The FBI and MI5 have warned that Chinese industrial espionage poses an increasingly serious threat to western companies, as the chiefs of the US and British intelligence agencies used an unprecedented joint appearance in London to urge business leaders to become much more vigilant about China.
Speaking at the offices of MI5, the UK domestic intelligence service, FBI director Christopher Wray said companies needed to become more aware of the many ways that China was engaging espionage.
“The Chinese government poses an even more serious threat to western businesses than even many sophisticated businesspeople realise,” Wray told business leaders at an event with his MI5 counterpart, Ken McCallum. “I want to encourage you to take the long view as you gauge the threat.”
The intelligence chiefs were holding the first public event between the two agencies, in a move Wray stressed underscored the need to tackle the expanding espionage challenge from China.
McCallum told the audience that while the threat “might feel abstract”, it was real and pressing. “We’re not crying wolf,” he said.
McCallum said MI5 had seen a sevenfold increase in China-related investigations since 2018, had doubled its capacity to deal with them over the past three years, and would probably double capacity again over the next “handful of years”. Wray said FBI field offices across the US opened one investigation into Chinese espionage on average every 12 hours.
Wray said the Chinese government was using “every tool” at its disposal to steal western technology in an effort to eventually undercut non-Chinese businesses and dominate their markets — even stealing genetically modified seeds from US farmland.
He added that the Ministry of State Security, which oversees Chinese overseas espionage, was homing in on western companies that it wanted to “ransack” to help obtain corporate secrets.
Both chiefs stressed that China was employing people who were not directly connected to its intelligence services to target western companies — a group Wray called “co-optees”.
They said companies had to be more attuned to the fact that their dealings with Chinese companies might have connections to Chinese intelligence, which McCallum described as “hidden manipulation”.