China’s Top Spy is a Working Class Hero
Chen Wenqing has risen from street cop to boss of China's powerful Ministry of State Security. Loyalty paid off.
Chen, Wenqing Chen—never a 007, no martinis shaken or stirred, no tuxedo or Aston Martin. He’s just a working-class guy—and the star of China’s civilian spy apparatus, the MSS.
Tall and athletic-looking—according to official photos that only show him from the waist up—with a square-jaw and the black dyed hair common among Chinese leaders, Chen has the looks of a hero in a Chinese spy flick. Instead, he’s risen from local cop through the counterintelligence ranks to the top of China’s feared Ministry of State Security.
Since its founding in 1983, the MSS has had a preeminent role in China’s vast machinery of domestic repression. But Chen appears set to turn its foreign spying arm into an increasingly effective presence in America and elsewhere during the 2020s, says Nicholas Eftimades, one of the most well informed former U.S. government officials on Beijing’s espionage apparatus. With steady improvement in its foreign spying tradecraft over the past four years, Eftimiades says in his latest book, the MSS is now “China’s pre-eminent civilian intelligence service” and “targets political and defense information, foreign policy, overseas dissidents, military capabilities, and foreign intelligence services.” Meanwhile in the cyber realm, MSS competes with the notorious hackers of the People Liberation Army, who have repeatedly looted U.S. government files and raided corporate data banks.
All in all, Chinese espionage poses “a grave threat to the economic well-being and democratic values of the United States,” the FBI says.
It’s been quite a journey to Beijing for Chen, who turns 61 this month. Born in 1960 amid the Great Famine in Renshou, a rural farming and coal-mining district in southwest China’s Sichuan Province (famed for its pandas), Chen’s boyhood intersected with the onset of the chaotic ultra-leftist Cultural Revolution in 1966. With marauding Red Guards hounding “rightist” officials out of their jobs, Chen’s school was most likely shuttered and his formal education aborted. And yet, according to his official biography, he still achieved stratospheric college entrance exam scores leading him to study law and eventually putting him on the fast track in China’s communist bureaucracy.
According to his official biography, Chen started as a local cop, shifted into counterintelligence, and then became a prosecutor. He seems to have never run agents abroad, but he did manage spying missions against foreign diplomats and dissidents at home, his official biography shows. For the past four years, he has been China’s top spy and counterspy, coming to the job with over a decade of experience as an up-and-coming graft buster, lately in President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign.
Yet despite his prominence, American intelligence officials are loath to say anything about Chen, for fear that revealing the slightest personal detail about him might betray their sources and methods.
“Can't help you on Chen, and because of who he is, I wouldn't even if I could,” said one former U.S. official, in a response typical of the nearly dozen other experts on Chinese intelligence SpyTalk consulted.
“It's nothing personal,” the former official added. “Anything on him is going to be very tightly held, and for good reason. Even if the material seems innocuous, how it was obtained will be sensitive.”
But the official record, other documents, and witness accounts shed light not only on Chen but how Chinese president Xi Jinping has tightened the Communist Party’s control, perhaps more than his recent predecessors, on its intelligence organs. And in Chen’s story there are hints of what Americans can expect from Chinese espionage in the 2020s.
A review of the chaotic events of the late 1950s and 1960s lead to a riddle in Chen’s origins. His father had a lifelong career as a Public Security officer, which probably inspired him to follow a career in law enforcement himself. Not only that, for 20 years in a row, starting in 1951, the elder Chen was also awarded recognition as a Sichuan Province “progressive worker,” normally grounds for inclusion in a Chinese communist hall of fame. Yet his name is missing in the dozens of articles available online originating in the various approved accounts of his son’s trajectory to the top of the MSS. The award-winning, model Public Security officer is nameless. As is his spouse.
Also missing: information on how the family was affected by China’s many upheavals of the 1950s, when Chen’s father was a young Public Security officer. There’s no mention of how they fared during the Cultural Revolution, when accusations of being a “class enemy,” “counterrevolutionary,” or “enemy of the people” could come from anywhere and doom an official’s career.
