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FBI director unleashes on China in speech

(CNN) Chinese hackers have moved swiftly to target US pharmaceutical and research institutions making progress in the fight against coronavirus, FBI Director Christopher Wray said Tuesday in a wide-ranging speech that included some of the agency's starkest accusations about the country's threat to the US to date.

Speaking for nearly an hour at a think tank in Washington, DC, Wray called China the "greatest long-term threat to our nation's information and intellectual property and to our economic vitality" and noted the FBI has more than 2,000 open investigations that tie back to the Chinese government.

He asserted that Chinese President Xi Jinping has "spearheaded" a campaign to intimidate dissidents living abroad. And as the coronavirus pandemic continues to multiply in hotspots across the US, he described how the Chinese government has moved to pressure American officials to support its response while simultaneously working to steal research on the virus.

"The Chinese government is engaged in a broad, diverse campaign of theft and malign influence and it can execute that campaign with authoritarian efficiency," Wray said. "They're calculating, they're persistent, they're patient and they're not subject to the righteous constraints of an open democratic society or the rule of law."

Wray's presentation comes as the Trump administration launches a renewed campaign to antagonize the Chinese government. Senior US officials, including national security adviser Robert O'Brien and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have taken swings at the country in recent days.

Earlier this week, the White House chief of staff said that President Donald Trump would be signing an unspecified executive order about China as soon as this week.

Trump has long sought to pin blame for the spread of the virus on China while downplaying his own administration's failures to stop its spread within the country. In a tweet last week, the President said he is becoming "more and more angry at China" as the pandemic continues to spread.

China has also come into focus as the leading point of foreign policy debate between Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden ahead of the election matchup between the two. Boosters of both sides have attacked the other on the issue, with Trump campaign ads painting Biden as "China's puppet."

Wray on Tuesday described how the FBI has observed "cyber activity tracing back to China" aimed at US organizations that have made a significant announcement about research relating to the pandemic within hours of their announcements, mirroring other warnings from US intelligence officials in recent weeks.

Chinese diplomats are also "aggressively urging" federal, state and local officials across the country to support China's handling of the crisis, Wray said, adding that a state senator, who he did not identify, had recently been asked by the Chinese government to introduce a resolution supporting the country's response to the pandemic.

"All of these seemingly inconsequential pressures add up to a policymaking environment in which Americans find themselves held over a barrel by the Chinese communist party," Wray said.

Wray also offered new details on a Chinese program known as Fox Hunt that he said was "spearheaded" by Xi as a sweeping effort to intimidate political rivals and critics living abroad to return home.

Hundreds of "Fox Hunt victims" in the US have been targeted by the Chinese government with "shocking" tactics that amounted to "rogue law enforcement," Wray said.

"When it couldn't locate one Fox Hunt target, the Chinese government sent an emissary to visit the target's family here in the United States. The message they said to pass on? The target had two options: return to China promptly, or commit suicide," he said, adding an appeal for listeners who felt they had been targeted under the program to reach out to the FBI.

The Chinese have defended the program as a legitimate anti-corruption effort in the past, including after reports emerged in 2015 that the Obama administration had warned the government against deploying their law enforcement officials here to search for dissidents.

Wray said Tuesday that the Chinese government has prioritized the theft of Americans' personal data to bolster their development of artificial intelligence tools and to help identify targets for intelligence gathering efforts.

The Justice Department has brought a number of significant prosecutions against Chinese nationals and government officials in recent years in response to the massive and coordinated efforts, which have been aimed at stealing US intellectual property as well as American's personal data. In February, prosecutors brought charges against four Chinese military hackers for carrying out one of the largest operations -- stealing the private information of nearly 150 million Americans from credit giant Equifax in 2017.

Wray also detailed how the Chinese are carrying out a "sophisticated malign influence campaign" using "bribery, blackmail and covert deals" to sway public discourse and government policy. For example, Wray said, China has threatened to cut ties with US manufacturers based in the district of elected officials planning to travel to Taiwan. China has also attempted to co-opt trusted advisers to US policymakers to carry their message about the regime, Wray said.

The influence efforts are not aimed specifically at impacting the presidential election, Wray said, but they do have implications for the vote and the Chinese "certainly have preferences that go along with that."