The Chinese government’s ‘vacuum cleaner’ approach to espionage is worrying foreign governments, companies and overseas dissidents. They’re right to be concerned.
Beijing fiercely denies it. Much of the world ignores it. But according to analysts and officials, the communist-controlled People’s Republic of China operates the single largest intelligence-gathering apparatus in the world—and its growing appetite for secrets has apparently become insatiable.
From economic and military espionage to keeping tabs on exiled dissidents, China’s global spying operations are rapidly expanding. And, therefore, so is the threat. Some analysts even argue the regime—which is also gobbling up such key natural resources as farmland, energy, and minerals—has an eye on dominating the world.
Estimates on the number of spies and agents employed by the communist state vary widely. According to public statements by French author and investigative journalist Roger Faligot, who has written several books about the regime’s security services, there are around two million Chinese working directly or indirectly for China’s intelligence apparatus.
Other analysts say it would be impossible to count the exact number. ‘I doubt they know themselves,’ says Richard Fisher, a senior fellow on Asian military affairs at the Washington-based International Assessment and Strategy Center. Regardless, the number is undoubtedly extraordinary. ‘China can rightly claim to have the world’s largest, most amorphous, but also most active intelligence sector,’ he says.
That’s partly because it operates very differently from most. ‘When you consider that China’s intelligence community views any foreign-deployed Chinese citizen, any Chinese delegation, all Chinese criminal networks, and all overseas Chinese with any tangible affinity or connection to the Motherland as a target for recruitment, then you have to find a different way to measure,’ Fisher explains. ‘This has to start with the consideration that any Chinese, especially those from China, from student to CEO, are potential active intelligence assets.’
Other analysts echo his concerns, and a simple fact: the regime’s spies are increasingly active across the globe. Since 2008, more and more intelligence-training colleges—‘spy schools’—have been popping up at universities across the country. Meanwhile, Chinese satellite-reconnaissance and cyber espionage capabilities are expanding at an unprecedented speed.
Officials are, probably for good reason, skittish when discussing China and its intelligence collection operations. But there’s near unanimous agreement—and court convictions in countries around the globe support the premise—that, in terms of sophistication, scope, and international capabilities, the perils of Chinese espionage are on the rise.
‘The danger is pronounced,’ warns Charles Viar, chairman of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Intelligence Studies. ‘In my view, no one is really doing enough to deal with the Chinese threat. It is too large, and by Western standards, too unconventional.’
Among the array of growing dangers associated with Chinese spying: the regime’s increasingly advanced cyber capabilities. While the techniques are used to steal ever more information of all sorts, the potential for devastating offensive operations exists as well. Leaked US diplomatic cables and cyber-security analysts suggest that Chinese military intelligence has been involved in countless network penetrations in recent years. In some instances, evidence suggests that the regime is even able to remotely control sensitive systems.
Consider one example: In 2009, senior US officials reported that cyber spies—at least some of whom were Chinese—infiltrated the US electrical grid. And after breaking in, they left software behind that could be used to cause disruptions or possibly even shut the system down.
The Evolution of the Menace
Though the evolving threats are more advanced and dangerous today than ever before, Chinese espionage is nothing new. In fact, it began centuries ago—well before the communist regime rose to power.
‘China has a history of organized intelligence-gathering operations that goes back to the 15th century—perhaps even earlier,’ says Joseph Fitsanakis, a senior editor with Intel News who teaches classes on espionage, intelligence, and covert action at King College’s Department of History and Political Science. The Chinese, however, took it to a new level.
Up until two to three decades ago, the regime’s spying was largely domestic in nature, Fitsanakis explains—primarily targeting perceived enemies and dissidents within China. But in the post-1980s era, with economic reforms and growing affluence pacifying much of the internal unrest, Chinese intelligence collection efforts began to focus more on the outside world.
Today, according to experts and former counterintelligence officials, Chinese spying represents one of the largest threats to US security. And the sheer size of the regime’s espionage apparatus ‘is proving a good match for the more advanced automated systems used by its less populous regional rivals, including Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan,’ adds Fitsanakis.
Public awareness of the hidden menace is indeed on the rise. But available evidence indicates that the danger is still underestimated—and growing quickly.
‘The Chinese are the biggest problem we have with respect to the level of effort that they’re devoting against us versus the level of attention we are giving to them,’ former US counterintelligence chief Michelle Van Cleave told CBS during an interview. Officials with the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), meanwhile, labelled China’s ‘aggressive and wide-ranging espionage’ the ‘leading threat to US technology.’
According to former Chinese intelligence officials who defected to the West, the United States is indeed China’s main target for espionage. But as China steps up its spying around the world, it’s becoming clear that no nation, company, military, or exiled dissident is immune.
Espionage & Influence
Like the intelligence services of most large and powerful countries, a significant segment of China’s spying apparatus is devoted to collecting information on foreign governments—particularly in terms of their military and political systems. Vast numbers of Chinese spies have been caught stealing such secrets.
In fact, it’s known that the regime has already acquired some of the United States’ most sensitive secrets. A US Congressional Committee and then-Director of National Intelligence George Tenet found as early as the late-1990s that China had even obtained information on the United States’ most advanced nuclear weapons.
That’s not all. ‘China has managed to gather a great deal of information on US stealth technology, naval propulsion systems, electronic warfare systems, and nuclear weapons through espionage,’ says Larry Wortzel, a commissioner and former chairman on the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, and the ex-director of the US Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute. ‘That is documented in convictions in US courts.’
The regime, however, wants more. A few Chinese espionage cases have made headlines recently, such as the scandal involving former weapons analyst Gregg Bergersen with the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency. A leaked video of him selling sensitive information about US military collaboration with Taiwan—a nation which the communist regime considers a breakaway territory—sparked a new level of public interest in Chinese espionage just last year.
But most cases barely cause a stir. According to an analysis of US Justice Department records by the Associated Press, there have been at least 58 defendants charged in federal court for China-related espionage since 2008. Most have been convicted, while the rest are awaiting trial or on the run. Hundreds of investigations are ongoing.
A leaked diplomatic cable from the US embassy in Santiago, Chile, also revealed that US officials were worried about Chinese espionage against the US military even in Latin America. ‘There’s concern that the Chinese could be using Chilean officers and access to the Army training school to learn more about joint programs, priorities, and techniques that the Chileans have developed with their US counterparts,’ noted the 2005 cable signed by then-Ambassador Craig Kelly, adding that even Chinese journalists were ‘assumed’ to be involved in some kind of collection activity.
‘(A)s the (US government) augments its support to the Chilean Armed Forces, Chinese interest in USG activities in the Southern Cone will most assuredly increase,’ according to the document released earlier this year by WikiLeaks. ‘The Chinese will likely attempt to learn more about US military strategies and techniques via Chilean participation in bilateral training programs and joint exercises.’
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