Pushkin. Hey, deep cover listeners, Jake Halpern here were hard at work on season two and have some fun bonus episodes coming out soon.
So keep an eye out for those here, a deep cover. We love a good spy story. And here's one from our friends at Axios today that I want to share with you. It's about a suspected Chinese spy who infiltrates California politics through campaign fundraising, networking, charisma and sexual relationships. She cozied up to some pretty powerful people, including a sitting congressman. This case shows how a single determined individual allegedly working for Beijing can gain access to sensitive U.S. political circles.
It's a true story going on right now. What you're about to hear is the special report on this investigation. But every morning, Axios today shares the news of the day that matters. In just 10 minutes, if you want to get smarter, faster, if you check out Axios today, wherever you're listening now. OK, pull up a chair. Here comes the episode. Good morning. Today, we're bringing you a special episode, Axios investigates China's spy strategy in the U.S..
This is a classic story, right? It's got everything, it's got politics of the highest stakes, it's got the Chinese government, the U.S. government, it's got sex. It's a story that seems ripped from a spy novel. How a suspected Chinese intelligence operative allegedly spent years building relationships with local U.S. politicians. I remember thinking, wow, she has no shame. She just does whatever she needs to do to get as close as he possibly can.
She fundraised she recruited interns. One person she targeted is a fast rising congressman who now serves on the House Intelligence Committee. She even pursued romantic relationships with some mayors. It was a long game, a bet that today's city council member could become a political star down the line. And here's why this matters. It's a rare look at the lengths China will go to influence U.S. politicians and their policies has never crossed my mind that she was involved in any espionage.
Bethany Allen Ebrahimi covers China for Axios, and Zach Dorfman writes our code book newsletter. He's also with the Aspen Institute. Zach Bethanie, thanks for being with me.
Thanks for having me. You all have been working on the story for a long time.
Yeah, I mean, we have been working on this for over a year and we spoke with four current and former US intelligence officials extensively about this extraordinary case. And we also cast a really, really wide net and spoke with 22 current and former elected officials, political operatives and also former students. And all of those folks talk to us about Christine Fong, Christine Fong.
She's the person at the center of this story. Who is she?
Christine Fong was a student at a Bay Area University called California State University East Bay from roughly 2011 to 2015.
She's a beautiful, engaging, gregarious young woman, not as young as you might think in her late 20s or early 30s, but blended in well with the undergraduate population.
She was the president of the local Chinese Students Association. She was involved in a group called Apapa, which was an Asian-American civic affairs organization.
And she was really an extraordinary leader of both of these organizations. She held a beauty pageant. She held a talent, shows basketball tournaments, and she would always invite local politicians and Chinese consular officials. And of course, that was great for the school and great for the students and great for the politicians and great for her.
One of the people you guys talked to you and you introduced me to was Gilbert Wang. He used to be the mayor of Cupertino, California. During this time.
I just thought that she was a very friendly person. Obviously, she's very young, she's very attractive and was very surprised that she showed up at all these different political events, fundraisers. I strongly believe that she was a person maybe looking for a green card. And when the reporter brought to my attention the allegation, it kind of dawned on me that it all makes sense.
Coming up in 15 seconds, Christine Fong's bat on rising political stars. We're back with a special episode of Axios Investigates, Shaun Wilson is the chief of staff to an Alameda County supervisor. That means he went to a lot of political events and fundraisers over the years and he told me it felt like he'd seen Christine Fong everywhere.
She would be at the Tri-Valley Barbecue. She'd be the unity dinner. She was at the Aloni dinner at the time. I thought, well, maybe she was really interested in politics. What a good way to get to know and, you know, submerse yourself in the area if you're not from around here. I mean, obviously, that's what I would do, but not to that extent.
Many people we spoke with said Christine Fong was secretive. She had contacts, but not friends. No one really knew anything about her life or her family.
There was something there that didn't seem right. I remember her driving up and like, I think a white Mercedes. I'm like, wow, she's a college student. She's dressed is pretty nice. And she's volunteering on all these campaigns. And she has a nice vehicle like, wow, she's doing pretty good.
It wasn't just Alameda County officials. Zach, from your reporting, who else did she have contact with?
She bumped up against some of the most prominent politicians in the Bay Area. Those included former Representative Mike Honda, current Congresswoman Judy Chu, whose district is based out of Southern California, and Representative O'Connor from Silicon Valley. And the office that she had the most connections to, according to our reporting, was that of Eric Swalwell is a prominent Democrat and a member of the House Intelligence Committee.
