What Was the Chinese Woman Arrested at Mar-a-Lago Really Up To? A Former Spy Helps Us Figure It Out.

Want to know whether she’s a bumbling Chinese spook or an innocent tourist who loves her hi-tech devices?

.. Is Chinese intelligence attempting to infiltrate Mar-a-Lago? The answer to that is almost certainly yes. And so is every other foreign intelligence service. That’s just business as usual.

Perhaps Zhang’s pool excuse was a quick and casual line to pass through the first security perimeter without many questions. Did she actually have a better cover story, or maybe a verifiable true story, she was able to present under more intense questioning? Zhang reportedly underwent four-and-a-half hours of questioning by the Secret Service. How did this go? What explanation did she give for her visit to Mar-a-Lago in this high-stakes setting? Did her explanation fit with answers she gave when applying for a visa to enter the country? Zhang reportedly previously traveled to the United States, in 2016 and 2017. Does her explanation for those trips match information she gave when applying for a visa, and how do those trips fit with her current itinerary and actions?

If Zhang isn’t a spy, or up to other nefarious things, why is it that she “lies to everyone,” as the prosecutor said in court? Could she simply be confused or did she communicate poorly because English is not her native language? Investigators, particularly those who questioned her, know better than we do about Zhang’s command of English. The Miami Heraldreported that she “appeared to speak English” to a lawyer in court and she took notes during the hearing, but a translator was also present.

How would Zhang have operated inside Mar-a-Lago?

The president’s vacation abode is a target-rich environment. There are the obvious marks: The president and his inner circle. But those people are hard to access. Better targets might be the multitudes of people at Mar-a-Lago who aren’t in the president’s inner circle but who have access to those who are and can influence and glean information from them.

A casual observer could also gather a load of information simply by being present at Mar-a-Lago.

  • Who is there?
  • Who is trying to get access and influence people? Who interacts with whom?
  • What activities do they participate in?
  • What schedule do they follow?

This could help a foreign intelligence service target people for recruitment as assets. It could also tell a foreign intelligence service what other countries are running operations there and which individuals they are targeting using what methods. This is important counterintelligence information for any spy agency, a window into other countries’ priorities and how close they are to achieving them.

It’s also possible Zhang wanted to observe the security situation at the resort, laying the groundwork for some future operation. She might have witnessed how Secret Service and resort security worked (or didn’t work) together and how freely Trump and his people move around, to determine what kind of access might be available.

Even without taking some deep cover, clandestine action, simply being present at Mar-a-Lago provides a wealth of information to anyone who is looking.

Or, maybe Zhang just wanted a glimpse of the president?

What’s with all the cash?

In some cases, espionage is a cash business. Spies often pay assets for information, and cold, hard cash is an easy way to pay people while hiding the source of the funds. Perhaps the Chinese government already has assets at Mar-a-Lago—among the staff, for example—and Zhang was there to pay them.

But Zhang’s more than $8,000 worth of cash (in U.S. and Chinese currency) was found in her hotel room at the Colony Hotel about two miles from Mar-a-Lago, not on her person. Unless she planned to enter the resort a second time, it seems very unlikely she was there to pay an asset for information.

Some tourists do indeed travel with loads of cash. Although Zhang has a Wells Fargo account in the United States that she could have accessed. And that account raises new questions. When and why did she set up this account and how has she used it in the past? Is her use of this bank account consistent with the investor and consulting business she claims to run? Or did she set it up years ago in an attempt to build her cover story while laying the groundwork for an intelligence operation? Investigators will try to find answers to those questions.

But an intelligence officer might also have multiple phones and SIM cards. Good spies follow the “one phone, one operation” rule. That is, they don’t call different assets using the same phone, because then they become linked, and key in any intelligence operation is to keep information compartmented. Much like you don’t want to send private texts on your work phone, you don’t want communications with multiple assets on a single device.

There is also the question of what kinds of phones these are. Are they burner phones, which are pay-as-you-go and not registered to an individual and therefore not easily traceable back to the purchaser and user? A spy would most likely use a burner phone. Or, maybe she was delivering burner phones to assets inside the resort to make communication easier? Or are these regular phones, registered in Zhang’s name or her company’s name? Investigators will certainly run traces on the phones and SIM cards to see if they link to anyone of interest or if they suggest a strange pattern of behavior, such as communicating with someone in a way that is meant to hide the contact.

Thumb drives are pretty normal in business, but malware isn’t. The fact that the first thumb drive Secret Service looked at had malware on it does not look good for Zhang.
It’s possible that a spy would want to use malware to destroy a network at the resort. But a foreign intelligence service would more likely be interested in using it to gather useful information. There is very little chance (if any) that Zhang could have gotten the malware anywhere near a government computer. But to slip a program into the resort’s network that would allow an intelligence service to see guest lists, schedules and itineraries, room assignments, and who is coming and going? Yes, that would be of interest.

Is Zhang just one part of a larger spy scheme?

What the heck is the “United Nations Chinese Friendship Association”? This is perhaps the most intriguing part of Zhang’s story.

Zhang explained that she was at Mar-a-Lago to attend a “United Nations Friendship Event” and that she had been invited by a Chinese friend named “Charles.” As the Miami Herald reports, a Chinese national named Charles Lee promotes events at Mar-a-Lago through his United Nations Chinese Friendship Association, which has no actual ties to the United Nations. No such event was scheduled at Mar-a-Lago that day, however.

