China’s Misunderstood Spies
Image Credit: Matt Spurr

China’s Misunderstood Spies


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.

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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.

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