But before we get to that, we wanted to explain what we've learned about how she operated. Shawn Wilson saw some of Christine Fong's tactics firsthand, especially at one event. He remembers vividly a soiree for the local Democratic Party.
I think this was probably perhaps the third or fourth interaction in which I've had with her. And she just seemed to gravitate to people the interactions that she had with my boss, Scott Haggerty.
It was a little awkward. We're all sitting around the table and when she was done chatting at one tables came directly to our table and said really, really close, like whispered a few times in his ear. And after when we talked, he had spoken to me about the conversation and she was wondering if there's a way she can help out or if she can do something for us, like in the office, or she was trying to finagle her way into, like our circle and try to try to try to do something.
And what did your boss, Scott, say about the meeting? Yeah, it's this. You have bad breath. So that tells you how close they sat together. She was definitely violating, you know, the special rule.
Both Shawn and his boss, Scott, say they were taken aback by the whole thing. They didn't know this person at all. Shawn said they never worked with her in any way, but that Christine tried this with a lot of officials. Right. And did she have success?
Well, according to our reporting, Christine was very assertive in cultivating relationships with elected officials and just generally becoming very, very involved in building connections with both Bay Area officials and with mayors and other officials all over the United States.
Where either of you ever able to speak with Christine Fong? We tried very, very hard to reach her. We messaged her multiple times on Facebook. We got her email address, messaged her multiple times. She did not respond and did not reach out to us.
So, Bethany, all of this raises eyebrows, but is what Christine Fong did illegal?
Well, it is illegal if she was doing it at the direction of a foreign power, but she was never charged with a crime. So how did she end up on the FBI's radar? Well, they actually first picked up on her in the process of doing surveillance on a completely different person. There was a diplomat in the Chinese consulate in San Francisco that the U.S. government believed was actually a ministry of state security officer. So this means someone who was an actual employee of one of China's intelligence agencies, Ciurczak, the Ministry of State Security.
That's the MS's. What exactly is that?
The closest analogue in the United States to the MSCs would be the CIA. They are a formidable, large and well financed intelligence service. And the U.S. intelligence services consider the mass to be one of its kind of premier adversaries abroad.
So they were doing surveillance and they noticed that this suspected MS's officer was having pretty regular contact with a young Chinese national. And they were like, who is this person? And that was Christine.
And one thing that caught the FBI's eye, she had a lot of connections to Eric Swalwell. I I'm Congressman Eric Swalwell, I work a lot of odd jobs as a kid and a teenager, I worked at the mall scented window frames after. So when did she become connected to Swalwell?
The first documented knowledge we have of their earliest meetings was in October 2012, when she invited him to attend the Chinese Student Association Annual Membership Gala. And there's a photo of them up on the stage. Together, they're holding a certificate of appreciation up on the stage. He's wearing a suit. She's wearing a long black dress for the for the formal occasion. He wasn't elected to the House of Representatives until a month or so later, so she knew him before he became a representative.
He was still a Dublin City Council member. People think about San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, Silicon Valley, the heart of Silicon Valley, Dublin is not one of these cities. You know, it's a relatively small city in the Bay Area. And he decided to enter the Democratic primary against a very long standing congressman.
And we must finally ensure that all individuals are fairly compensated for their work. I'm Eric Swalwell, and I approve this message because it's time we got America working for everyone and he wins all during this time.
There is documented evidence of his interactions with Christine. What we do know is that the FBI was sufficiently alarmed by Christine's close ties to Eric Swalwell, sources told us she successfully placed at least one intern in his office. And sources also said that she acted as a bundler for his 2014 reelection campaign. And so the FBI gave him a defensive briefing, which means that they basically shared information with him and said, look, you know, this is a risky and dangerous situation.
As soon as he had that defensive briefing, according to our reporting, Swalwell cut off all ties with Christine Fong.
What does Representative Swalwell say about this?
Swalwell was never accused of any wrongdoing. We tried many different ways to get in touch with him. I sent several emails to his personal email account. I called his office. I contacted his press officers. I got his cell phone number. I sent him a text message. I sent him several messages via an encrypted messaging service. And eventually his office got back to us with a two sentence statement.
What did it say? I'll read it for you. Representative Swalwell long ago provided information about this person whom he met more than eight years ago and whom he hasn't seen in nearly six years to the FBI to protect information that might be classified. He will not participate in your story. According to his statement here, he says that he hasn't seen Christine in nearly six years, so it's December right now, nearly six years would put this right around January twenty fifteen, give or take a few weeks.
