A Bold New Look at China’s Audacious Spies
‘Spies and Lies’ unmasks Beijing’s aggressive and confident espionage service
DURING AND AFTER THE COLD WAR, English-speaking readers could choose from dozens of books about the spy services of Russia, Britain, America, France, and Israel. Absconding former KGB officers wrote memoirs of service to—and flight from—The Center’s embrace. Disgruntled former CIA officers detailed their complaints about the disconnect between American values and Washington’s covert action programs. There was the document dump of Wikileaks and reportage on Edward Snowden’s archive. Needless to say, all of these intelligence revelations bled into film and television and the wider culture.
All the while China’s organs of state security remained opaque, a “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,” as Winston Churchill said of Stalinist Russia. Today the epigram would be better applied to China’s security organs. Aside from a few dramatic and vaguely sourced works in the 1970s and 80s, the praetorian guards of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have remained understudied, almost unacknowledged in the sprawling field of China studies. Australian expert Alex Joske aims to rectify that situation
For observant foreigners living in or visiting the People’s Republic, things were very different. To diplomats, journalists, and NGO officials, the Ministry of State Security (MSS), China’s premier civilian intelligence service, was the oppressive but invisible elephant in everyone’s hotel suite, office, living room, and bedroom. Although MSS had foreign intelligence responsibilities from its founding in 1983, the ministry focused in its first two decades on counterespionage inside China and the suppression of domestic dissent and unauthorized political expression. MSS officials closely monitored unofficial cooperation by Chinese citizens with foreigners, benign or not. Household help and local staff in China were required to report on their foreign employers. The bedrooms of foreign diplomats and journalists—and hotel rooms frequented by foreign guests—were spiked with hidden audio devices and covert cameras. Packages addressed to foreigners from abroad were routinely ripped open. One urban myth claimed that the elevator machine rooms on top of Beijing’s “diplomatic apartment” buildings contained listening stations. Genuine surveillance facilities were indeed ubiquitous, but they were much better hidden than that.
In recent years, the party has tasked MSS with more foreign intelligence work while retaining its domestic secret police functions. Since 2005, cyber-attacks harvesting vast amounts of personal identifiable information from Americans and others have made MSS not quite a household word in the West, but certainly more widely known.
After party leader Xi Jinping announced his military and intelligence reorganization plans in November 2015, MSS influence operations became more visible—often in cooperation with other CCP organs such as the party’s United Front Work Department. In the meantime, Xi Jinping appointed a loyalist, Chen Wenqing, to lead MSS. Chen also sits on the party’s Central State Security Commission that oversees his ministry. As the “broom” brought in by Xi to clean up corruption inside MSS, Chen is expected to keep State Security firmly on the side of China’s new great leader.
Alex Joske’s new book Spies and Lies: How China’s Covert Operations Fooled the World shines much needed light into this darkest red corner of the CCP and its quest, not only to steal foreign government secrets and technology, but to exert international influence at the level of a modern superpower, albeit with the proclivities of a suspicious and meddlesome relative. “Few lies and attempts at manipulation have shaped our world as much as those spun by the MSS,” writes Joske, a China expert fluent in Mandarin. “This book is the story of those lies.”
A signal achievement by Joske is his account of the various MSS front organizations that spy and exert influence on foreigners and foreign organizations to advance China’s position in the world. Joske’s copious research brings us 13 chapters, each a case study of a Chinese operation or program, whether successful or blundered. His research is peppered with numerous Chinese language sources, raising the possibility that some of his revelations may not be known to U.S. and allied security services.
One of the most interesting chapters is the account of Lin Di, the son of a martyred CCP spy persecuted to death in the Cultural Revolution. Scion of an extraordinarily “red” family, Lin had an uncle in the foreign ministry, another in the army, and a famous ancestor known to every student of modern China: Lin Zexu, the Qing Dynasty official sent in 1839 by the Chinese emperor to Canton to smash the opium trade, an action that triggered British retaliation and the First Opium War.
Lin’s family background made him politically reliable and therefore trustworthy to be sent on MSS missions abroad beginning in the 1980s, even in the tense period following the 1989 Tiananmen Square Incident. In 1995, he was given a cover assignment in the China International Cultural Exchange Center (CICEC), an MSS front established and staffed by the Ministry. In 2001, as secretary general of CICEC, he spoke about China in front of an elite audience at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. But by then his real job was as chief of the MSS 12th Bureau. One of his Bureau’s assets was Katrina Leung, the FBI source later exposed as a double agent working for State Security.
One of the CICEC’s major tasks in the period leading up to the 1989 Tiananmen Incident was to infiltrate and cripple George Soros’s China Fund, which the party blamed for instigating China’s democracy movement. After forcibly replacing the Fund’s original Chinese partner, CICEC began using its money for their own operations. Increasingly restricted as the political atmosphere tightened in 1989, Soros decided to withdraw from the People’s Republic.
