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

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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.’

And while experts agree that the United States is the single most important target, Chinese agents involved in military and political espionage have been convicted all over the world. In late July, for example, Taiwanese General Lo Hsien-che was sentenced to life in prison for handing over military secrets to Beijing. The case shocked the nation. But it wasn’t necessarily surprising to some observers.

‘Anyone who has followed developments in Taiwan over the years knows how deeply Chinese forces have infiltrated Taiwan’s military, especially its senior officers,’ noted Taiwan-based journalist and security analyst J. Michael Cole in a recent opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal. He noted that, because Taiwan is so infested with Chinese spies, any US weapons sales to the nation could result in sensitive military secrets ending up in Beijing. 

Europe isn’t immune either. In Belgium, headquarters of NATO and the European Union, the Minister of Justice and the Minister of Foreign Affairs separately accused China of cyber spying and attempting to compromise critical government networks in 2008. The next year, reports of Chinese intelligence efforts directed at top Australian officials, including the prime minister, made headlines worldwide.  

Even in Russia, widely considered at least a tenuous ally of the Chinese regime, Chinese spies have been convicted in recent years. One man, Igor Reshetin, was found guilty of providing information useful in designing nuclear missiles to a Chinese state-owned firm. In early September, Russian prosecutors charged two more academics with selling military secrets to China.  

Aside from stealing political and military information, another important goal of Chinese intelligence agents is to gain influence among members of a target country’s political elite. According to experts, China uses bribes, blackmail, women, lavish vacations in China, and other means to compromise officials worldwide.

Even former US President Bill Clinton was widely accused of being too close to Beijing for comfort. ‘President Clinton promised to restrain those who ordered the Tiananmen Square massacre, but he has now allowed these men whose hands are stained with the blood of martyrs of freedom into the highest reaches of our military defences, and made available to them significant portions of our advanced military technology,’ charged former US Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Thomas Moorer in a letter to congressional leaders.

Indeed, one of the prime targets of Chinese intelligence, according to analysts, is information to create comprehensive databases on current and future leaders of free countries. ‘They want to arm their diplomats and businessmen with the inside scoop to be able to expand their political and economic allies to help foster ruling elites that will never challenge the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist regime,’ says Fisher.

In Canada, the issue was raised just last year. During a TV interview, Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) Director Richard Fadden suggested that some politicians in Canada were connected to certain foreign governments—almost universally assumed to mean China.

After causing an uproar among some sectors, however, the Canadian spy chief tried to downplay the remarks. ‘He was very rapidly shut down by some irresponsible—almost suspicious’—officials, who denied that there was any problem, says Michel Juneau-Katsuya, the former Asia-Pacific head of CSIS.

‘Actually, Mr. Fadden was talking about something that has been happening for decades,’ Juneau-Katsuya says. The strategy of gaining influence among foreign power brokers is an important tool in China’s espionage arsenal, he says. It’s also one that is rarely discussed.

Theft of Trade Secrets

The theft of trade secrets, technology, and corporate information is another one of China’s specialties. ‘When it comes to economic espionage, China is universally recognized as at the top,’ says Juneau-Katsuya, who now serves as the CEO of security consulting firm The Northgate Group. ‘What we know is that, by far, they are at the top when it comes to stealing information.’ 

Oftentimes the line between military and economic espionage is blurry. The case of engineer Dongfan ‘Greg’ Chung, sentenced last year, is just one example among many. Chung was caught passing sensitive US aerospace and rocket secrets to China that he stole while working for defence contractors Boeing and Rockwell International.

In other cases, the foreign technology stolen by Chinese spies is used to further oppress the population. A revealing lawsuit filed by US software maker Cybersitter, seeking more than $2 billion in damages, accused China and other conspirators of stealing its proprietary filtering code. The software was then apparently used to help censor the web in China.

‘They have a multitude of goals all at once: To catch up on the difference in technology, to gain influence around the world, to know more about where the competition is, and definitely to not have to pay for research and development,’ says Juneau-Katsuya. The R&D element is key.

Often, the motivation for stealing trade secrets is purely economic. In addition to saving unfathomable amounts of time and capital, using stolen information crucial to a company’s survival can actually lead to shutting down China’s foreign competition.

