or capabilities sought by the PRC. Answering this type of question helps a business understand the severity of risk it faces. It is also imperative that businesses inform their employees of the risks associated with traveling to the PRC. And businesses need to develop a plan for how they’ll respond if one of their employees is detained or arrested there.
As Priestap and Triplett would say: It’s only a matter of time.
Bill Priestap is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service. He led the FBI’s counterintelligence division from 2015 to 2018. With Holden Triplett, he advises businesses and universities on how best to protect themselves from nation-state threats.
Holden Triplett is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service. He led the FBI office in Beijing from 2014 to 2017 and was deputy head of the FBI office in Moscow from 2012 to 2014. Most recently, he was the FBI Faculty Chair at National Intelligence University. With Bill Priestap, he advises businesses and universities on how best to protect themselves from nation-state threats.