China Power

President Xi Vs. China’s Spies

Xi Jinping has done the unthinkable: targeting China’s powerful intelligence-gathering apparatus.

President Xi Vs. China’s Spies
Credit: Espionage image via Shutterstock

On January 11, the news trickled out that Ma Jian, a deputy minister at the Chinese State Security apparatus, had been detained over allegations of corruption. Ma’s detention is significant because it marks a clear change in the anti-graft campaign. China’s spy agency is one of the best funded, most politically protected entities in the country. Only the most confident and emboldened dare to take it on. For President Xi Jinping and his colleagues to have allowed such a senior figure to be targeted in this way shows they must think things are going to plan in the great clean-up that has been underway for over 18 months now.

Over a decade ago, when I joined the British Foreign Office, I was solemnly told in a briefing that Chinese leaders took the work of their intelligence services very seriously indeed, and heeded their advice closely. Under Hu Jintao and the pro-stability strategy, the Ministry of Public Security and the Ministry of State Security (MSS), along with all the other various agencies having a covert function, entered a new era of empowerment and influence. Zhou Yongkang, from 2007 on, sat atop this network. It was a well funded, politically supported fiefdom that may have had up to a million people working for it in various forms and guises.

This industrial sized entity, however, has been stymied by the sort of problems that plague similar organizations the world over. Territoriality, poor internal communication, and burgeoning waste of resources (not to mention their siphoning off to corrupt networks) are part of this. In any country, intelligence agencies have a tendency to become political tools for one power group or player over another if they aren’t closely watched. Their greatest asset is access to supposedly precious, privileged information and the ability to convey this directly to leaders without jumping through bureaucratic hoops. It is an old trick, but pasting a “Top Secret” line across a document raises the chances it will be read, no matter what it might contain. Intelligence agencies always have a keen readership.

With the uprising in Tibet of 2008, and then ongoing problems in Xinjiang, along with a myriad of other domestic disturbances, it is unsurprising that the MSS is particular became so forceful in the late Hu period. They were the ones mandated to gather whatever information they could to steal a march on agitators and forces for disruption in society. Of the massive $111 billion plus spent in 2012 alone on internal security, a good chunk of this would have gone the MSS’s way. What leader would be willing to confront the MSS when they were doing what is regarded as one of the most crucial jobs in the country, a job where, if there is a mishap, the political costs are colossal.

The boom years of the MSS have seen a domestic industry of intelligence production. In 2012, a Chinese academic complained that material as trivial as the names and email addresses of attendees of security related conferences with a China angle in the U.S. or the EU could be sold to the MSS for a small reward. Other materials of a more confidential nature of course attracted decent financial returns. Academics visiting China found they were approached by mysterious figures who requested articles on issues like Tibet, Xinjiang, foreign views of Hong Kong, etc. In technical areas, the MSS has become even more active, with scientists and those viewed as holding useful information sometimes targeted both inside and outside the country.

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Even the most assiduous central leader in Beijing, however, must have been overwhelmed by the deluge of highly classified reports that started to rain down on his head. In a country where access to the tightly guarded elite is so fierce, filtering material through the MSS became one of the best means of at least trying to ensure it stood a fighting chance of getting a glance from a Politburo member. China’s provinces, its six military districts, and its overseas diplomatic posts must have churned out epic quantities of material over this period . But as the British writer and former spy Malcolm Muggeridge pointed out many years ago, while 1 per cent of intelligence material might be absolutely critical and of immeasurable importance, the rest is mind-numbing dross.

More practically, though, the MSS has become over-powerful, and over-confident. One of the achievements of the leadership succession in 2012 was simply to downgrade its ultimate head from a member of the Standing Committee to a full Politburo rank. After that, scrutiny from the graft busters is now being used to enforce some discipline on the MSS, the wildest and least easily tamed of Chinese government and party entities. The bottom line in Xi’s China’s, as Ma Jian has just learned, is that with a falling growth rate even the mighty MSS has to stay in budget. And reform for China’s spies will mean the same mundane things as for everyone else – less resources, more efficiency, and (if all goes to plan) better quality.