So, partly because the return on investment from spying is so much greater than from R&D, experts say the budgets of Chinese intelligence agencies have soared in recent years. That trend is expected to continue indefinitely.

But while it may be cost effective for China, the price tag paid by others is massive. Precise figures are, of course, impossible to calculate. But in 1995, when Juneau-Katsuya was at CSIS, he tried to get an estimate: It was somewhere in the neighbourhood of $10 billion to $12 billion per year. Since then the problem has only grown.

In Germany, the cost is high, too, Berthold Stoppelkamp of the German Association for Security in Industry and Commerce (ASW) told the press in 2009. He estimated the damages from economic espionage—primarily Russian and Chinese—at around €20 billion every year. But it could be closer to €50 billion, he noted.

An estimate on the cost of economic espionage to the US economy was offered by FBI Director Robert Mueller in 2003: over $250 billion per year. And counterintelligence officials with the Bureau and other experts agree that China is by far the most serious threat. 

‘This espionage saps US companies of their industrial lead in the new technologies and materials,’ notes Wortzel. ‘And often the Chinese incorporate what they have learned into new weapon systems that can be used against the US, its allies, and friends.’

And because the threat is continually evolving and comes from multiple directions, it’s difficult to deal with, experts say. China uses all known means of stealing information even as it develops ever more ingenious schemes.

Traditional methods, such as infiltrating companies and compromising existing employees, are still widely used. Academic and educational institutions play a crucial role as well—as do the regime’s ‘front companies’ set up in the United States, estimated to number in the thousands by the FBI. Foreign companies with operations in China are said to be particularly vulnerable to losing their secrets.

Meanwhile, more advanced tools like computer hacking are becoming an increasingly important weapon in the regime’s economic-spying arsenal. ‘Their cyber activities have increased in the last ten years quite significantly,’ says Juneau-Katsuya. ‘They are devoting university departments and entire sections of the (People’s Liberation Army) just to that.’ 

Another key but underestimated strategy employed in China’s quest for trade secrets—corporate acquisitions and joint ventures—makes use of the regime’s vast empire of well-funded, state-owned companies. By purchasing even a significant percentage of a firm, China often obtains important technological know-how. It also buys political influence.

‘China continues to leverage foreign investments, commercial joint ventures, academic exchanges, the experience of repatriated Chinese students and researchers, and state-sponsored industrial/technical espionage to increase the level of technologies and expertise available to support military research, development, and acquisition,’ notes a 2011 US Defense Department report to Congress on Chinese military and security developments.

Especially following the recent recession, the Chinese regime has been on a global shopping spree using its vast cash reserves—buying up all sorts of companies, from car manufacturers to technology enterprises. But countless examples of the use of this tactic have been documented for well over a decade.

Even more alarming for some: A secret 1997 investigation by CSIS and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police entitled ‘Sidewinder’ found that criminal networks affiliated with Chinese intelligence were also intimately involved. The Canadian government essentially dismissed the report, but many analysts believe the collaboration has only grown since then.

In general, firms and universities are simply not doing enough to protect their secrets and technology from China, says Center for Intelligence Studies Chairman Charles Viar. ‘That said, the larger problem involves contractual agreements in which Western companies voluntarily transfer sensitive technologies—often illegally—in order to win contracts with China,’ he points out.

Fisher has similar concerns. He says firms and educational institutions around the world are not simply targets—in many cases they have become ‘compliant victims’ of Chinese intelligence agencies’ designs.

‘Companies and universities must first reach an understanding of how they are aiding and abetting the Chinese Communist dictatorship,’ says Fisher, noting that as long as they crave Chinese money, they will continue bending over backwards to satisfy the regime. ‘This scandal is compounded by the fact that Chinese allies in the capitals of most democracies are succeeding in avoiding or averting the level of critical review that would also lead to defensive action.’

Persecuting Dissidents, Even Abroad

One of the top priorities of Chinese espionage efforts—foreign and domestic—is monitoring and disrupting dissidents, according to defectors, experts, and official documents. In the crosshairs overseas are Chinese democracy activists, Tibetans, the exiled Uighur community, Falun Gong practitioners, supporters of Taiwanese independence, and countless others—essentially anybody who disagrees with the regime or paints a negative image of it abroad.

