The American Interest

China’s LinkedIn Honey Traps

The Chinese have embraced LinkedIn as a tool for spying and influence operations

Senior Fellow (Non-Resident)

“What the Russians are doing pales in comparison to what China is doing across this country,” said Vice President Pence in a recent speech at the Hudson Institute warning of Chinese interference inside the United States. Coming a few weeks ahead of the midterm elections, and in the midst of a dramatic reappraisal of China policy within the U.S. government, his was a timely and necessary wake-up call.

But there is at least one major example of Chinese interference that wasn’t on Pence’s otherwise fulsome list: that occurring on LinkedIn, the social media business networking platform. Russia’s Twitter and Facebook-driven election interference still dominates the headlines and the attention of Congress. But beneath the radar, the Chinese Communist Party is using other social media to build varied and long-term relationships that blur the lines between classical espionage and influence-seeking. And LinkedIn fits hand in glove with the Chinese concept of guanxi, which facilitates business and social relationships in China.

LinkedIn is the only American social media platform not banned in China, and for good reason: It has become a favorite tool for Chinese spying and influence operations. Just recently, William Evanina, head of the National Counter-Intelligence and Security Center, warned against Chinese spying through fake LinkedIn profiles. These are often women with beautiful profile pictures—an electronic update of the Cold War’s female honey traps. A Chinese government spokesperson has dismissed such allegations as “complete hearsay and groundless.”

Not so. I know because it happened to me.

Back in 2011-2012, I was asked to connect over LinkedIn by a handsome Chinese woman representing a recruitment company, DRHR, in China. I accepted. She had LinkedIn connections to well-seasoned China scholars, which lowered my alertness. Back then I had just started a book project on how Chinese companies risk manage in fragile environments around the globe, so I was interested in connecting with Chinese companies through DRHR. Initially not much came of the connection.

On a later trip to Beijing, she suggested an opportunity to meet. My LinkedIn contact never showed but claimed she had important business in Hangzhou. Instead, at the St. Regis, a five-star hotel where foreign delegations often congregate, I was greeted by three inconspicuous Chinese men. They vaguely presented themselves as representatives of a Chinese state-sponsored think tank, but never provided me with business cards. In China, this is as awkward and unusual as being naked in a meeting. I soon understood that they worked to recruit Westerners on behalf of the Chinese party-state.

The meeting was circumspect and meandering, with my interlocutors adopting a careful tone, but its purpose was unmistakable. First, they tried to tempt me by appealing to idealism: “You could help ensure that there is no conflict between the United States and China.” They also tempted me with ambition: “You could have access to any top Chinese official.” (Since hearing that offer, I have become suspicious of Western China experts with too-good-to-be-true contacts in the Chinese system.) Finally, they tempted me with simple greed: “We could finance your research.” Their suggested next step was an all-inclusive trip to Hangzhou to build our relationship. I thanked them diplomatically, told them no, and later reported the events to the relevant authorities in the United Kingdom, where I was then residing, employed at another think tank.

Recently, LinkedIn purged DRHR and other China-linked profiles following their public exposure by Western intelligence agencies, particularly Germany. But they might be merely the exposed tip of the iceberg. The pending trial of ex-CIA officer Kevin Mallory, who fell for such a LinkedIn trap and was later paid by Chinese agents for handing over information, demonstrates the national security ramifications. Yet many ordinary businessmen, scholars, and consultants are still unaware of how the Chinese Communist Party and its spying apparatus lurk behind lucrative business offers on LinkedIn and elsewhere.

The Chinese party-state has one overarching goal: to sustain its rule. At home, that means repression. Abroad, it means making the world safe for Chinese Communist Party rule by building long-term relationships and dependencies. Australian politics, media, and business were penetrated to such a degree that it compelled the writer Clive Hamilton to label it a “silent invasion.”

Pence’s speech on Chinese interference could spark the needed awareness among the American public and democracies worldwide. And sharing such experiences publicly can help shine a light on these practices, contradicting the Chinese official mouth-pieces who deny such interference exists. In the end, it is individual citizens—aware, engaged, and collectively committed to doing what is best for the health of a free and open society—who will ultimately prove the best defense against such foreign interference. Reporting and shutting down all China’s LinkedIn honey traps would be a good start.