IT’S NOT PARANOIA: Meet Herb Philbrick, a Modern Prophet on China

One of the most interesting people I every knew was Herb Philbrick. He ran Philbrick’s hardware store in the small town of Rye, New Hampshire, and I sold him a computer in the early 1980s.

He mentioned that he traveled every so often, but always under an assumed name. He said you never knew who might be looking. I thought he was a crank, but an interesting old man to listen to. He said he wrote a book about communists and spying. I asked him to tell me his stories; he replied “read the book.” So I did.

I Led Three Lives” is the tale of how Philbrick unknowingly joined a front organization that had been captured by the Communist Party, became one of their leading shills, while also working for J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI in the red-scare 1940s and 50s.

Yes, Virginia, the Communists were out to subvert and capture American institutions, steal our secrets, and engage in all kinds of blackmail, intrigue, and general spy stuff. It was mostly Russians then, running at-arms-length operations through Americans who believed in the “socialists of the world, unite!” garbage, or were out for themselves, or for the money, or because they were simply dupes.

Philbrick retired to run a hardware store in seacoast New Hampshire, but never lost his paranoia. It’s not paranoid if they’re really out to get you, you know.

Since I don’t have an editor, I am going to spend three paragraphs talking about Soviets, and I’ll interchangeably use the term “Russians” meaning Soviet-era Russians, not the Putin-era Russians (though the DNA is similar).

The Russians were pretty good at spying. I mean, Stalin had built an entire state centered around the craft of eliciting forbidden information from people, then denouncing them, disposing of them with a bullet to the back of the head. Stalin’s spies informed him of the Manhattan Project and its Trinity site success; by the time Truman broke the news at Potsdam, the Soviet leader barely reacted. Soon after, the Russians began working on their own bomb—a copy of ours down to the last bolt.

But the Russians never could really catch up to America, because—I don’t know how to say it delicately—Russian peasant mentality doesn’t allow them to win, only to make their opponents lose. There’s the old joke of three Russian farmers who find a bottle with a genie in it, who grants them each one wish. The first farmer said “I have a pig. I would like two pigs, so I wish for another pig.” The second farmer said “I have a cow. I would like two cows, so I wish for another cow.” The third farmer said “I have neither cows nor pigs. So I wish the other farmers’ cow and pig were dead.”

The Russians were out to make themselves look good on the world stage, but they could only achieve Potemkin success. We went to the moon; the Russians arguably engineered better rockets than we did. If the N1 ever flew cosmonauts, it would have been a smoother and more reliable ride than the giant Saturn 5/F1 combination, but the Soviets never allowed the project to continue after we beat them to the moon. (In fact, Elon Musk’s Starship is based on the Russian approach, while NASA’s Artemis still uses the 40-year-old RS-25 Space Shuttle Main Engines.)

I said all that about the Soviet Russians to highlight the fact that China is a different kind of farm animal in the animal farm of tyrannical governments whose only law is their own enrichment. China, under a quasi capitalist system, has bloomed into a giant, sophisticated financial and consumer marketplace, with the careful guidance of the Communist Party.

Since both the Republicans and the Democrats, including President Biden’s administration, have begun to catch on that anything coming out of mainland China is bent toward domination, spying, outright stealing, or coercion of western nations founded on personal liberty, now China’s talking points are turning to threats, as the AP reported Tuesday.

“If the United States does not hit the brake, but continues to speed down the wrong path, no amount of guardrails can prevent derailing and there surely will be conflict and confrontation,” said Qin, whose new position is junior to the Communist Party’s senior foreign policy official, Wang Yi. “Such competition is a reckless gamble, with the stakes being the fundamental interests of the two peoples and even the future of humanity.”

“The wrong path” seems to be anything that highlights the long and awful trail of CCP human rights abuses, intellectual property theft, child labor, horrendous working conditions for the lowest paid workers, and sending spy balloons over U.S. territory.

Also, China’s buddying up to Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, kind of a Spanish Civil War situation where China watches how U.S. and NATO weapons systems perform, and how the west reacts to various situations that it quietly filed away in its “Taiwan” folder.

If you get a chance, read this long-form story in the New York Times Magazine about a G.E. Aviation engineer of Chinese ethnic background, who was enticed and recruited into spying for the PRC. He, like Herb Philbrick, ended up as an FBI asset, except Philbrick voluntarily approached the agency, while “Hua” lied to a federal agent questioning the purpose of his trip to Nanjing, the home of his alma mater, and faced charges if he didn’t cooperate.

