China’s Misunderstood Spies

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China’s Misunderstood Spies

Chinese intelligence services are often assumed to use a vacuum cleaner approach to espionage. It’s a view that risks undermining other countries’ security efforts.

This month, Moscow publicly announced its federal security service had detained a Chinese spy, Tong Shengyong, who the Russians say they caught attempting to purchase documentation for the S-300 surface-to-air missile. The case has puzzled observers, because Beijing had already purchased the S-300 system several years ago, and started fielding its own knock-off.

Speculation has abounded over why the Chinese intelligence services would waste their time stealing details of a system they already possessed. The mechanics of Tong’s case are less important, however, than what it says about Chinese intelligence services and their operations – or at least foreign perceptions of that threat.

Most analysts believe the Chinese intelligence threat is largely amorphous, a vast human network vacuuming up many bits of information. China’s seemingly unique approach to intelligence is known by various names, including ‘human wave,’ ‘mosaic,’ or the ‘thousand grains of sand’ approaches to intelligence. Ultimately, it’s a view of Chinese operations fundamentally at odds with normal understandings of intelligence.

There a three major assumptions about this approach. First and most importantly, is that Chinese intelligence officers don’t rely on the traditional tradecraft of clandestine collection, such as paying or blackmailing for secrets. Second, that their secret services rely on the efforts of ethnic Chinese émigrés and citizenry abroad rather than the willingness of foreign citizens to betray the trust afforded them.And third, that the Chinese intelligence services play a secondary role relative to large, informal networks of amateurs, vacuuming up information irrespective of Beijing’s economic, military, and political priorities.

But is this really an accurate picture?

The Tong case suggests Chinese spies work much as others do. Covered as a translator for Chinese delegations, Tong tried to find Russians venal enough to accept payment for classified documents. Both the cover and the method are time honoured hallmarks of espionage, whatever cultural or operational tradition analysts choose from which to draw.

The attempt to acquire a specific set of Russian documents, meanwhile, suggests Chinese intelligence collection may not be so much incidental or coincidental as it is targeted. The Russian announcement of Tong’s intelligence mission tied to the Ministry of State Security (MSS) should make observers rethink likening Chinese intelligence to a giant vacuum cleaner. Such characterizations provide no insight into what Beijing demands of its intelligence services, and no guidance for counterintelligence officials working against the Chinese services or trying to counter economic espionage.

The problem is that the vacuum cleaner perspective lumps together a vast body of Chinese activity that may or may not be related to the intelligence services or Beijing’s immediate objectives. What observers often call Chinese intelligence activity includes the acts of Chinese entrepreneurs exploiting Beijing’s tacit condoning of intellectual property theft and Chinese research institutes trying to overcome a technical difficulty. The transformation of China’s defence industries toward market-based and competitive contracts has given an added incentive for Chinese scientists and engineers to try to gain technological leaps from the West, intensifying their efforts to acquire parts and solutions – whether classified or not.

But what of the Chinese intelligence services? Research conducted by graduate students at Georgetown University found Chinese intelligence services’ activities bear different signatures than the entrepreneurial if criminal described above. In one such thesis entitled ‘Directed or Diffuse? Chinese Human Intelligence Targeting of US Defence Technology,’ Amy Brown, after reviewing roughly 30 confirmed technology transfer cases, concluded Chinese intelligence services use traditional, targeted espionage techniques to acquire significant defence-related systems. On the other hand, the amateurish, seemingly diffuse collection of low-level, sometimes export-controlled parts, usually involves companies, research institutes, and other non-government organizations—not the intelligence services.

Security officials the world over, meanwhile, have uncovered new Chinese espionage cases displaying a range of familiar clandestine techniques. Taiwan recently sentenced Gen. Lo Hsien-che, who Chinese intelligence both induced and pressured to spy through financial incentives and blackmail. In addition, Chinese intelligence paid American student Glenn Duffie Shriver $70,000 for three abortive attempts to join the US State Department and CIA. Also, a Chinese diplomat and journalist in Stockholm recruited and paid a Swedish Uighur for information on Uighur émigré associations and activists. All three now languish in prison for their covert and formal relationship with Chinese intelligence professionals.