And January 2015 is when Swalwell was appointed to the House Intelligence Committee.
What her case shows is how when Chinese intelligence casts this wide net, they are looking for rising stars. Then they're willing to take a bet that some of the people who are today city councilmen might be tomorrow's congressman or senator or governor. And in Swallow's case, what you can see is that they identified correctly they saw somebody or she saw somebody who was a city councilman in a midsize town in the Bay Area who quickly rose up to become a sitting congressman and then a few years later was appointed to a seat on what is probably the most sensitive committee in the House of Representatives, the Intelligence Committee.
OK, so that shows the stakes here. What else did your reporting uncover about her activities?
We know of at least two cases where she had sexual or romantic relationships with two mayors from the Midwest.
So, for example, she was in a car with a mayor and she was having a sexual rendezvous with this mayor in the car. And this was picked up on FBI surveillance.
There's a term in espionage for this is called the honeypot, and that is the use of sex as a tool for intelligence gathering purposes.
It's important to note that Axios was not able to identify or contact these mayors. We told the whole story of Christine Fong to Rodney Faren. He's a former senior U.S. intelligence official who worked on China for 15 years.
I think when I heard this story first my mind was blown. I said, holy, they did it.
That's what I said to myself. It's not surprising that they did it. But the fact that she had had so much success in developing so many relationships, they did a good job.
And by the way, Rodney means China. Rodney says this alleged operation fits into China's larger goals. The country's got a long history of trying to vacuum up everything it can learn about life in the U.S. from state secrets and military technology to the smallest little cultural details.
I mean, this is a country that makes plans out to 2050 that every five years comes up with another five year plan that they stick to with goals. So if they could see The Manchurian Candidate or perhaps put somebody in a compromising position that they could possibly use later when that particular politician has become a global statesman, well, even better, this seems like a very long game, though.
It sounds like you're saying that's normal, right? Right. It's normal.
Obviously, if the Chinese had easy targets and could get that information quickly, they would jump on it. But they're also willing to take the time and effort to make these long term investments in intelligence operations.
So, Bethany, do we know what happened to Christine Fong? She left, she just up and left the country unexpectedly and in a hurry around June 2015, right around the time that the FBI began conducting defensive briefings in her area. People were confused, people said, you know, we scratched your head, she just kind of disappeared, we don't we don't really know what happened to her.
So, Bethany, in the end, what did China get out of all of this? Well, they certainly would have gotten a lot more if Christine had not been found out. And one reason that she was perhaps was because she was a little bit overeager. She did things too quickly. She was a little bit too showy, a little bit almost too successful, you could say. And what did she get along the way? Well, U.S. intelligence officials do not believe that she received or passed on any classified information.
However, she clearly did have access to a lot of information about how Bay Area politics work, about the super granular details of who was on top and who hated who and who the rivals were and who was dating who and who worked in whose office and how much money campaigns were getting. And this is all useful information to a foreign intelligence agency that has a pretty strong and long history of targeting the Bay Area specifically. I mean, the Ministry of State Security has a dedicated bureau just for California.
And that's for a number of reasons, certainly because Silicon Valley is there, but also because Chinatown, you know, San Francisco's historic Chinese community is so large and relatively influential in the area. And one main purpose of China's intelligence activity abroad is to keep an eye on and to spy on overseas Chinese because it wants to make sure that they are not engaging in any kind of organizing that could threaten the Chinese Communist Party's hold on power, that they're not doing those kinds of political activities that would go against what Beijing wants.
And Bethanie, to that point, that's a really unfortunate postscript to the story, because Gilbert Wong, the former mayor of Cupertino, says this story makes it harder for Chinese Americans.
I think it's really important to think about the other person on the other side to think about Chinese Americans who are proud to be in this country, who wants to have a better life, who wants to contribute into the community as a Chinese American, as community leaders out there, we need to embrace our community and our culture, but we also need to watch out for bad actors as well to.
You can read even more about this investigation at X.com Bethanie Alan Ibrahimy and covers China for Axios. Zach Dorfman writes our code book newsletter. Our story was edited by Allison Snyder, Scott Rosenberg and Sariego Goo, our podcast was produced by Dan Bobkoff and Carol Wu and mixed by Alex Sugihara. Special thanks to Mike Allen Chen and Naomi Shavitt. I'm not Lubutu. And we're back with the news tomorrow.