China has a long and storied relationship with Sacramento. After all, the first all-Chinese rural settlement in the United States was in nearby Locke.
Better known today for “Al the Wop’s” biker bar, Locke was once a river town made up entirely of Chinese Gold Rush-era immigrants. Racism and restriction forced the local “coolies” to move from panning and mining to laying rails and building the levees that still service and save Sacramento.
Sacramento now offers Chinese immigrants new opportunities, freedom and the solitude promised by a secure and increasingly multicultural American society.
That promise might be empty, however, for some rich, powerful and possibly dodgy new arrivals from the People’s Republic of China who threaten to hide and speak state secrets to U.S. authorities and journalists. For them, a Sacramento safe haven may not be beyond the increasingly global reach of China’s long arm.
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One recent arrival, Ling Wancheng, spent much of last year living up the road in Loomis, sporting an alias, but hiding in plain sight from Chinese agents reported to be operating covertly inside U.S. borders. Who is Ling Wancheng, a man with a decent golf handicap and, according to neighbors, a fine and friendly demeanor?
He is a former Xinhua China news agency executive and brother to formerly high-ranking official who is now under investigation. Last month, Ling’s brother, previously chief of staff to China’s former President Hu Jintao, was kicked out of China’s ruling Communist Party and stands accused of bribery, acquiring state secrets and adultery.
With his high level of access and insight into China’s party, state and business and media structures, Ling is someone the Chinese fear could ask for American asylum and spill the beans on some of China’s most guarded secrets.
On the loose and living large, Ling of Loomis is perhaps China’s most wanted Chinese national in America today.
As a result, Chinese agents are suspected of keying on the Sacramento region, looking for leads in their pursuit of the now missing Ling.
Nations often go after rogue asylum seekers or fugitive nationals abroad, as exemplified by the Soviets during the Cold War. While the practice is time-honored, what seems new is a rising China’s recent entry into this dark practice of pursuit … on American soil.
Modern China may be new at this game, but they are not alone. States large and small often seek revenge and make a point to others that gross or treasonous transgressions will not be tolerated. The message being sent is clear: Not even the ends of the Earth are far enough to feel secure.
An extreme post-Soviet example is Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian intelligence officer who fled to London after claiming he knew about a state-ordered assassination plot. The United Kingdom gave him political asylum, and he collaborated with British intelligence services until one day he was tracked down and slipped a mickey of radioactive Polonium 210. Litvinenko is a contemporary reminder that Russian defectors die, practices persist, and official foreign inquiries into suspicious activities rarely end conclusively.
States prefer preventive measures to the higher risk practice of operating in the shadows overseas. Countries try to keep high value or wayward individuals home, often stopping nationals at the border or in airports before they leave. America and its allies actively head off citizens planning to join Islamic State.
Actions against Americans overseas, however, get legally murky and practically messy, though the less powerful the state, the more options for action. As fans of the TV series “Homeland” will tell you, treading with impunity on the sovereign soil of a great power is asking for trouble. Running roughshod inside a failed state, however, is a lot easier, and ungoverned territory can become a free-fire zone.
America’s recent history of rendition and even drone killing of U.S. nationals abroad raises legitimate domestic constitutional questions and challenges other states’ sovereignty, but there is not much that aggrieved countries can do about it. It was a lot easier – both practically and within international law – for the U.S. to get the drop on Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen, for instance, than to spirit away Edward Snowden from a Moscow suburb.
Overseas intelligence and operational activities often take place in the context of war or circumstances otherwise outside the boundaries of legal stricture. What makes U.S. society unique in this field is that its representative leadership and demanding citizenry always – if not always immediately – use their democratic institutions to question if the ends justify such extrajudicial means. The answer is never an assured “yes.”
With Chinese nationals scouring the United States for signs of Ling’s post-Loomis life, it is unclear what happens if they find him. Given his high profile and access in China, a publicized and formal request for American asylum could cause a significant rift in Sino-American relations. China might ask for extradition – quietly or loudly – when Xi Jinping comes to Washington next month on his official state visit, which would create an uncomfortable atmosphere for scheduled talks with President Barack Obama.
Ling may be a test case of how a maturing China evolves its intelligence operations inside U.S. territory and what accommodations and adjustments are made as a result. China is already suspected of significant and sophisticated cyberspying on America, and the Obama administration has initiated aggressive accusations and technical countermeasures.
The shadowy world of international intelligence gathering and operations has clearly touched down in California’s capital. In the 21st century, Sacramento’s new arrivals no longer come strictly with a pick and shovel. Some show up with a cloak and dagger.