In 2009, for example, a massive and sophisticated cyber espionage network was discovered by Canadian researchers. The system, known as ‘GhostNet,’ had reportedly penetrated computers belonging to multiple governments, the exiled Dalai Lama, and a number of other dissidents and critics. Investigators traced the operation to China.

Last year, after a ‘highly sophisticated and targeted attack’ originating in China, Google announced that a primary goal of the operation was to gain access to Chinese human rights activists’ e-mail accounts. ‘Dozens’ of such accounts had already been compromised through other means before the attack in question, the company also said in a statement.  

It’s not just human rights campaigners and pro-Tibetan activists who are under constant attack, however. Among the most viciously persecuted are individuals associated with Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa. The spiritual and philosophical movement was banned by the Communist regime in 1999 after officialdom decided it might represent a threat to the Communist Party.

Labelling it an ‘evil cult,’ China then created an extra-legal apparatus known as the 6-10 Office to quash the discipline domestically—and around the world. An unprecedented campaign of terror and brainwashing has since been unleashed, including a vast network of ‘re-education’ camps, disappearances, torture, harvesting organs from practitioners, and more. 

And the regime’s tentacles have truly spread worldwide in pursuit of its goal. ‘The war against Falun Gong is one of the main tasks of the Chinese mission overseas,’ Chen Yonglin, a senior official at the Chinese Consulate in Sydney told a US Congressional committee in 2005 after his defection.

A vast body of evidence, and even recent court cases, support the claim. In June, for example, a Chinese man in Germany was convicted of spying on members of the Falun Gong community for China. A few years earlier, a senior Chinese embassy official in Ottawa was expelled after being caught spying on practitioners there. 

In the United States, officials also regularly highlight the problem. The House of Representatives has blasted the regime for similar illegal activities inside the United States on at least four occasions. A House resolution passed last year and a separate measure adopted in 2004, for instance, recognized the seriousness of the problem, called for the regime to stop, and urged US authorities to take action.

According to the resolutions, China’s diplomatic corps is actively ‘harassing and persecuting’ Chinese dissidents in the United States, breaking into the homes of prominent activists, pressuring US officials with threats, spreading lies, and more. In addition to the well-known persecution going on within China, ‘the Chinese Government has also attempted to silence the Falun Gong movement and Chinese pro-democracy groups inside the United States,’ the measures state.

More than a few US Representatives have been even more direct. Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), speaking in support of the resolution, said last year that ‘clear evidence’ shows Chinese diplomats were colluding with secret agents and ‘thugs’ to suppress the constitutionally protected rights of Americans. She called on the State Department to ‘get tough’ on the regime’s functionaries within US borders. 

‘First is the issue of the penetration of agents of an alien Communist regime right here inside the United States to wage a campaign of repression against US citizens,’ Ros-Lehtinen said before the House, citing examples and noting that Chinese agents were ‘persecuting American Falun Gong practitioners in our own country.’ And the well-documented ‘bloody harvest’ and ‘coercive organ transplants’ from Falun Gong practitioners within China, she added, ‘is almost too ghoulish to imagine.’

One prominent analyst on the issue of Falun Gong persecution, David Kilgour, is a former Canadian member of parliament and served as Canada’s secretary of state for Asia-Pacific in 2002 and 2003. He recently co-authored a book entitled ‘Bloody Harvest—The killing of Falun Gong for their organs,’ which closely examines the brutality and takes a look at the regime’s illegal persecution of exiled practitioners. 

‘The espionage and intimidation the party-state deploys against Falun Gong abroad is outrageous,’ Kilgour says, calling it an extension of the ‘very severe persecution’ in China. ‘It’s unconscionable for a repressive government to use the freedom of a democracy to project abroad its persecution of its chosen victims.’

Among the examples he cites is a 2003 case in which two Chinese diplomatic officials in Edmonton were caught handing out pamphlets inciting hatred against the Falun Gong—a crime in Canada. But there’s much more, he says.

