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China’s “Thousand Grains of Sand” Espionage Strategy Persists

Two weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) released an article titled “Chinese Gate-Crashers at U.S. Bases Spark Espionage Concerns,” shedding light on the disconcerting incidents involving Chinese nationals frequently finding themselves mysteriously misplaced on or near U.S. military bases.

Unusual Activities

The WSJ piece outlined some eyebrow-raising examples of what these lost individuals were caught doing:

  • Venturing into a U.S. missile range in New Mexico.
  • Engaging in scuba diving escapades near a U.S. rocket launch site in Florida.
  • Posing for photos within a U.S. Army range.

Chinese Tourists’ Explanations

Now, how do these Chinese nationals explain their unexpected presence within U.S. military domains? According to WSJ reports, they often resort to seemingly scripted responses:

  • Claiming that Google Maps directed them to a McDonald’s conveniently situated within a military base.
  • Insisting they have hotel reservations that coincidentally placed them on a military base.

The “Thousand Grains of Sand” Approach

A fellow from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) was quoted in the article, offering a chilling perspective: “The advantage the Chinese have is they are willing to throw people at collection in large numbers.”

Although the WSJ didn’t explicitly mention it, this practice has been known as the “Thousand Grains of Sand Theory” within U.S. intelligence circles since the 1990s.

As we detailed in our 2020 blog post titled “So… What is the Chinese-Espionage Thousand Grains of Sand Theory?” – the theory follows a simple yet ominous premise:

If a beach of sand represents the target (in this case, valuable intellectual property), Russia would send a few operatives to snatch a handful of sand from the coast. Meanwhile, the U.S. would deploy satellites to analyze the sand’s composition. China, on the other hand, would send 1,000 tourists to collect buckets of sand and ferry it back to their shores.

A Disturbing Reality

What emerges as a disturbing reality is that many of these alleged tourists might have little choice but to undertake these infiltrations if they wish to remain in good standing with the Chinese government.

The WSJ article highlights this issue: “Officials familiar with the practice say the individuals are typically Chinese nationals pressed into service and required to report back to the Chinese government.”

Final Thoughts

While this post and the WSJ article focus on infiltrations of military bases, it’s essential to recognize that this Chinese infiltration strategy is an ongoing and persistent threat against private entities too, particularly aimed at intellectual property theft.

Make no mistake – the “Thousand Grains of Sand” espionage tactic is far-reaching and ceaseless.

Additional Reading

2021 Center for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS) – China’s ‘Thousand Grains of Sand’ Approach to Intelligence Collection

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Ron Alvarez is an IP investigations and protection consultant and writer in New York City. He is a former NYPD lieutenant where he investigated robbery, narcotics, internal affairs, and fine art theft cases. Ron has since coordinated the private investigation of international fraud and money laundering cases, as well as IP-related investigations and research involving the four pillars of IP: copyright, patents, trademarks, and trade secrets. Ron is a graduate of the FBI National Academy and earned a B.A. in Government and Public Administration from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan. He has written a number of articles for various investigative publications, as well as published "The World of Intellectual Property (IP) Protection and Investigations" in November 2021.

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