Mar-a-Lago arrest is alarming

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

On March 30, 32-year-old Yujing Zhang was arrested by Secret Service agents after lying to enter Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort. At the time of the arrest, she was found to have four cell phones, an external hard drive, a malware-infested thumb drive, and two Chinese passports. A later search of her hotel room at the Colony Hotel also revealed nine USB drives, five SIM cards, and $8,000, as reported by The New York Times.

While the attempted infiltration brings to light Mar-a-Lago’s security concerns, it’s hardly surprising that there are spies mingling amidst the resort’s ensemble of wealthy patrons. Since President Trump chooses to spend time at his resort rather than the significantly more secure Camp David, Mar-a-Lago has become a high-target location, one which every foreign intelligence service has set their sights on. Espionage is commonplace, though it is rare — and hilarious — for someone to mess it up as badly as Zhang.

This incident only fuels the present concerns over the impact that foreign intelligence has on our nation, with specific focus on countries like Russia and China. We have all heard plenty about Russian interference in the 2016 election, a topic that’s been dominating news cycles since the beginning of the Trump presidency (and one which we get to read all about in the released, heavily redacted version of the Muller report), but there has not been a lot of focus on China beyond the ongoing trade war. Although security and intelligence officials are finally beginning to look beyond Russia, China, one of America’s greatest competitors, deserves far more scrutiny and attention.

Although Zhang plays to our stereotypes of what we expect from spies, 21st-century espionage is far more subtle. For example, although it will never be outright acknowledged as spying, the influencing operations of overseas Chinese student organizations is well documented and are considered projections of the goals of the Chinese Communist Party. Such organizations have a long track record, and the U.S. is aware of such activities: nearly 30 Chinese academics and policy experts have had their U.S. visas cancelled in the last year, showing that America is adopting a more stringent admittance policy for Chinese internationals. Of course, that’s not to say every traveler arriving from China should be treated with suspicion under the presumption of working for foreign intelligence, as that would be outright discriminatory and wrong. Rather, there should be greater care when approving U.S. visas to ensure those with malicious intentions do not get the chance to cause damage.

Human-mediated influencing operations, however, are quickly becoming the least of our concerns in terms of the threat that China poses. Through great investments in their technological capabilities, China is on the verge of becoming a full-blown surveillance state, leveraging its new 5G and telecommunications technology to spy on its own citizens. The process is straightforward and terrifying: cameras track your interactions in the real world, and private companies comb through this data, along with your social media and online shopping history, to provide you with a “citizen score,” quantifying your trustworthiness and value to the Chinese government. This dystopian future is something straight out of Black Mirror and reflects the Chinese government’s focus on maintaining social order and control.

China spying on its own citizens is one thing, but it's more disturbing when they attempt to proliferate beyond their nation. For instance, China has continued its investments in all areas of Africa’s infrastructure, pledging $60 billion during the Forum on China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in Sept. 2018. While the promise is that the assistance comes with no strings attached, many see this move as a new form of colonialism through capital with dangerous consequences. If this continues, we may see Africa become infected with surveillance state technology, only adding to the reach of China’s data gathering apparatus. Perhaps China could continue this strategy of targeted investment for other developing and vulnerable countries, leading to slow but sure global domination. We’ve seen the attempted spread of communism during the Cold War, and it’s clear that such intentions are far from gone. History has repeated itself, this time via technological development and the language of capital rather than the rhetoric of revolution.

Competition between China and America continues to escalate, and it’s clear that both sides are seeking a competitive advantage. Whether that’s in the form of vital foreign intelligence or technological superiority, we have to realize that focusing solely on domestic issues will not suffice in a globalized world. Though I dislike many of Trump’s policy initiatives, I do agree with the idea of taking a more forceful stance towards China, if not with this administration’s approach: if we are to prosper, we have to be aware of what our adversaries are doing and seek to beat them at every turn.