New York (11/12). She was a Chinese Mata Hari — who allegedly slept with at least two Midwestern mayors while cozying up to a slew of pols across the country in a bid to infiltrate the US political system.
Fetching accused Chinese government spy Fang Fang, a k a Christine Fang, entered the US through California as a college student in 2011 — and spent the next four years wooing everyone from local politicos to US congressmen, said the Web site Axios, citing current and former US intelligence officials.
Among the pols who Fang got close to was California Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell, and she also once helped raise funds for Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), sources said.
“She was on a mission,’’ a US counter-intelligence official said of Fang — and it included plenty of seduction before the feds got wind of her antics and she vanished in 2015.
The idea was for Fang to maneuver herself into key government circles — and sometimes politicians’ beds — to gain personal information about them while ingratiating herself with unwitting potential up-and-coming heavy-hitters, intelligence sources told Axios.
US officials know of at least two mayors who had romantic relationships with Fang, likely now in her late 30s or early 40s, for about three years, the site said.
The accused spy had sex with an Ohio mayor in a car, an incident caught on FBI electronic surveillance, an intelligence official said.
The mayor asked Fang at one point why she was into him, and she allegedly replied that she needed to improve her English.
Another US mayor described as older and “from an obscure city’’ in the Midwest called Fang his “girlfriend” at a conference in Washington, DC, in 2014, former Cupertino, Calif., Mayor Gilbert Wong told Axios.
Wong, who was present at the gathering at the time, said the besotted mayor insisted the pair’s relationship was the real deal despite their age difference.
Allegedly working at the direction of China’s ultra-secret Ministry of State Security spy agency, Fang likely didn’t get her hands on any classified US material — but she may have helped place “unwitting subagents” in local and congressional offices, US officials said.
Fang helped place at least one intern in Swalwell’s office, according to two sources.
She also raised funds for Swalwell’s 2014 re-election campaign and interacted with the congressman at a number of events over several years, the site said.
There is no evidence of any illegal contributions being made, and Federal Election Commission records don’t indicate that Fang made any donations. Foreign nationals are prohibited from making political donations.
But federal investigators, who began investigating Fang based on what they considered her suspicious behavior, informed Swalwell about their concerns involving her in 2015.
At that point, Swalwell, who has not been accused of any wrongdoing, cut off all contact with Fang.
“Rep. 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,’’ the congressman’s office said in a statement to Axios.
“To protect information that might be classified, he will not participate in your story.”
A rep for Gabbard said in an e-mail to the Web site that the congresswoman “has no recollection of ever meeting or talking with her, nor any recollection of her playing a major role at the fundraiser.’’
During her rounds, Fang volunteered on the campaign of California Democrat Ro Khanna in his unsuccessful 2014 House bid, too, Axios said. Khanna won the seat in 2016.
A spokesman for Khanna told Axios he saw Fang at some political gathering but that they did not have any further contact with her and that her name doesn’t appear on any staff records.
Khanna’s office said the congressman was not briefed by the FBI about Fang.
Fang’s case showed that the Chinese Communist Party has the patience to cultivate relationships that may take years before they reap rewards, the report said.
The suspected spy arrived in the US when she was in her late 20s or early 30s and enrolled at California State University East Bay outside San Francisco, acquaintances told Axios.
At first, she got involved in campus activities, serving as president of the school’s Chinese Student Association and president of the campus chapter of the Asian Pacific Islander American Public Affairs organization.
From there, she branched out to become engaged with political circles as a representative of those campus groups, attending campaign rallies and campus political events to meet Bay Area elected officials.
Fang also developed close ties with the Chinese consulate in San Francisco.
“She was everywhere,” Raj Salwan, a Fremont city councilman, told Axios. “She was an active student. I was surprised at how active she was and how she knew so many politicos.”
Fang gained access to mayors by attending regional mayoral conferences as she expanded her network of contacts nationally.
Soon, Fang was collecting private information about the politicians, including their habits, schedules, social networks and even rumors about them.
Her plan was a “long game play,’’ meaning her role was to “strike up a relationship with you and see if you move up the line,’’ said former Freemont, Calif., Mayor Bill Harrison, referring to what he said FBI officials told him at the time.
As Fang made her way through the ranks, she was perceived as both “charismatic’’ and “well-liked’’ — and “secretive’’ and “suspicious,’’ acquaintances told Axios.