Of course, the absence could just reflect a passion for anonymity by the parents, a wish by the son to preserve the family’s privacy, or both. But it could also indicate a desire by Beijing to avoid touching on sensitive topics—for example, whether the elder Chen and his wife were denounced or tortured during the vicious political campaigns and famine that led up to the Cultural Revolution. Or whether one or both were themselves denouncers or torturers. How would that look in the public record?
Or something even more embarrassing: Pressured to find “class enemies'' during the Anti-Rightist Campaign of the late 1950s, and then openly attacked again by rampaging lefttist youth in the early years of the Cultural Revolution, Public Security bureaus across China were plagued with denunciations among colleagues. Thousands of police and other officials were sent to labor in the countryside and “learn from the peasants.”
Chen was nine when the mass hysteria of Mao Zedong Thought was at its height, when a simple careless word could result in a shattering denunciation. Even children could destroy their parents with a report on their “class betrayal.”
Amid all the chaos, Chen’s education had to have been constantly interrupted. Yet when he sat for the annual nationwide college entrance exam at age 20 in July 1980, his score, according to official Chinese media, was high enough to admit him to China’s most elite institutions: Peking University and Qinghua University, the Harvard and MIT, respectively, of China.
But in another oddity, Chen decided instead to attend the Southwest University of Political Science and Law in Chongqing (known as Chungking when it was China’s wartime capital in World War Two), supposedly due to his father’s desire that he be close to home in Sichuan Province.
There’s no further explanation in his officially scripted life story. The bright lights of Chongqing, however, carried the hope of a brighter future.
Thin red line
Newly minted with a legal degree, Chen eschewed the courtroom and launched his career in law enforcement as a lowly patrol officer at the Xiejia Township Public Security Station in Pengshan County, just south of the province capital of Chengdu. In 1988, the official records says, he was hailed for a heroic act, risking his life to crawl close to the hideout of two armed suspects to install a searchlight.
At the end of the year, just before his 29th birthday, Chen was selected as an “outstanding public security bureau chief.” Like his father before him, he’d become an award-winning cop.
In 1993, Chen rose to become chief of the larger Leshan Public Security Bureau, also near Chengdu. It was a year when 10,000 peasants in neighboring Renshou county, his birthplace, rebelled against excessive taxes by storming government offices and setting fire to a patrol car and the home of a local party secretary. At the same time, similar uprisings were reported in 11 other provinces and cities.
If the security forces in Renshou could not immediately handle that 1993 uprising, neighboring bureaus like Chen’s would certainly have assisted. But Beijing’s account of his career also omits mention of what must have been a significant event for him—and one that could have figured prominently in his dang’an, the secret personnel file kept on CCP members and most urban residents.
In August 1994, only a year after the Renshou riots, Chen transferred to the Ministry of State Security headquarters in Sichuan Province, switching careers from catching criminals in the countryside to monitoring diplomats, spies, and dissidents in and around Chengdu, the provincial capital. It was a period when the MSS was going through an upgrade, offering enhanced perks and benefits and recruiting college graduates, in part to differentiate themselves from their rivals in the more rough hewn Ministry of Public Security.
Chen’s law education must have made him an attractive recruit. Going with State Security also meant a move to one of China’s most important cities and a step toward Beijing.
A den of intrigue
Chengdu is ground zero for Sichuan’s famous “hot and numbing” cuisine, such as its legendary hotpot, mapo doufu, and Gongbao jiding (Kung Pao chicken). But to Beijing, Chengdu has also been a center of foreign subversion.
Before China closed the U.S. consulate in Chengdu in 2020 (in retaliation for the Trump administration ordering its consulate in Houston shuttered), it was among the most closely watched American diplomatic posts in China, located only short drive from a key military aircraft factory and 68 miles from a vital defense industrial complex in neighboring Mianyang.
Chengdu also abuts Sichuan’s Tibetan “autonomous prefectures,” gateway to Tibet itself—whose resistance to communist control has bedevilled Beijing since the triumph of the revolution in 1949. Downtown Chengdu itself has a Tibetan quarter, nicknamed “Little Lhasa,” subject to close attention by China’s security services.
