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China govt uses ‘United Front’ to gather intel on citizens abroad, says US dy NSA

A top US Security official has referred to revelations in a series of investigative reports by The Indian Express and other global publications on how a private company with links to the Chinese government gathered intelligence to influence private citizens overseas.

Written by Kaunain Sheriff M | New Delhi | Updated: October 25, 2020 7:14:37 am
The Indian Express investigation, China is Watching, was published in September.

Referring to revelations in a series of investigative reports by The Indian Express and other global publications on how a private technology firm in Shenzhen, with links to the Chinese government and Communist Party of China (CPC) uses big data tools for hybrid warfare, a top US Security official has said that the Chinese foreign ministry handles a “United Front”, which includes “powerful tech firms” that gather intelligence to influence private citizens overseas.

Pointing to the database of Zhenhua Data, which targets individuals and institutions in politics, government, business, technology, media, and civil society, US Deputy National Security Advisor Matt Pottinger has said that the CPC is “compiling digital dossiers on millions of foreign citizens around the world”, with the aid of “new tools of digital surveillance”.

Pottinger made the remarks from White House on Thursday during a video conference hosted by Policy Exchange in London.

The Indian Express, using big-data tools, investigated metadata from Zhenhua’s operations to extract Indian entities from the massive dump of log files that constituted what the company called Overseas Key Information Database (OKIDB). The investigation, published in September, had revealed the firm is monitoring over 10,000 Indian individuals, including President Ram Nath Kovind, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Congress president Sonia Gandhi and their families.

“The exposure last month of a Chinese database on at least 2.4 million people around the world, including many of us on this call, speaks to the Party’s (CPC’s) sheer ambition to wed traditional Leninist techniques with powerful new tools of digital surveillance,” Pottinger said.

He claimed China’s “United Front Work system” is handled by the country’s foreign ministry and “gathers intelligence about, and works to influence, private citizens overseas”. He said, “…The focus is on foreign elites and the organizations they run. Think of a United Front worker as a cross between an intelligence collector, a propagandist, and a psychologist.”

Pottinger said while “Zhenhua isn’t a particularly large or sophisticated actor in the United Front world”, it “may even be acting opportunistically, because it thinks the Party will reward it”.

He said, “Far more powerful tech firms, including famous Chinese app developers, play a much bigger role in this kind of work. The dossiers Zhenhua is compiling include people in virtually every country, no matter how small. They include members of royal families and members of Parliament, judges and clerks, tech mavens and budding entrepreneurs, four-star admirals and crew members of warships, professors and think-tankers, and national and local officials. They also include children, who are fair game under Beijing’s rules of political warfare. No one is too prominent or too obscure.”

Pottinger said the “United Front Work” is a “serious business”, and the “focus is on foreign elites and organisations they run”. He said, “…the United Front Work Department alone has four times as many cadres as the US State Department has foreign-service officers….the United Front gathers intelligence about, and works to influence, private citizens overseas.”

Read The Indian Express’ investigative series China is Watching

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