Fang never talked about her family or home, said those who knew her.
She came on the feds’ radar during their surveillance of another suspected Chinese spy working as a diplomat at the San Francisco consulate, a US counter-intelligence officer told the site.
Fang was meeting with the accused spy a lot — prompting the feds to begin looking into why she “was traveling around the country” getting close to pols herself, a US intelligence official said.
US federal authorities started briefing local and national politicians about the potential dangers of associating with her, a source told the site. White House and congressional members also were alerted.
Fang apparently got wind that the feds were onto her and fled the country in 2015, presumably headed back to China.
How does it work?
Fang’s friends and acquaintances said she was in her late 20s or early 30s when she was based in the U.S. and was enrolled as a student at a Bay Area university.
She used political gatherings, civic society conferences, campaign rallies, and campus events to connect with elected officials and other prominent figures, according to U.S. intelligence officials, Bay Area political operatives, former students, and current and former elected officials who knew her.
- U.S. intelligence officials believed she was overseeing likely unwitting subagents whom she helped place in local political and congressional offices.
- Fang attended regional conferences for U.S. mayors, which allowed her to grow her network of politicians across the country.
- She also engaged in sexual or romantic relationships with at least two mayors of Midwestern cities over a period of about three years, according to one U.S. intelligence official and one former elected official.
- At least two separate sexual interactions with elected officials, including one of these Midwestern mayors, were caught on FBI electronic surveillance of Fang, according to two intelligence officials. Axios was unable to identify or speak to the elected officials.
Between 2011 and 2015, Fang’s activities brought her into contact with many of the Bay Area’s most prominent politicos.
- She volunteered for Ro Khanna’s unsuccessful 2014 House bid, according to a former campus organizer and social media posts. (Khanna, a Democrat, was elected to the House in 2016.) Khanna’s office said he remembers seeing Fang at several Indian American political gatherings but did not have further contact with her. Khanna’s office said the FBI did not brief him on her activities. Khanna’s 2014 campaign staff said that Fang’s name does not appear in their staff records, though they said that their records do not include all volunteers.
Sounding the alarm: The U.S. response
U.S. counterintelligence officials said they believe Fang acted at the direction of China’s Ministry of State Security (MSS), the country’s main civilian spy agency. The Chinese intelligence service operate a fully dedicated California unit to spy on the state.
- U.S. officials first noticed Fang through surveillance they were conducting on a different person — a suspected MSS officer working undercover as a diplomat in the San Francisco consulate, a current U.S. counterintelligence official said.
- The suspected officer used the consulate as a base to do outreach to state and local-level U.S. politicians, including inviting them on trips to China, the official said.
- The official added that both Fang and the suspected officer were focused on gathering political intelligence and conducting influence operations in the Bay Area. (Axios corroborated through U.S. State Department records that a Chinese diplomat with the same name as the suspected MSS officer was stationed in San Francisco during the period Fang was there.)
- Fang and the suspected officer met or spoke on numerous occasions, leading U.S. officials to look into Fang’s own background and activities, the official said.
- However, Fang’s main intelligence handlers were believed to be based in China, according to two U.S. officials.
Fang was put under FBI surveillance, four current and former U.S. officials said. The FBI’s San Francisco Division led a counterintelligence investigation into Fang’s activities, according to one current and one former U.S. intelligence official.
- “The fact that she was traveling around the country” getting close to U.S. politicians “was a big red flag,” said one of the officials. “She was on a mission.”
What happened next: Senior U.S. intelligence officials provided multiple defensive briefings around 2015 to warn targeted local and national politicians about Fang’s connections to Chinese intelligence and potential Chinese assets in their offices, one of these officials said.
- U.S. intelligence officials also provided multiple briefings to White House officials and members of Congress on the case, a current senior official said.
- Bill Harrison, the mayor of Fremont, California, at that time, said he knew Fang because she volunteered in his office and participated in numerous local political and community events. Harrison told Axios that in August 2015 he was contacted by FBI officials who warned him about Fang’s suspected activities in the Bay Area.
- Bureau officials said Fang’s activities were part of a “long game play” targeting local politicians, Harrison recalled. The FBI told him the Chinese government’s strategy is “to strike up a relationship with you and see if you move up the line,” Harrison said.