TOM LEONARD: China’s spy balloon is latest proof of People’s Republic’s insidious creep into US

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What could a giant balloon over a Montana nuclear weapons base, a corn mill on 300 acres of prime North Dakota farmland, a wind farm in a windless stretch of Texas, a popular social media platform, and a nondescript office building in downtown Manhattan possibly have in common?

The answer is causing growing alarm among US politicians and officials – for it’s China.

Now, after the eyes of millions of Americans turned to the skies – tracking a suspected Chinese spy balloon drifting over the country for days – hard experience has taught America to assume the worst when it comes to Beijing.

Fears of growing Chinese Communist government surveillance of Americans are no longer the stuff of spy movies and conspiracy theories.

The threat is real. And whether it’s unusual purchases of agricultural land near military installations, clandestine police stations, suspicious algorithms, or balloons, they all in one form or another pose a potential risk to America’s national security.

COMMUNIST EYES IN THE SKIES

Beijing will no doubt complain bitterly if U.S. politicians, experts and ordinary citizens get their demand to shoot down the suspected high-altitude surveillance tool floating over America.

China has rejected accusations it is a spy balloon, claiming it was actually a ‘civilian airship’ used mainly for weather research. But that explanation was quickly knocked down by the Pentagon. ‘The fact is, we know that it’s a surveillance balloon,’ said a spokesman.

Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor aircraft were scrambled to 66,000 feet after the balloon was detected in US airspace and they were apparently ready to blow it out of the sky.

President Joe Biden reportedly wanted to do just that until he backed off on the ‘strong’ recommendations of defense officials, who warned of collateral damage caused by falling debris.

However, when it drifted over the South Carolina coast, the balloon was intercepted by a fighter jet that knocked it out the sky with a missile on Saturday. 

The US – which has described the spy balloon as ‘unacceptable and irresponsible’ – has also challenged Chinese claims that it deviated from its planned course because of winds and has only ‘limited self-steering capability’.

A Pentagon spokesman countered: ‘The balloon is maneuverable, clearly it’s violated US air space, and again we’ve communicated that fact to the [People’s Republic of China].’ That’s why the balloon’s flight path over the super-sensitive Malmstrom Air Force Base, one of the bases that houses America’s intercontinental ballistic missile arsenal, raised concern.

Malmstrom AFB, known as America’s ‘doomsday’ base, maintains 150 Minuteman III ICBs across 13,800 square miles of central Montana, making it the biggest complex of nuclear arms in the western hemisphere.

TOM LEONARD: China’s spy balloon is latest proof of People’s Republic’s insidious creep into US

Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor aircraft were scrambled to 66,000 feet after the balloon was detected in US airspace and they were apparently ready to blow it out of the sky.

 

However, sitting nearly smack down in the middle of Montana, 200 miles from Canada, it is curious – to say the least – that a wayward balloon would just so happen to pass directly over it.

The military says the balloon would only have been capable of capturing images of limited intelligence value and nothing that would not have been visible to Chinese satellites, but that has done little to calm nerves.

In response to the incident, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken cancelled a weekend visit to China, offering to reschedule under different ‘conditions.’ Blinken would have been the first Biden administration cabinet secretary to visit China and the first secretary of state to go there in five years.

Whether or not the balloin was intended to spy or disrupt the Blinken visit remains to be proven, but those tasked with America’s national security are understandably reluctant to take anything China says at face value. 

DC AGREES ON ONE THING – CHINA IS NOT A FRIEND

US suspicions over Chinese government ‘infiltration’ – shared by both Republicans and Democrats – are hardly surprising given that China’s autocratic premier Xi Jinping has increasingly demanded the country’s businesses conform to the aims of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Chinese corporations are left in little doubt by the Beijing regime that they exist principally to further government goals rather than make profits.

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Last month, Florida governor Ron DeSantis announced that he intended to ban big and ‘aggressive’ Chinese land purchases in his state.

‘You don’t want them buying farmland, controlling our food supply. You don’t want them near military bases,’ he said. ‘But do you want them building a resort in Florida either? I don’t.’

Now, Gov DeSantis has regularly warned about China. Last year, he sounded the alarm shortly after a report showed Chinese real estate investors spent more than $6 billion in the US in a year – more than investors from any other foreign country. And sunny Florida appears to be their favorite – accounting for nearly a quarter of all similar purchases in the US.

DeSantis is hardly a lone voice. In December, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer cheered the Biden administration’s move to block CCP-backed technology company, YMTC, from purchasing critical technology from U.S. businesses.

‘The entanglements of these companies with the CCP and the Chinese military are too treacherous,’ he declared. The question for American policymakers today is: How ‘entangled’ are we? 

