China's Growing Spy Threat
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China's Growing Spy Threat


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.’

God is my Judge
August 29, 2013 at 13:33

You 2 are hysterical. You don't fool anyone. Your ill-referenced quip that you are chinese and should be owed money because you could be an asset is a nice coy maneuver. Straight from the 36 strategems. 

You and John Chan, haha. What do they pay you on top of the peanuts ?

Daniel God is my Judge
August 29, 2013 at 13:04

Yes, but if there was a certain segment of the population not in America, could you imagine how safe it would be? A majority of all violent crime and same race on same race is committed by them.

I lived in China as well and felt generally safer from violent crime. But, if you were a female chinese who wanted to have more than 1 child, I would all of a sudden not feel so safe… or what if you wanted to start a pro liberty group ? 

For instance this John Chan chap. You think he is really expressing his view? To tell you the truth I am sure the Chinese have software that allows them to recognize an anti-China article and they send at least 1 person to do PR damage control. 

Just read any article on dailymail that comes out about China and there will be at least 10 pro-CCP writers acting coy as if they aren't agents working for their beloved motherland.

[...] [...]

[...] to enforce its “one-child policy.” Savage persecution of Christians and political opposition, harvesting of body organs from dissidents, concentration camps for critics, mass slaughter, failed central planning, and more, have become the norm. Indeed, the Chinese [...]

[...] U.S. counterintelligence officials said last year that the communist Chinese regime was the world’s biggest perpetrator of economic espionage, with a potential to jeopardize hundreds of billions of GDP dollars every year. One of Beijing’s primary methods, of course, is the use of Chinese “companies” to gobble up intelligence and intellectual property. [...]

American Trash Calling Pot Black
September 3, 2012 at 11:48

"‘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.’.  "
It is obvious Mr Fisher is speaking for him self and Americans aboard.  We know Americans are being tapped every day to do their "patriotic" duty.
So, please speak for yourself Mr Fisher. So kindly do not attribute to us what you are but we are not. We are not the sinister orientals but you sir, are definitely, the sinister "gweilos".
Mr Li
Minister of Home Affairs

Dr. Rice
November 22, 2011 at 13:44

I remember reading in the art of war something along the lines of “a small, but poorly funded army is still more expensive than a large, lavishly paid spy network.” This is all I am seeing when I read this.

I am sure the key to understanding the Chinese can be found when you look at their history and philosophies.

October 2, 2011 at 17:51

Yang Jisheng, formerly of Xinhua researched and published Tombstone, in Hong Kong, of course, not in PRC. Based on years of reading and assessing local government documents he estimates some 40 million extra deaths due to the Great Leap Forward. Other recent research supports this figure.
This, ata time when Mao knew about the famine but was selling grain to the Soviet Union in exchange for nuclear weapons know how. John Chan, your ignorance and blindness to facts make very good companions to your inhumanity and heartlessness.

September 25, 2011 at 22:25

What does kremlinology and china watcher mean??? Study hard.

Kung Pao
September 25, 2011 at 05:57

@Ozivan: Technically, they’re the same, but morally killing your own is worse (you know why). The irony is CCP wanted people to call him great hero; only in communist countries !

Mao and HCM were extremely violent guys. Ghandi should have offered crash course “Introduction to non-violent methods” to them.

Charlie T.
September 24, 2011 at 22:58

What I have noticed about all of the attacks on Mr. Newman and the article is that not a single one of them disputes a single fact or claim made by one of the documents or people who are talked about in the article. Saying that the United States or white people or Europeans or whoever has done bad things in the past and in the future does not change anything and this article was obviously about China not what the United States has done.

You might be interested to know that I have followed Mr. Newman’s work closely for years and you might be surprised to know that he has done very much reporting on the activities of the United States regime and its spying and war making.

September 24, 2011 at 14:17

America’s Already Grown Spy Threat. White Americans killed their own people, their fellow nationals, the Native Americans and African Americans; the American government peddled people to libya for torture in return for their answers; the american government has more than 750 military bases overseas and has invaded, since 1980, Grenada; Panama; Iraq twice; Afghanistan; Libya and others. China does execute the occasional corrupt banker/mayor/politician. The U.S. rewards them with cabinet positions instead. The Chinese national representative body is probably more representative, when measured by incomes, than the U.S. Congress. The U.S. Supreme Court has made U.S. elections a joke. they are now auctions, not elections. And CCTV is less propagandistic than Fox. Alex Newman is a dope; or a shill; or a lobbyist. but a journalist, he ain’t.

September 24, 2011 at 02:03

@John Chan: I don’t believe the 100,000,000 figure nor do I believe any figure you or CCP provide. I go by the link I provided ozivan.

No need to insult others.

John Chan
September 23, 2011 at 22:35

In China, wealth transfer from the have areas to have-not areas as matter of fact and duty, no one make a big fuss about it. When the natural disasters come, the have areas all pitch in to rebuild the disaster areas free of charge. It sounds like socialism to me.

Yet there are disasters in Europe, none of the EU members want to pitch in without charging arm and leg interest for the half hearted funds they provided. It seems Europeans are heartless and no compassion for their own kind, they only care nickels and dines. Yet they claimed they are civilized, democratic and caring human rights.

Comparing the above two contrast facts, I just wonder what’s good of democracy and western civilization; they put money in front of humanity.

September 23, 2011 at 19:47

I look forward to the results of your research, and of course your judgment on Mao from this. Please keep in mind three things:
1)Take into account the duration factor. The Great Leap drama lasted only 2-3 years. So, apart from the absolute number, there is the intensity.
2)Take into account the intention or not to cover-up, minimize, distort facts and incriminate others. The use/abuse of power and governmental tools to do so. We are not discussing the responsibility of a low-level executive but that of a leader, a head of state.
3)Don’t mix things up like John Chan. Leave aside the “crimes” of Lady Marcos and the poems of Dr José Rizal will you?

September 23, 2011 at 17:05

We aren’t talking about the West here we are talking about China but even though I disagree with the death penalty at least we have trial by jury and the death penalty is only applied in murder cases in some states and so on.
I do not think you can compare the execution of a murderer convicted by a jury of his peers in a court of law to deliberately starving people because they are too old or sick to work or harvesting organs from people because they believe in a religion the state does not like.
I didn’t make up any facts I quoted from a historian who examined CCP records and came to those conclusions and saying that people in the West or Japan have committed heinous crimes centuries ago in no way justifies what the CCP is doing or has done. I feel like you are trying to distract from the reality in any way you can but it is not working very well in my opinion.

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