China Power

Fixing China’s Intelligence System

Recent Features

China Power

Fixing China’s Intelligence System

China needs to officially admit the existence of its intelligence agencies so it can begin to supervise them.

Fixing China’s Intelligence System
Credit: Tiananmen Square image via Shutterstock

This text is a forward written to accompany a proposal for the National People’s Congress from a group of netizens. The original proposal read, “In order to face complex situations at home and abroad, China’s intelligence agency is badly in need reforms aimed at transparency and a supervision mechanism.” In this piece, I’ve swapped “intelligence agency” for “secret service” – not to make a sensational headline, but to make the authorities aware that, under the current situation, we cannot allow such as indispensable thing as an intelligence agency become a “secret service” hated by the people.

In every organization within the Party, the government, and the military, there’s already a quiet prelude to adjustments and functional reforms.  Recently, we also saw reforms aimed at the public security system. But one organization, so mysterious that it officially doesn’t even exist, often attracts my attention. Intelligence work is particularly important for China’s rise. Even after “reform and opening up” began (and let’s not mention the period between then and 1949), obvious gaps in intelligence or mistaken intelligence repeatedly caused the authorities to make wrong decisions. Because an intelligence agency wasn’t even allowed to officially exist, there was naturally no way for the public and even relevant government agencies to hold such an agency responsible – much less reform it.

Most countries with a population exceeding 5 million worldwide have set up intelligence agencies. Even Hong Kong, before it was returned to Chinese control, had a “political department” responsible for collecting intelligence. These intelligence agencies secretly collect information relating to politics, economics, and military affairs at home and abroad; information that serves as the basis for leaders’ decisions. In various languages around the world, “intelligence agency” has become a neutral and often-heard term, not that different from the terms “tax bureau” or “foreign ministry.” But in China, a major country with a population of 1.3 billion, this organization seems to be a taboo topic, whether in official documents or in the mass media – it’s as if there’s no such organization at all. The authorities are pretending that they are above such affairs, that they don’t take part in the shady affairs of espionage work at all. But in reality, it gives people the impression of a cover-up, actually drawing attention to what the authorities intend to hide. The situation has also lead people to talk about the intelligence agency using openly derogatory terms like “secret service.”

This lack of transparency has become an important issue. When it comes to the “transparency” of an intelligence agency, you might think the two are incompatible. It’s a secret agency; what transparency are you talking about? Actually, even secret organizations need transparency. After World War II, the rapid expansion of the United States’ intelligence apparatus (led by the Central Intelligence Agency) lacked oversight. After the intelligence side caused more than a little chaos, Congress intervened and the media began to disclose information; the situation took a turn for the better. Of course, as revealed by the Snowden leaks, there are inherent limits on how much one can supervise a top-secret organization.

For China — which doesn’t admit to itself that it has such an agency and never allows the words “intelligence agency” to appear in its public documents — government supervision is an even bigger problem, much less supervision from the public and the media. Spy movies made in mainland China are always set before 1949 – it’s obvious that back then, the Communist Party of China (CPC) not only had an intelligence agency, but it was quite powerful. Because intelligence work was always tightly controlled by top leaders such as Zhou Enlai, and because of the characteristics of the political system, there was of course no “transparency.” Even without supervision, there wouldn’t be any threat of subversion or chaos.

But after the departure of that generation of leaders who took political power at the barrel of a gun, the lack of supervision and transparency in the intelligence agency created some serious problems. For one thing, in this massive secret agency there were more people than tasks, spending money without anything to show for it except a few superficial achievements.

Deng Xiaoping held a grudge after a senior officer from the Ministry of State Security, Mr. Yu, defected – he never again trusted China’s intelligence agency. By contrast, Deng’s successor was extremely reliant on the intelligence apparatus; to a certain extent we can say he “governed the country according to intelligence.” But back then, the intelligence apparatus wasn’t putting out great results, causing much anger from top leadership and resulting in attempts to reform the intelligence agencies. These reforms had some successes. However, some people from the secret service entered the political struggle, even using techniques learned for targeting enemies against their own leaders.

When an agency certainly exists in reality but we always have to pretend that it doesn’t exist, it will naturally become an object of fantasies, rants, and fabrications for the country and even the world. A “non-existent” secret service inevitably becomes an object of mud-slinging and even slander from the public. Generally speaking, it seriously affects the ruling party’s image, and destroys the relationship between the Party and the people.

Because it “doesn’t exist,” the intelligence apparatus lacks supervision. It overly emphasizes secrecy to the point of keeping secrets from the authorities. Such conditions were definitely breed corruption within the organization; even serious breaches of laws and regulations go unsupervised. For example, foreign media reports that some officials are using the intelligence network’s exclusive espionage technology not to gain information on foreigners, but to listen in on China’s leaders.

And there’s a more serious problem. Just as we’ve seen in the U.S. and other countries, if there is an unsupervised intelligence agency it’s hard to avoid the problem of using intelligence operations to interfere in policies. Some intelligence leaders are seriously enmeshed in ideological or factional struggles. Without proper supervision, they could purposefully use biased intelligence reports to mislead decision makers, forcing them to make inappropriate or even wrong decisions. And of course, it’s common for intelligence agents to abuse intelligence and counterintelligence resources to deal with ordinary people or to monitor their political opponents.

After the 1960s, the U.S. intelligence apparatus moved from “non-existence” to the public eye; it was brought under the control of the White House and the supervision of Congress. Even so, the last few years have brought repeated scandals. But we should view these scandals correctly: it’s only when a scandal comes to light that you finally know there is an intelligence agency and can prove that they are active. When they succeed, they have to celebrate underground. What about those intelligence agencies that never see scandals? Each year, their most important “task” is to figure out how to spend billions of dollars of “special funds” provided by taxpayers.

Although I’ve spent a long time studying the world’s intelligence agencies and their operations, I still don’t know much about China’s intelligence apparatus. So I have to admit that the “facts” mentioned in this proposal are mostly based on my personal observation and speculation, especially things I learned after years of researching intelligence agencies in the West and in the USSR and Russia. That has given me the ability to at least partially predict what problems a still-developing China will face. When it comes to reform, perhaps we need to both maintain “Chinese characteristics” (an intelligence agency under single-party rule) and learn from the experiences (good and bad) of intelligence agencies around the world. We don’t need to repeat their errors.

To paraphrase the Song Dynasty poet Lu You, “I have a humble position, but I will never forget to worry about my country.” Ten years ago, I used three spy novels in the Deadly Trilogy to describe the problems China will face in the future when it comes to intelligence agencies, international relations, and national security. Ironically, the most important reason these novels couldn’t be published in China is because “China has no intelligence agency,” so why would it need spy novels? As we can see, China’s movies and TV shows don’t touch this topic. Looking back on my novels, they basically predicted the situation of the past 10 years, and even further into the future. If they had been officially published and read by everyone, people would have been more wary about this – could it have also helped prevent or ameliorate some of the  negative events?

Certainly, the reform of the intelligence agencies is a complex and long-term project. We need to reform the relationship between the intelligence community and government policy, and between intelligence personnel and the ruling party.  There’s also a lot to do when it comes to intelligence agencies and new-type think tanks. But I believe the most important point is to start with the transparency of the intelligence apparatus. Without a certain level of transparency, you can’t have oversight, and that makes it hard to supervise these agencies. That’s not good for the country, and it’s probably not something the leaders want either.

This piece originally appeared in Chinese on Yang Hengjun’s blog. The original post can be found here.