By the way, Li “Cindy” Yang, the owner of a massage parlor that has been caught up in a sex trafficking sting who possibly sold access to Trump, promoted many of the same events as Charles Lee. (A spokeswoman for Yang told the Herald she has done nothing wrong.)

Is Zhang a private individual who, like others, used the association to get into Mar-a-Lago to help her business? Or is Zhang an isolated case of Chinese intelligence using the association for the same purpose? Or worse, is the Chinese government using the “friendship association” and its travel packages to funnel spies into Mar-a-Lago (and perhaps elsewhere)?

How China Views the Arrest of Huawei’s Meng Wanzhou

Few people around the world today are likely to recognize the name of Lin Weixi, a Chinese villager whose death helped launch the First Opium War, the conflict that came to define China’s relationship with the West in the modern era. In early July of 1839, as tensions between Britain and China were heightening over a trade imbalance, a couple of British merchant sailors in Kowloon got drunk on rice liqueur and beat Lin, who subsequently died. The British superintendent of trade, Charles Elliot, arrested the sailors, but refused to turn them over to the Chinese authorities, an act that China regarded as a violation of its sovereignty and an offense to justice.

.. Huawei is the largest telecom-equipment manufacturer in the world, and it recently overtook Apple as the second largest manufacturer of smartphones, after Samsung. Huawei has also emerged an increasingly powerful player in the tech industry. This year, it announced that it would increase its annual expenditure on research and development to as much as twenty billion dollars, which would place it among the world’s top R. & D. spenders, with Amazon and Alphabet.

.. Huawei’s investment in innovation has been persistent and purposeful. According to the head of geotechnology at Eurasia Group, Huawei is the only company that can currently produce “at scale and cost” all the elements of a 5G network, heralded as the next frontier of wireless communications. As such, it is positioned to take the lead in what’s been called the fourth industrial revolution.

.. Washington has long been worried that Chinese telecommunications equipment can be used for intelligence purposes. Huawei was founded, in 1987, by Ren, who was formerly an engineer in the People’s Liberation Army. Last week, the Times reportedthat “Counterintelligence agents and federal prosecutors began exploring possible cases against Huawei’s leadership in 2010” and that “as they investigated Huawei, F.B.I. agents grew concerned that company officers were working on behalf of the Chinese government.” In 2012, a U.S. House Intelligence Committee report concluded that Huawei “was unwilling to explain its relationship with the Chinese government or Chinese Communist Party,” and that the United States “should view with suspicion the continued penetration of the U.S. telecommunications market by Chinese telecommunications companies.” The Times also reported that “the top United States intelligence agencies told senators this year that Americans should not buy Huawei products.”

.. All this is viewed very differently in China, partly for reasons that date back to the nation’s devastating defeat in the First Opium War. In the eighteenth century, the British wanted tea much more than the Chinese wanted anything from the West, resulting in a chronic trade imbalance and a huge outflow of silver and gold from West to East. To staunch that flow, British traders decided to flood the Chinese market with opium from India, violating Chinese laws that forbade trafficking of the narcotic. As efforts to enforce the ban broke down, the British handily captured the city of Canton, before marching up the Chinese coastline. Within two years, Great Britain had made significant headway into the Chinese market, pried open a series of ports, and extracted concessions that the Qing dynasty was helpless to deny.

.. The war taught China two lessons it has never forgot.

  1. The first was that it had failed to recognize the threat of Western technological prowess. While Britain was energetically cultivating the use of steam in the first industrial revolution—and the steam-powered ships that propelled its victory in the war—China had sequestered itself, falling behind in mastering the technology that became the modern world’s instrument of power. President Xi Jinping’s push for technological supremacy in the twenty-first century can be seen as a continued revision of Chinese tactics.
  2. The second was that principle matters little in an international war of wills. In 1840, a Chinese official named Lin Zexu was tasked with stamping out the opium trade. He sent a letter to Queen Victoria, signed by the Emperor, in which he made an appeal to her conscience. “The purpose of your ships in coming to China is to realize a large profit,” Lin wrote. “You do not wish opium to harm your own country, but you choose to bring that harm to other countries such as China. Why?

Lin’s letter, however, reportedly never reached the Queen, and, in Parliament, the political and economic justification given for war elided ethical concerns. Aggression against the Chinese, it was argued, was entirely about defending Britain’s honor. Many agreed with the sentiments of Samuel Warren, a novelist and later a Member of Parliament who, in a widely distributed pamphlet titled “The Opium Question,” wrote, “In the name of the dear glory and honour of old England, where are the councils which will hesitate for a moment in cleansing them, even if it be in blood, from the stains which barbarian insolence has so deeply tarnished them? . . . Why are not there seen and heard there, by those incredulous and vaunting barbarians, the glare and thunder of our artillery?”

.. Even if people in the West have heard of Lin Weixi, it’s doubtful that they would see any connection between the case of a villager killed by a couple of drunken British sailors and that of Meng Wanzhou, a top executive accused of fraud who is able to post a multimillion-dollar bail and live under a sort of house arrest in one of two opulent homes that she and her husband own in Canada. They would certainly see a sharp distinction between China’s Party-managed judiciary and Canada’s independent courts. But a Western court’s attitude toward a Chinese citizen will be understood in China as an echo of a time when Western politicians exploited an asymmetric international order. How the nations involved choose to proceed at this juncture, two hundred years later, may come to define the terms of Sino-American engagement for many years to come.