Chinese defectors have told Kilgour that the effort spent monitoring and repressing dissidents overseas actually outweighs all other functions of Chinese diplomatic missions combined, he says. Apparently the regime doesn’t want the international community to realize what has been perpetrated in China. 

One victim of that persecution, author and human rights activist Jennifer Zeng, fled China in 2001 after being tortured at one of the regime’s ‘Re-Education-Through-Labour’ camps. ‘The PRC espionage and intimidation against FG practitioners overseas is so common that many of us have become accustomed to it,’ she says.

But while Falun Gong practitioners may be at the top of the regime’s list of perceived enemies, they are far from the only victims of anti-dissident Chinese operations abroad. Another extensively targeted group is the exiled Uighur community, an ethnic minority—primarily Muslim—that has been systematically oppressed within China for decades. China has also been very active in tracking and disrupting the activities of those who managed to flee.

Last year, for example, a man was convicted of ‘aggravated illegal espionage’ against the Uighur refugee community in Sweden. ‘He reported all he could about them,’ says Sweden’s chief national security prosecutor Tomas Lindstram, who prosecuted the case. The information included everything from the targets’ political views and activities to details about their health and travel habits.

Using a ‘rather tricky’ method to communicate with his handlers—a Chinese ‘journalist’ and a diplomatic official—the convicted spy ‘fooled most of his fellow countrymen,’ says Lindstram. The court and the prosecutor recognized the seriousness of the crime—especially because it was to benefit a ‘totalitarian’ government that does not respect human rights. Incredibly, however, the spy was sentenced to less than two years.

Lindstram admits he thought the short sentence was ‘odd’ and didn’t correctly account for the severity of the crime. The government is now apparently looking into the sentencing length question. But for many Uighur activists, the penalty was almost an outrage.

‘There should be a tougher punishment for a crime like this in order to send a strong signal to other possible spies around the world,’ says Mehmet Tohti, the Special Representative of the World Uighur Congress to the European Union. And it isn’t just Sweden that could use improvement.

Tohti says the West in general isn’t doing enough to protect and support exiled Chinese dissidents—even though it is in the free world’s own interest to do so. In Germany, for example, there have also been several incidents of Chinese espionage against Uighurs in recent years. Little has been done.

‘Chinese spying is a big problem for the Uighur community—especially for Uighur organizational leaders,’ says Tohti. But they are hardly alone.

Other victims of Chinese intimidation, wiretapping, and e-mail theft—Tibetan activists and pro-democracy advocates, for example—are fiercely persecuted by the regime outside of China, too. According to Tohti, one of the goals is to minimize the impact of anti-China protests because they are ‘exposing China’s gross and systematic violation of human rights’ to the world.

Beyond Intelligence: Offensive Capabilities

Chinese intelligence agencies are clearly involved in collecting information on a massive scale. Some analysts even refer to the regime’s strategy as the ‘Vacuum Cleaner’ approach. But intelligence gathering is only one piece of the puzzle.

Perhaps even more alarming than monitoring dissidents and stealing trade secrets, analysts say, is mounting evidence of the regime’s increasing ability and willingness to employ its spy services offensively. The number of examples is growing rapidly.

In the cyber realm, China’s use of offensive tactics was highlighted again just last month. As The Diplomat reported on August 25, a video on cyber warfare broadcast over China’s military state TV channel included a brief segment that raised eyebrows worldwide.

The footage apparently showed an old computer programme from the People’s Liberation Army Electronic Engineering Institute being used to ‘attack’ a US-based website tied to the Falun Gong via a US university’s network. And, while the short clip featured outdated and unsophisticated methodology, analysts say it was important for several reasons—providing more evidence of China’s offensive cyber activities being chief among them.

A 2009 report prepared for the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission on China’s cyber capabilities also suggests that the regime’s information-warfare strategy features offensive operations prominently. According to the authors’ analysis of the regime’s strategy, the tools ‘will be widely employed in the earliest phases of a conflict, and possibly pre-emptively.’ 

