China’s Amateur Spying Problem
Image Credit: Fang Guo

China’s Amateur Spying Problem


With each week seeming to bring with it a new example of a cyber attack launched from China, the issue has in many minds become inextricably linked with the Chinese government. And with China’s state-owned firms dominating the country’s economic landscape – and with Beijing’s apparent willingness to protect them – this perception is only likely to grow.

Yet the U.S. government’s recently released Report to Congress on Foreign Economic Collection and Industrial Espionage, 2009-2011 may well overstate Beijing’s role, while understating the systemic factors, both inside China and internationally, that are now driving economic espionage.

This isn’t to suggest that Chinese intelligence services aren’t involved in the clandestine collection of foreign science and technology – there’s abundant evidence that they steal foreign secret, proprietary, and even open source technologies. The real questions are what kind of economic and industrial secrets are Chinese intelligence really stealing, and how much of the danger to Western interests is really state-directed?

The big espionage cases over the past decade in which Chinese intelligence is alleged to have stolen foreign technology have primarily involved military intelligence interests. For example, Chi Mak – a spy for Chinese military intelligence – reportedly provided the Chinese military with information on damage control systems for U.S. naval vessels and the new Quiet Electronic Drive for the Virginia-class submarine, as well as a specialized circuit break for submarines and the power distribution system for Aegis-related weapons and radar.

Between 2006 and 2008, a Chinese military intelligence agent attempted to use Defense Security Cooperation Agency official Gregg Bergersen to give the Chinese military access to the hardware associated with the Po Sheng – a sophisticated U.S. command, control, and communication systems suite to link Taiwanese forces together and enhance their interoperability with U.S. forces.

Even efforts to penetrate Taiwan’s Chungshan Institute of Science and Technology – the military’s premier weapons development institute – seem to have the Chinese military’s information technological needs at the forefront. For example, missile developer Huang Chen-an, who was arrested for espionage in 2003, provided China with information on Po Sheng and the electronic parameters of Taiwanese missiles.

Example can be piled upon example; however, the basic point remains: Chinese intelligence appears to be a secondary player in economic and industrial espionage. In a list of Chinese economic espionage cases released by the FBI, only four individuals out of 29 successfully prosecuted for economic espionage-related crimes between 2008 and 2010 were involved with Chinese intelligence agencies. Most of these economic spies sold highly technical components or export-controlled equipment that would be of use to engineers and industrial researchers rather than military planners and electronic warfare specialists.

If China seems to generate more economic spies than anywhere else, the obvious question is why? And why do so many “amateurs” get caught?

Jeffrey Carr
December 16, 2011 at 10:19

Peter, thank you for such a reasoned, balanced article. It’s much needed in this time of jumping to the easy conclusion of placing all blame for cyber espionage solely on the Chinese government. For too long I’ve felt like I was the only one trying to make that case. Glad to see your views on the matter as well.

December 13, 2011 at 23:43

@john chan

USA scanning for illegal paraphernalia on your body a problem for you?
Have you seen how these scanners work? Besides your clothes, It can also see through your skin and muscles so that the operator will only recognize weapons and illegal items like bombs and stuff. So if looking at somebody else’s xray image is somewhat immoral to chinese people(since you said NO CHINESE). I feel sorry for you guys.

BTW, China isn’t the only country in the world either. China claims many islands in the pacific that’s very far from your country. I guess mainland china is too small for the chinese gov’t that’s why it claims every uninhabited island in the pacific.

I have no problem with chinese people. They are kind, peaceful and hardworking. Their government looks like the opposite.

John Chan
December 13, 2011 at 04:22

USA even builds scanners to see through what people wear their underwear and what are beneath their underwear like peeping Tom, and sell those images for profits. If you cannot call such nation a control freak and controlling people’s lives their top priority, what else can you call a nation with such sick mind?

Thanks a million; no Chinese wants to associate with a government of peeping Tom.

December 12, 2011 at 21:42

Communists aren’t building their country up to save the planet (hiding nuclear weapons could be a sign) unless their interests are first. Too many Americans think the rest of the world is like us, the UK or Israel, France, Canada, Australia, etc… Freedom. Democracy. Live and let live. Even though we have differences, we work as a team. The battles are on-going all over the world in cyberspace. If we could trust China, we could team up and get a better handle on the problems. But, we cannot trust them like our strongest allies. Unlike our the governments of our allies, CCP’s top priority is controlling people’s lives.

Silviu Craescu
December 12, 2011 at 03:38

Is really PRC the largest hostile military power on the planet? How about Russia, India and Pakistan?
The future war will be between the two great planetary powers U.S. and China?
My advice: we the citizens of this paradise called Earth do not want war!
Even if our social systems dyung, we need to think about and to implement and accept all of us, other social system called “comunionism”. This new social sistem will unite us and will give us the strength to conquer the cosmos /
Really,I hope for the good of mankind that great planetary military power to be prudent and thinking about conquering the cosmos to spread the seed of life and our species in the universe and not to deliver the black death message forerunner of extintion of our species and life!
My motto: Forever Hope, Life and always believing in God !-Silviu Craescu

John Chan
December 12, 2011 at 02:03

@Leonard R,
USA is not the world, nor the Westpac is the world, and definitely India is not the world. They are merely a tiny portion of the world. Even a lot people in China would welcome the cut off the connections between China and your tiny world as you can read from this site. You simply play into their hands. Way to go Leonard, I guess I can certify you are lackey of CCP.

yang zi
December 12, 2011 at 01:41

I am not sure do you want to isolate China or US.

The author pointed out a key problem, that is 90% of OS in China is pirated. I would say it is much less than that, because computer sales are coming with licensed OS. But it is true that there are too many pirated OS in China. Chinese gov can persecute some cases about that and thus enhances IP protection and cyber security.

Huawei is a global company with assets belong to former telecom
giants, there are many patriotic Americans just like @Leonard working in US based Huawei labs or branches. To suspect Huawei is to suspect Microsoft, Cisco or Google. Breaking global commerce rules are the type of things that will isolate US, not China.

December 12, 2011 at 00:25

The reason why Chinese spying activities are “getting caught” more often lately is because the US government is in the process of cutting military expenditures. Without basic fear mongering how else could the defense industry continue to siphon government funds? The military industrial complex needs an imaginary enemy and China fits the bill.

I must say that it’s an odd time for an American to mock China’s spying activities though. Afterall it was an American spy drone which was recently captured in Iran. I don’t think most Americans see this as problem, why build the strawman that China must see its failed spying activities as a problem? Countries spy on each other for good reasons. I would also not be surprised if there are more American spies in China than the other way around.

Leonard R.
December 11, 2011 at 16:42

@Prof. Mattis:

“Ultimately, placing responsibility for most of this activity on the Chinese government implies foreign governments can pressure Beijing to change…”

That need not be the intent. Governments simply must protect themselves from PRC spying. Beijing can do what it wants. Blaming it on the PRC is simply a rational recognition of the problem. Why should nations care what the CCP thinks about it when their own survival is at risk?

“So how should foreign, and indeed the Chinese, governments respond?”

Cease all military, technology, scientific exchanges. Move the PRC to special status on tariff schedules and place onerous tariffs on all PRC products. The authorities can launch investigations of Huawei & other PRC technology companies operating abroad.

Declare the PRC a hostile foreign power. Stop trading with them.
Stop military exchanges. Stop student exchanges. Isolate the PRC
on the planet.

These are a few baby steps we can take on the road to clarity.

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