How a networking immigrant became a Chinese spy

Locked in a federal penitentiary in the Arizona desert, Tai Kuo spends his days helping with the cooking, teaching language classes and tennis, making new friends.

The convicted spy, it seems, has become a mentor.

This surprises no one. Not the prosecutors who charged him. Not his old friends or colleagues, some of whom stand behind him still.

Because Tai Kuo is nothing if not likable. It's the very quality that allowed him to get close to people in high places. Politicians. Army brass.

His attorney, Plato Cacheris, says, "We have represented over the years a lot of scoundrels." But Kuo "is not in that category. ... You always wanted to help him, if you will."

He wasn't a professional agent by any means. He was a tennis coach. A restaurateur. A businessman who lived with his wife and daughter in a Louisiana town known for swamp tours and charter fishing. Born in Taiwan, son-in-law of a senior military officer there, he was an unlikely spy for China if ever there was one.

And yet his journey from entrepreneur to secret operative -- one of dozens convicted in the last three years of efforts to pass secrets or restricted technology to the Chinese -- is, in many ways, emblematic of the way China conducts espionage in the 21st century, experts say.

(In 2010, "60 Minutes" reported on the FBI's investigation into Tai Kuo and China's spy network in the United States. Watch the report above.)

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It is rooted in opportunity, nurtured by perseverance, sustained by greed. It relies on "guanxi" -- a you-scratch-my-back, I'll-scratch-yours notion of developing close relationships.

The Chinese took advantage of all of these things to cultivate Kuo, and then the man with the winning personality went to work on their behalf. In the end, Kuo would convince two U.S. government employees to give him secret information, which he then conveyed to an official with the communist nation.

His networking skill would make Kuo wealthy, a shining immigrant success story, but it would also make him a convicted felon -- a man denounced by a bitter ex-friend as "worse than a thief ... a traitor."

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Even in his youth, Kuo (pronounced gwoh) knew how to forge connections with people who mattered. In his early 20s, still living in his native Taiwan, he worked as a tennis instructor for the U.S. Embassy in Taipei. He soon obtained a student visa and landed in Cajun country in 1973, attending Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, La., on a tennis scholarship.

Southern Louisiana became his home. Kuo graduated with a degree in business administration and accounting, married a woman from Taiwan, became a U.S. citizen and settled with his wife in Houma, La., where he set about becoming a successful entrepreneur. He ran a tennis club, taught Chinese cooking lessons and oversaw the restaurant at the Houma country club before launching his own high-end Chinese eatery -- "Mr. Tai's" -- in New Orleans.

The late 1980s saw his circle of connections widen. With China growing more open to foreign investments, Kuo started a business working to market American expertise and products there. He teamed with a Louisiana legislator to sell cotton, promoted oil service companies for exploration work in the South China Sea, provided engineers for the development of Chinese plants.

"He was the matchmaker," says David Crais, former chairman of the Louisiana Imports and Exports Trust Authority, to which Kuo was appointed in 1992. "He was a wheeler-dealer kind of guy who had major contacts. He was tapped into everybody."

Crais recalls Kuo promising potential clients, "I'll get you in China," and he knew how to do it.

"He used to say there's a billion people, but there's a very small group that runs the whole show. If you tapped into the power networks, that's where you got business done."

Apparently, the center of Kuo's power network was a man named Lin Hong.

A friend introduced the two, telling Kuo, "He's a good person to know," someone who could help potential North American investors in China.

Hong, according to court papers, worked for the Guangdong Friendship Association, one of many groups in China whose stated aims are to promote good relations with foreign countries and organizations. The association is backed by the Chinese government and hosts visits for private individuals and businesspeople. But foreign researchers have also tied the friendship groups to present-day efforts to collect intelligence.

Guangdong association did not immediately respond to faxed and telephoned queries about whether it has ever employed a Lin Hong.

As Kuo's travel to China increased, he'd stop in the province of Guangdong and meet with Hong, who loved to talk.

"Lin always was very, very (interested) about the attitude of Congress toward China, the attitude of U.S. government to Chinese, the relationship between the U.S. and Taiwan ... ," Kuo would later testify.

Kuo considered Hong a friend, at least at first. However, U.S. investigators use a different description. Hong, they say, was Kuo's "handler," who for years tasked Kuo with gathering information from contacts he'd made in the U.S. government.