Here’s the key bit:

The Chinese leadership “made the declaration early on that all Chinese belong to China, no matter what country they were born or living” in, James Gaylord, a retired counterintelligence agent with the F.B.I., told me. “They started making appeals to Chinese Americans saying there’s no conflict between you being American and sharing information with us. We’re not a threat. We just want to be able to compete and make the Chinese people proud. You’re Chinese, and therefore you must want to see the Chinese nation prosper.”

China’s leaders consider all Chinese around the globe (but especially in the west, and in the U.S.) to have dual-loyalty, or primary loyalty to China. “We’re not a threat” is newspeak for “we are a great threat.” China’s universities, businesses, and social media sites are carefully groomed and examined for subversives who might actually favor western values. Those who cross the government find themselves disappeared from public view, some never to be seen again.

When a Chinese organization acts to invite a U.S. Chinese expat, an American citizen, for a “conference” or some award, it’s more likely than not an opportunity to build a relationship with that person to work as an asset of the CCP. Under the guise of helping relatives get into exclusive university research programs, or helping to fund chairs at elite universities, or working for some charitable cause, these are really in place to expand and strengthen the influence of the PRC within American organizations, culture, government, and institutions.

There’s more than enough reason to worry that TikTok gathers metadata which is totally accessible to the CCP. There’s good reason to be concerned that Huawei’s 5G hardware has backdoors for the CCP to exploit.

In “Hua”’s case, the FBI found a high level target in Chinese intelligence behind their asset.

The revelation that the target of their investigation was a senior-level M.S.S. officer raised the stakes for the F.B.I. The agent characterizes the unmasking of Xu as a significant milestone in the effort to combat economic espionage by the Chinese, for reasons that go beyond this one case. When F.B.I. agents go out to talk to companies and universities about the threat, he says, skeptical listeners ask for the evidence that proves the theft of trade secrets is part of a campaign directed by China’s government. In Xu Yanjun, the F.B.I. now had the example it needed. Here was an intelligence officer working as a puppet-master, in one agent’s characterization of the events, cultivating people at American companies in order to steal trade secrets. The F.B.I. was determined to build a case against him and even arrest him if it could.

The FBI took down Xu, but that’s really the tip of the iceberg. We shouldn’t run headlong into a new “Red scare” like Sen. Joe McCarthy did in the 1950s. In fact, that kind of hysteria only helps—and is encouraged—by China’s influencers. The more extreme, the better. China’s actual efforts lie in much softer company, couched in easy, cooperative, peace-loving terms. Behind that, lies the monster.

Not everyone, not every Chinese American, not every company run by a Chinese expat, not every university professor, researcher, or charity purporting to help Chinese people, is a front for the CCP. But there’s plenty that are, or that the CCP seeks to take over. Caution is the watchword, not denouncement or hysteria. Many Chinese Americans want to see a free China. Many want to see Taiwan remain independent. Many would see an invitation to engage with mainland China as an olive branch, an opportunity for dialog. That’s the kind of thing that demands suspicion, but sometimes it’s legitimate. It’s what makes dealing with China so difficult.

Recently, I emailed Ben Smith, former Buzzfeed editor, now the editor of news startup Semafor, about his latest “China and Global Business” platform, and embrace of CCP-connected businessman Zeng Yuquin. The Washington Free Beaconreported on these connections. The stories coming out of Semafor recently have been subtly edited, calling Biden’s TikTok ban “anti-TikTok” or applauding “listening to Xi.” It’s one thing to denounce some news sites that reprint obvious spoon-fed propaganda emanating from the White House or Mar-a-Lago, or take up extreme opinion as fact to gain eyeballs. It’s another thing when an organization Smith said in his reply is “interested in doing journalism and are doing our best to do it—and that is all” adopts a subtle shift in editorial direction so as not to offend its Chinese investors and advisers. I told Ben he was working for the wrong side.

It’s in the soft, subtle, non-offensive things where the CCP does its best work. Just like Herb Philbrick’s joining the anodyne Massachusetts Youth Council, which was a hotbed of communist influence, China is plying the non-threatening waters of journalism, academia, and commerce. Behind that, lies the monster who, when exposed, spouts threats.

It’s not paranoia when they’re really out to get you. Herb Philbrick was right, and he’s still right.

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevengberman.

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