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.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
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.