 

LAND GRABS WITH ‘CURIOUS NEIGHBORS’

Major land purchases by Chinese entities now rarely pass off without controversy – particularly when there appears to be a military dimension.

According to the US Department of Agriculture, Chinese ownership of American farmland has soared 20-fold in a decade from $81 million in 2010 to $1.8 billion in 2020. And several Chinese firms have in recent years bought or tried to buy large plots of land near US armed forces bases.

In November 2021, the city of Grand Forks in North Dakota announced that Fufeng Group, headquartered in Shandong, China, wanted to build a corn mill there on a vast muddy stretch of land.

The company had identified a 370-acre plot that just happened to be only 12 miles from Grand Forks Air Force Base, which in turn just happens to be home to some of America’s key intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.

The base hosts the 319th Reconnaissance Wing which operates the RQ-4 Global Hawk, a high-altitude, remotely piloted surveillance plane, and will also house a crucial new space communications center.

The information that flows through this facility form ‘the backbone of all U.S. military communications across the globe,’ according to South Dakota Congressman Dusty Johnson.

A coincidence or something else?

A letter sent to the Biden Administration by Johnson and 50 other Republicans warned of Fufeng Group’s ‘close links to the Chinese Communist Party.’ In fact, the president of Fufeng, Li Xuechun, is allegedly an active member of the CCP.

‘By law, Chinese businesses are required to bow to the demands of the Chinese Communist Party – a regime that hates us and wants to overtake the United States at every opportunity,’ said Senator Marco Rubio, Vice Chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence, summing up these land purchase fears. ‘We shouldn’t treat this as a regular real estate deal.’

On Tuesday, after more than a year of debate, the U.S. Air Force warned that the ‘project presents a significant threat to national security.’

On Tuesday, after more than a year of debate, the U.S. Air Force warned that the ¿project presents a significant threat to national security.¿

On Tuesday, after more than a year of debate, the U.S. Air Force warned that the ‘project presents a significant threat to national security.’

In a sharp about-face, the mayor of Grand Forks said he’ll do what he can to block construction. Just a few years ago, Mayor Brandon Bochenski was celebrating the investment. But times have changed.

There have been other such moves and the fact that Chinese-owned companies get major financial backing from Beijing (which, say observers, rarely approves anything without an ulterior motive) has convinced analysts they’re part of a strategy.

In 2016, a Houston-based subsidiary of China’s Xinjiang Guanghui Industry Investment Group paid an estimated $110 million for some 140,000 acres in Val Verde County, Texas.

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The company’s owner, Chinese billionaire Sun Guangxin – another member of the Chinese Communist Party and former People’s Liberation Army officer – said he wanted to build the Blue Hills Wind Farm on part of the land so he could have access to the state’s electricity grid.

Skeptics were struck that not only was there little wind in this part of the state but – as in Grand Forks, N.D. – about the only other thing of note in Val Verde was an important military base. Laughlin Air Force Base is the largest pilot training center in the US Air Force.

In 2020, Texas congressman and former CIA officer Will Hurd, who has talked of the ‘new Cold War against China’, called on the federal government to halt the wind farm plan on national security grounds.

The case prompted Texas lawmakers to pass a new law, the Lone Star Infrastructure Protection Act – which became law in 2021 – banning companies and other entities ‘owned or controlled’ by China, Russia, North Korea and Iran from making deals involving critical infrastructure in the state.

Skeptics were struck that not only was there little wind in this part of the state but - as in Grand Forks, N.D. - about the only other thing of note in Val Verde was an important military base. Laughlin Air Force Base (above) is the largest pilot training center in the US Air Force.

Skeptics were struck that not only was there little wind in this part of the state but – as in Grand Forks, N.D. – about the only other thing of note in Val Verde was an important military base. Laughlin Air Force Base (above) is the largest pilot training center in the US Air Force.

BEIJING’S INSIDIOUS INVOLVMENT

One of the most elusive aspects of this Beijing-sponsored challenge to America is that it is cloaked in a veneer of legitimacy. But as lawmakers have observed, in Communist China all businesses answer to the state. That reality has cast suspicion over any Chinese infiltration of a critical American industry – like food production.

In California, Democrat legislators led a recent attempt to block foreign buyers from snapping up any more of its precious farmland. The state grows a third of America’s vegetables, and two-thirds of all its fruit and nuts.

The bill – which didn’t specifically mention China although it was clearly the main target – was passed by the California legislature only to be blocked by California governor Gavin Newsom.

Sen Melissa Hurtado (Dem), who introduced it, warned: ‘Food can, and is, being used as a weapon like we are seeing in Ukraine.’

The outcry over Chinese ownership of major US pork producer Smithfield is a case in point.

