The data dump that reveals the astonishing breadth of Beijing’s interference operations

A woman passes a tarp emblazoned with a Chinese flag on a street in Belgrade, Serbia, on April 13. (Darko Vojinovic/AP)
A woman passes a tarp emblazoned with a Chinese flag on a street in Belgrade, Serbia, on April 13. (Darko Vojinovic/AP)

Last week, a small Chinese company made headlines when independent researchers revealed that it has been collecting information on prominent individuals around the world — 2.4 million of them.

American researcher Christopher Balding and his colleague Robert Potter discovered the database and were able to recover 10 percent of it. The database was created by Zhenhua Data Information Technology, a firm based in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen.

At first glance, the company’s activities might not appear especially unusual. Many companies around the world scrape data from the Web to build databases for clients.

Yet what makes the Zhenhua collection effort striking is its extraordinary scale, which encompasses every country and territory in the world. I’ve viewed the recovered database and gone through it country by country. The work of Zhenhua — which boasts that its clients are Chinese defense and intelligence agencies — offers concrete evidence of the Xi government’s global attempts to build relationships among political elites.

Over the past three years, international public opinion has tracked revelations of the Chinese Communist Party’s growing political interference activities in states all around the world. Now the Zhenhua data sets provide us with a startling degree of insight into how such efforts work in practice. First, you identify your targets and their associates. Next, you scrape data on them, determining whether they are friendly to China’s policies and if they have any secrets worth gaining. Finally, you make an approach to cultivate a relationship. This could be the offer of a business opportunity, a directorship or other honor, an all-expenses paid conference trip in China, or a political donation offered via an intermediary.

Identifying the names of prominent people in nearly 200 countries and territories requires intimate knowledge of each society. Artificial intelligence software isn’t enough — that comes after the targets are chosen. The database includes entries from some developing states where few people have access to the Internet.

And even in countries where the internet is widely available, the entries include people whose sensitive roles keep them — and their families — out of the public eye and off social media. The individuals targeted in some countries reflect niche aspects of Chinese strategic interests, such as Australia’s space industry. It’s unclear how an obscure Shenzhen company had access to all this information.

The database describes its subjects as “politically exposed persons,” a term used in financial regulation to describe an individual with a prominent public role. Due to their position and political influence, such individuals and their family members present a greater risk for potential involvement in corruption.

Intriguingly, the Zhenhua data also include criminals, classified as “special interest persons,” who have been convicted of serious crimes such as trafficking and fraud. Such people are profiled because they may be more susceptible to cooperating with foreign intelligence organizations.

The United States has the most names in the database: 51,934. Over 80 percent of sub-headings are U.S.-related, set up to collect details about the U.S. political elite and U.S. military capacities, from facilities to base personnel mental states. President Trump’s trade adviser Peter Navarro and outside China adviser Michael Pillsbury turn up, as does deputy national security adviser Matt Pottinger. Jared Kushner has over 561 mentions, while Ivanka Trump has 1,913.

This should come as no surprise. The United States is the main target — in Maoist terms, the “chief enemy” — of the Chinese government’s espionage and political interference operations. In February, FBI Director Christopher A. Wray said “no country poses a greater threat than Communist China.”

Yet the database also targets astonishing numbers of people in some of the world’s smallest states, in important geostrategic locations. In the Arctic dataset, Iceland has 411 names, the Faroe Islands 163, Greenland 73. China calls itself a near-Arctic power and has significant military interests in the region.

In the Baltics data set, Estonia has 438 names, Latvia 517, Lithuania 504. All are members of China’s 17+One initiative, which analysts worry has the potential to create further division in an already divided European Union.

For the island nations of the Pacific, Fiji tops the list with 143 names. Even tiny Tokelau shows up, with six people named. China is very active in the Pacific. One of the Xi government’s goals is to persuade a Pacific island nation to accept a global navigation system ground station for BeiDou, China’s answer to the U.S. Global Positioning System. Global navigation systems are crucial for military communications, including missile targeting. Russia and China are in a space race with the United States.

Among African states, the database extends from South Africa (1,096 individuals) to Lesotho (74). France tops the list of European Union nations with 7,259. The Vatican has 268 names, Ukraine 1,860. America’s partners in the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing arrangement are well-represented: the United Kingdom has 9,736 names, while Canada comes in with 5,040, Australia at 2,770 and New Zealand at 793.

The Zhenhua database was clearly in the early stages of its development — but even so, it demonstrates the scale of Xi Jinping’s aggressive foreign policy. The question now is, how will the world respond?

Anne-Marie Brady, a global fellow at the Wilson Center, is a professor at New Zealand’s University of Canterbury and executive editor of The Polar Journal.

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