US Religious Freedom Advocate Targeted by Chinese Hackers in Microsoft Breach

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Hack shows Chinese regime ‘very fearful’ of the power of freedom of religion, advocate says

WASHINGTON—Religious freedom advocate Nina Shea didn’t think that she would ever be a target of the Chinese regime. At the Hudson Institute think tank where she worked, there are more prominent critics of the communist regime, such as former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his former China policy adviser, Miles Yu.

But the expert recently found out that she was one of the victims of a global Chinese cyberattack that began in May. Chinese hackers breached the systems of 25 Microsoft customers, including the U.S. State and Commerce departments.

Ms. Shea had served seven terms on the bipartisan federal panel U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and now heads the Center for Religious Freedom at Hudson Institute. Her being singled out in her organization as a target in this hacking campaign reveals that the Chinese regime feels threatened by calls for religious freedom, she said.

The hackers had at least a month to copy everything from their email system before the State Department spotted the intrusion. She believes they took full advantage of that period.

Ms. Shea found out about the breach from Microsoft on July 11, days before she was set to host a panel highlighting Beijing’s transnational repression, a campaign of stalking, intimidating, and assaulting people outside of Chinese borders to silence dissent.

“Whoa, I’m now a victim, too,” she recalled her thoughts at the panel held on July 17 that aired on July 20.

“I don’t have any formal connection with the State Department or any government agency,” Ms. Shea told The Epoch Times after the event.

“The only reason why they would drill down into my account when they had all of Hudson Institute, to drill down into over the month that they had access, indicates to me that they’re very, very fearful and concerned about the power of freedom of expression and freedom of religion.”

Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) speaks at a press conference and rally in front of the America ChangLe Association highlighting Beijing’s transnational repression, in New York on Feb. 25, 2023. A now-closed overseas Chinese police station is located inside the association building. (Samira Bouaou/The Epoch Times)

Multifaceted Campaign

Microsoft, in a July 11 public blog post, said it has fixed the security flaw that the Chinese actors exploited. But the threat of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) transnational efforts to surveil and suppress critics runs deeper.

In recent months, the Justice Department has pressed charges against ethnic Chinese individuals in several cases involving CCP-backed schemes targeting overseas dissident groups.

Two New Yorkers were arrested in connection with a now-closed undercover CCP police station in New York that allegedly organized counterprotests to U.S. demonstrations by faith group Falun Gong, calling for an end to decades-long persecution against the faith by the regime.

Another two in California were arrested, accused of targeting the spiritual group in the United States by trying to bribe an IRS official to get him to strip a Falun Gong nonprofit of its tax-exempt status.

In Boston, a man is accused of providing the regime with a “blacklist” of pro-democracy dissidents in the United States.

All of the actions, according to prosecutors, had taken place at the behest of the Chinese state.

“It’s so multifaceted,” Ms. Shea told The Epoch Times. “It’s a very centralized order, from the highest levels from China, to go out and change American thinking and opinions, and to suppress all kinds of criticism.”

The CCP is “selling itself” as the alternative governance model, in a bid to displace the U.S.-based world order and curtail freedoms in the United States, she said.

The campaign didn’t begin recently, Falun Dafa Information Center Executive Director Levi Browde noted at the Hudson panel.

In September 1999, two months after then-Chinese leader Jiang Zemin started a sweeping persecution campaign targeting Falun Gong, he handed a defamatory book to U.S. President Bill Clinton, hoping that the president would adopt a “correct” attitude toward the spiritual discipline, according to news reports from the time.

A Chinese diplomat in March 2001, in a meeting with U.S. national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, also reportedly pulled out a prepared speech disparaging Falun Gong for more than 20 minutes.

Over the next two decades, the regime’s harassment and intimidation campaign in the United States escalated.

In 2017, the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco wrote to every California state legislator, warning them to not support a resolution sponsored by state Sen. Joel Anderson to condemn the persecution of Falun Gong. Mr. Anderson had tried at least 18 times but couldn’t get it to a floor vote.

In New York’s Flushing, one of the city’s Chinatowns, mobs attacked Falun Gong adherents in 2008. Peng Keyu, then-Chinese consul general in New York, later admitted in a secretly taped recording to instigating the violence. Earlier this year, police arrested a man for assaulting a Falun Gong practitioner in Flushing that left scrapes on the victim’s neck, hand, and knee.

Falun Gong practitioners participate in a parade to call for an end to the Chinese Communist Party’s persecution of their faith in the Flushing neighborhood of Queens, N.Y., on April 23, 2023. (Chung I Ho/The Epoch Times)

A Threat to All

A recent report found that the regime has exported its repression by producing Chinese textbooks used in major U.S. colleges that fan hatred toward Falun Gong.

This constitutes a violation of religious freedom, Ms. Shea remarked.

“That’s shocking to me—that our own students are now being indoctrinated by the CCP,” she said.

Ms. Shea hopes that the webinar will inform the American public about the “covert operation by the Chinese Communist Party to manipulate American thinking to repress our free speech and religious freedom here in the United States.”

“Americans of all walks of life should be concerned,” she said. “They are having their own rights infringed: rights to information, rights to dissent, rights for academic freedom.”

The United States is “beginning to catch on,” according to Ms. Shea.

The once free-wheeling Hong Kong being “swallowed up” by Beijing, its heavy-handed COVID-19 pandemic measures, and the continued withholding of information on the COVID-19 origin have all contributed to “waking America up,” she said.

“There is a deep weariness against the CCP at this point, and even horror,” Ms. Shea said.

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