China’s power grew after the millennium, but the CCP found itself so riddled with corruption that its legitimacy was under threat. Even senior MSS officers were implicated, alongside military leaders, in endless financial and sexual scandals. But the ideologically staunch MSS rank and file was less tainted, a valuable asset for investigating high-level miscreants. After Xi Jinping rose to power in 2012, the foreign intelligence and influence missions of the MSS were supercharged, while the espionage responsibilities of the People’s Liberation Army were redirected back toward military intelligence and acquisition of foreign warfighting technology.
This sober and sometimes depressing topic is delivered in elegant prose. For example, the chapter entitled “Buddhism as a Tool of Influence” begins:
The Bodhisattva’s towering and brilliant shape juts out from a vast ocean. Her tons of painted titanium sit some yards off the shore, like an Atlantean ruin bleached bone-white by centuries of sun. The only interruption between sea and statue is the golden lotus-blossom platform she rests upon, looking down from 108 metres high with a cryptic smile. She is a modern image of the timeless Goddess of Mercy and Compassion, the most revered Buddhist deity in China. To the Chinese she is Guanyin, Kannon to the Japanese, Chenrezig to Tibetans and Avalokitesvara in the ancient tongue of Sanskrit.
Joske’s chapters also level a cogent indictment of modern China studies for “the vacuum of research on Party intelligence organizations and the rise of the Access Cult,” as he calls it, wherein academics trade away their independence in exchange for access to Beijing officials.
“China’s intelligence and security agencies are generally left out of histories and analysis of the country in a way that would be unimaginable when writing about the Soviet Union,” Joske writes, pointing out that the secretive nature of MSS and other secret organs of the CCP is no excuse for not studying them because of the many available open sources that, as the book’s footnotes show, he has adroitly exploited.
Compromise is widespread, he alleges. In a passage destined to make the author less than popular in academic establishment circles he writes:
The MSS has explicitly offered to help individuals land meetings with senior officials as part of its recruitment pitches. While not all who take part in the Access Cult are involved with Chinese intelligence agencies, all accept its bargain of access in exchange for compromising their freedom and integrity. They rely on access for their reputations and income and will never knowingly cross a line that might compromise their continued good standing with the Party or the proxies they rely on to organize high-level meetings.
Joske does not refrain from naming prominent MSS influence targets such as former Australian prime minister Bob Hawke and American figures including Henry Kissinger, Chas Freeman, and George Soros. He makes clear that China’s interlocutors sincerely believed that engagement after the Tiananmen Square Incident would move Beijing toward being a responsible international stakeholder—but he maintains that they were unwitting objects of sophisticated operations that had real impact on foreign government policy and public opinion.
In another section of the book, Joske tackles the CCP’s policy of pursuing China’s “peaceful rise,” begun under China’s previous leader, Hu Jintao. As Joske describes it, peaceful rise is less a policy position than an offer to the West: “Abandon Taiwan, forget universal human rights, cede your sovereignty, give us control of strategic industries and technologies and you might be allowed a place in the coming Century—if we’re feeling nice.”
Such a statement would have been considered ultra-hardline and needlessly cynical when China’s previous leader, Hu Jintao, launched the peaceful rise policy in 2003-2004, and even during Xi Jinping’s first term from 2012-2016. But views of Beijing’s intentions and capabilities are rapidly changing. In her new book, Overreach, Susan Shirk of the University of California at San Diego’s China Center argues Xi Jinping has “derailed” the peaceful rise policy with his aggressive stances toward Taiwan, India, Japan, its Southeast Asian neighbors, the U.S., Canada, and Europe.
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In The Avoidable War, Kevin Rudd, former Australian prime minister and a noted authority on Chinese politics, lists Xi’s priorities much as Joske does: preserve the party’s control; keep China on the road to becoming the prime power in the world; achieve stable growth; pursue rearmament; and establish independent, world class capability in key industries, such as semiconductor manufacturing, that Xi calls “chokepoints.”
Earlier this month in a talk at Stanford University, Rudd said three things have changed since the U.S.-China “managed relationship” of the 2000s: Xi Jinping is a different leader who is uninterested in following Deng Xiaoping’s more patient model of governance. The U.S.-China balance of power has changed in Beijing’s direction. And the United States is no longer willing to assist in China’s “peaceful rise.”
That such prominent observers are writing more about Beijing’s unstated aims toward other nations is partially thanks to analysts like Joske, Peter Mattis, Nicholas Eftimiades, Michael Schoenhals, Michael Dutton, David Chambers, and others not so beholden to the “Access Cult” and its corporate enablers. (Full disclosure: In 2019, Mattis and I co-authored Chinese Communist Espionage, An Intelligence Primer.) Even to this day, big business hopes for a quick return to the fanciful age when the chimera of endless profits in China’s “big emerging market” gripped the imagination of shareholders everywhere.
The sometimes cyclical nature of international relations may indeed bring us back to those halcyon days. If that occurs, we would be wise to continue to develop and maintain a grasp of today’s more realistic view of the Chinese Communist Party–without sinking back into the morass of racism and McCarthyism that previously characterized difficult periods in U.S.—China relations.