All this means it should be clear that Chinese thinking about intelligence doesn’t justify the wildly different concept of intelligence many Westerners ascribe to the country. Long ago, Sun Tzu began his justification of intelligence with the admonition that foreknowledge of an adversary’s plans comes from the minds of men rather than divination. Qian Xuesheng, father of China’s missile programme, called intelligence ‘activating knowledge’ that catalyses policymakers to action. Perhaps more recently and authoritatively, the Science of Military Intelligence distinguished intelligence from information by the former’s applicability to decision making. Whatever differences may exist between Chinese intelligence services and their foreign counterparts, they are more likely to relate to differences in institutional and cognitive style than some fundamentally alien concept of intelligence.

If the vacuum cleaner perspective and its advocates have distracted analysts from the evidence, then they have also distracted observers from the value of studying the Chinese intelligence services as organizations. The complex and expansive structure of China’s espionage apparatus offers an explanation for why an MSS collection operation might waste resources and risk political repercussions for materials seemingly in Chinese possession. China’s security establishment is largely divided in two between civilian and military elements, and observers can’t be sure how these normally competitive and stove-piped systems interact and at what levels of policy and operations.

On the civilian side, the MSS is composed of national, provincial, and local elements. Each level reports to the next MSS level up and the Political-Legal Committee at that level. This complex arrangement of horizontal and vertical relationships often creates bureaucratic competition that encourages pushing decisions upward while hiding information from elements of equal protocol rank. Second, the MSS chief may sit on the foreign affairs-related leading small groups, but the senior operational authority is Zhou Yongkang, secretary of the central Political-Legal Committee, and State Councillor Meng Jianzhu, also Minister of Public Security. So, while foreign affairs is confined to the centre, Zhou and Meng can issue orders all the way down the MSS chain of command. The result suggests an MSS foreign intelligence effort potentially restricted by more powerful internal security interests at all levels of its operations.

On the military side, intelligence functions exist among the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) four service branches, seven military regions, and at least two of the PLA’s four general departments. While much of this work may be tactical support to military operations, the General Staff Department may integrate these disparate elements at its highest levels where many of the organizations feed into the office of Deputy Chief of the General Staff for intelligence and foreign affairs. Although this deputy reportedly sits with his MSS counterpart in senior policymaking councils, even the Hong Kong press has failed to detail what level of interaction the two might have, or how far down the respective systems the Chinese intelligence services cooperate. Such division could explain why MSS collectors might pursue a seemingly redundant target like S-300 documentation.

The consequences of the vacuum cleaner view go far beyond a lack of operational guidance and into the realm of politics. Playing up a shapeless, insidious threat provides a useful political weapon with which to admonish a serving government for being weak on national security, regardless of the actual merits of counterintelligence and security efforts. The resulting atmosphere of suspicion discourages cooperation among the very parties who must cooperate to counter Chinese intelligence.

David Omand, in his book Securing the State, wrote security intelligence operations—such as counterterrorism and counterintelligence—require cooperation between security officials and civilian populations among whom threats wish to hide. In the case of Chinese intelligence, this includes ethnic Chinese émigré communities, which, at least in the United States, are now suspicious of the FBI. The botched investigations of Wen Ho Lee and Katrina Leung appeared to be politically (or racially) motivated witch hunts rather than the serious security investigations they were. To Chinese-Americans, these suspicions and resulting investigations are the natural result of an unwillingness to analyse Chinese intelligence more rigorously on the basis of evidence.

Tong’s detention in Russia should serve as reminder that the Chinese intelligence threat is, in fact, concrete, not amorphous. Analytic traction is possible. An evidence-based approach can help temper and give shape to how Beijing collects intelligence. Each new revelation of Chinese intelligence activity illuminates the pathways Beijing’s secret services use to fulfil their missions. Observers would be foolish not to incorporate such evidence as it becomes available.

And, at the end of the day, Tong is a further opportunity to move beyond the pernicious political and operational consequences of the vacuum cleaner view of Chinese espionage.

Peter Mattis is editor of the Jamestown Foundation's 'China Brief.'