The study also notes that faculty members at China’s National University of Defense Technology ‘are actively engaged in research on offensive network operations techniques or exploits.’ Research and development on ‘a variety of offensive information warfare technologies’ is also being conducted by institutes overseen by the PLA’s General Staff Department Fourth Department.

Another area of concern is covert Chinese activism overseas. ‘Their objectives know no limit,’ says Fisher. ‘If China has targeted a country for its resources and has decided to sustain a noisome regime to defend those interests, it will give that regime the means to, as it will also collect a comprehensive data base to help that regime to avoid threats.’

This strategy—secretly propping up friendly dictators—was illustrated recently when China was apparently caught quietly arming Gaddafi after the civil war in Libya began. In violation of international sanctions, China was reportedly offering weapons to the Libyan dictator even in the final weeks of battle, documents leaked in early September indicate.  

The move—a carefully calculated risk, to be sure—clearly required intimate knowledge of potential US and NATO reactions. ‘This kind of very targeted power projection will become the order of the day when China builds its power projection Navy and Air Force, due to come online by the early 2020s,’ Fisher warns.

And even though Gaddafi’s regime may have crumbled, he notes, China has a growing international network of support, including the regimes ruling North Korea, Pakistan, Iran, Cuba, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe. Other key players in the Chinese intelligence community’s expanding network of friends are global criminal organizations and freelance cyber warriors—or ‘sub-contractors’ and ‘pirates,’ as Fisher refers to them.

Links with organized crime and so-called ‘Patriotic hackers’ allow the regime some degree of plausible deniability in covert operations and cyber attacks. But between backing socialist strongmen, penetrating critical infrastructure, and sabotaging computer systems, China’s aggressive foreign intelligence operations are increasingly arousing suspicion worldwide.

According to Juneau-Katsuya, the overall designs aren’t all that complex. ‘If you want to understand the strategy that Chinese intelligence and the Chinese government are using, you’ve got to refer yourself to the game of Go,’ he says, noting that it is popular among China’s military top brass.

The ancient game is fairly simple: The object is to encircle one’s opponent and take control of the most territory. ‘That’s exactly the strategy they’re using,’ Juneau-Katsuya says, citing the regime’s increasingly active presence around the world—particularly in Africa—as an example of the plan in action.

Guarding against the Threat

There’s some disagreement among experts about whether governments are doing enough to protect themselves and their people from the threat of Chinese espionage. But overwhelmingly, insiders say nations from Canada and Australia to European states and India need to do more—much more. Small countries in the vicinity of China are probably among the most vulnerable.

Regardless, what is certain, according to analysts, is that most companies and institutions aren’t keeping up with the Chinese regime’s rapidly evolving espionage capabilities. And the PRC is taking full advantage of the opportunities.

‘They understand very well that the Western world is sleeping at the switch when it comes to all this, and the majority of people are not paying attention to the security of their systems,’ says Juneau-Katsuya. ‘That is the weakest link.’

FBI spokesman Bill Carter says that after terrorism, counterintelligence ‘is the number two priority in the FBI, and significant resources are devoted to our counterespionage activities.’ The exact figures are classified, he adds. ‘You don’t like to tell the opposition what your capabilities are.’

The US Department of Justice didn’t respond to requests for comment. Neither did Japan’s Public Security Intelligence Agency. But reports do suggest that at least some governments are getting serious about counterintelligence and the threat of Chinese espionage. 

Many more governments, for example, have recently started to take action against state-owned Chinese firms attempting to buy up sensitive or strategic companies. And growing concerns about using Chinese technology—especially in the realm of telecommunications—have been expressed by officials around the world.

By raising public awareness of their plight, the fears of exiled dissidents are being taken more seriously, too. The victims of the Communist regime’s foreign persecution, however, still say much more needs to be done.

Strategies to deal with the threat proposed by analysts interviewed by The Diplomat varied widely, from restricting the number of Chinese nationals allowed into other countries to developing new multilateral institutions to address the problem. More resources dedicated to counterintelligence, tougher punishments for convicted spies, better encryption systems, and more private sector involvement were also all mentioned.

But one point in particular was repeated over and over again. By far the most crucial element in the battle, analysts say, is greater awareness.

Alex Newman is a freelance writer and correspondent for The New American magazine

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