The company, whose products can usually be found in any American supermarket, was bought in 2013 by the conglomerate WH Group, based in Hong Kong. It was the biggest ever takeover of a US company by a Chinese one and triggered a congressional hearing.

The outcry over Chinese ownership of major US pork producer Smithfield is a case in point.

The outcry over Chinese ownership of major US pork producer Smithfield is a case in point.

In 2020, Texas congressman and former CIA officer Will Hurd, who has talked of the 'new Cold War against China', called on the federal government to halt the wind farm plan on national security grounds. (Above) Wind Farm file image

In 2020, Texas congressman and former CIA officer Will Hurd, who has talked of the ‘new Cold War against China’, called on the federal government to halt the wind farm plan on national security grounds. (Above) Wind Farm file image

Despite experts’ warnings that the US might ultimately regret the $4.7 billion deal and it gave a Chinese too much control over America’s pork industry, it was allowed to go through. When food supplies became a major headache during the pandemic, Smithfield – based in Virginia – was accused of ramping up its exports of meat to China to record levels at the expense of feeding Americans.

In some parts of the US, the arrival of a Chinese company is enough to provoke horror even if its intentions appear entirely benign.

Semcorp, a Shanghai-based tech company which the biggest producer of a key component of lithium-ion batteries, promised to invest $1 billion in a new factory that would create 1,200 jobs in Sidney, Ohio.

The state has been hit particularly hard by job losses but local people who complained at it being a Chinese company won loud applause at a public meeting last spring to consider tax breaks for the company. ‘They are not our friends,’ said a resident. ‘Think of your grandchildren and great-grandchildren when you have to explain you approved this to a company from China.’

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Despite the objections, the project is going ahead.

CHINESE POLICE STATION IN THE BIG APPLE

In a testament to the brazenness of the autocratic Beijing regime, even their police are now operating secretly in the US.

Weeks ago, it emerged that the FBI is actively cracking down on a US-wide network of covert Chinese police stations. These very unofficial outposts – including one in Manhattan’s Chinatown that was raided by the FBI last fall – are reportedly collecting intelligence, investigating crimes and generally keeping watch on Chinese abroad.

In October, DailyMail.com visited this NYC office of the CCP, located above a ramen shop and next to an acupuncturist. Locals said the location was closed and rarely opened.

The Chinese government promotes these locations as resources for Chinese nationals and say the program has ‘persuaded’ 230,000 Chinese citizens to return home since April 2021. But human rights organizations claim these stations are guided by a much more sinister purpose – an intimidation campaign.

‘Nothing seems to be too impressive or too harsh,’ Harth said. ‘That’s a clear message to anyone seeking to leave China, or already left China: that you’re not safe anywhere.’

These secret cop shops – which reportedly also operate in 100 locations throughout Europe and in Japan – make no attempt to work with local law enforcement and have no diplomatic status. It is unclear who works at these facilities.

In October, DailyMail.com visited this NYC office of the CCP, located above a ramen shop and next to an acupuncturist. Locals said the location was closed and rarely opened.

In October, DailyMail.com visited this NYC office of the CCP, located above a ramen shop and next to an acupuncturist. Locals said the location was closed and rarely opened.

But even Chinese state news media reporting has alluded to the true purposes of these offices, according to the New York Times. Articles have described the outposts as intelligence collection apparatus.

Many of those reports have reportedly since been deleted.

OMINOUS ONLINE CONCERN

Finally, China is also accused of threatening US national security in the digital world. Bipartisan concern has focused on TikTok, the wildly popular social media platform that is used relentlessly by more than two-thirds of US teenagers.

Brendan Carr, the senior Republican on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), has led the charge against TikTok. He welcomed Congress last month approving a bill to ban the social media app it from devices issued to federal employees. Half of all states already banned it from their government devices and a bipartisan bill was introduced in Congress last month to scrub it completely in the U.S.

Mr Carr told DailyMail.com that TikTok was a ‘very significant threat’ to the US.

Despite initials denials, TikTok has been found to have used the app to spy on US reporters writing about the platform and allowed the Beijing regime’s propaganda arm to covertly criticize US politicians ahead of last year’s midterm elections.

Mr Carr also noted that China has set out to dominate the world in artificial intelligence. ‘And whenever we use TikTok, we’re improving China’s AI,’ he said. ‘That could be used for very malign purposes down the road.’

‘There’s plenty of reasons to be concerned on TikTok on the national security front which is why we’ve seen bipartisan consensus,’ he said.

Chinese penetration of the US – both physical and cyber – is diverse and growing. While some of the holdings of Chinese companies in America are undoubtedly innocent, the fact that Beijing puppet-masters may be pulling the strings is a glaring cause for concern.

Right now, Republicans and Democrats in Washington, DC, seem to be aware of the national security threat posed – the question is whether the country can counter it.

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