All of which gave Chen an opportunity to excel when he arrived in Chengdu in 1994. With his humble upbringing and precocious achievements, he would have been considered “red and expert,” i.e., politically loyal and technically competent. And he did well, evidently, earning promotions, first as deputy director of the Sichuan State Security Department, and then as its chief in January 1998.
Exactly what he did to earn his promotions has not been publicized. But while he was in charge there, the MSS vigorously targeted foreign diplomats, business people, students, tourists and Chinese applicants for foreign travel. Of course, dissidents and various other political troublemakers were high on its list, but the Americans were a top target.
U.S. consulate officers were constantly monitored, especially when they visited Tibet.
“We never played any games trying to elude them,” a former senior American diplomat told SpyTalk. “They even kept people stationed outside our hotel rooms.”
“Chengdu was always a nasty place for the U.S.,” a former Western official also tells SpyTalk, especially in 1999, after a U.S. warplane mistakenly bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the Serbian war. Then-Vice President Hu Jintao gave a speech greenlighting attacks on American facilities. Events began to get out of hand: a mob entered the U.S. consul general’s residence in Chengdu, trashing and burning it. Only when the mob tried to use a bicycle rack to ram down the doors of the main consulate building did Chinese security authorities step in.
It’s easy to imagine Chen Wenqing and other senior communist officials supervising the demonstrations from a secret command center in the city. American calls for restraint may well have gone unanswered: the Chengdu MSS under Chen maintained an arms-length relationship with the city’s foreign missions and their security officers. But that was probably party policy. It was “rare,” one former senior American said, “for any resident U.S. government officials to meet or speak with serving MSS officials like Chen… “ Contacts were limited to “local think-tankers and academic cutouts like Zeng Zhaoke, an MSS-affiliated ‘foreign devil liaison’ type,” he said.
Moving on up
In 2002, Chen was promoted again, this time out of the police ranks, to run the provincial prosecution office, or “people’s procuratorate,” roughly equivalent to a U.S. Attorney’s office in the United States. An out-of-control corruption crisis had erupted, roiling not just the party, government, private sector, and military services, but Chinese society as a whole. Chen’s official record sheds no light on his own performance, but it’s likely he would have managed at least some cases related to university kickbacks, urban planning bribery, and private distribution of state-owned assets in Sichuan.
And he must have done well, because he was rewarded with another step up, in China’s Fujian Province, opposite Taiwan, as both the deputy provincial party secretary and a secretary of Fujian’s discipline inspection commission, the local arm of Beijing’s national anti corruption unit, one with broad and frightening powers. It was his first taste of provincial-level political leadership.
But the big break came in 2012. Xi Jinping summoned him to Beijing to be the right-hand man of Xi’s own right-hand man, Wang Qishan, head of the all-powerful Central Discipline Inspection Commission, or CDIC. In short order Chen became a media darling (by Chinese standards), a much-touted graft buster, along the way becoming the deputy party secretary of the CDIC and, in 2015, president of the Chinese Academy of Discipline Inspection.
With his highly regarded security background and record, Chen may well have managed the purge of over 100 senior communist officials. The cleansing had begun just before his arrival, with the dismissal of no less than the vice minister of the MSS, Lu Zhongwei, ousted at least in part because one of his aides was among the dozen or so Chinese accused of working for the CIA from 2010 to 2012.
The MSS had a troubling corruption problem, at least by Xi’s lights. In 2014 he purged Zhou Yongkang, a former security czar, as well as MSS vice minister Qiu Jin. In early 2015, another MSS vice minister, Ma Jian, lost his job due to corruption.
In a number of cases, it became clear that local Chinese officials sometimes bugged their superiors. In 2011, officials in Chongqing were uncovered wiretapping President Hu Jintao. It was nothing new: Chinese officials have been bugging each other for over a half century. In 1961, a senior official was accused of planting a listening device in Mao’s railcar.
Now, at the MSS, a thorough house cleaning was underway. In came a new political commissar: Chen Wenqing.
A clean sweep
Xi would need an ideologically safe broom to clean out the MSS stables following the revelations of corruption and infiltration by the CIA, someone with a successful track record in internal security who could also be trusted eventually to direct its foreign spying and domestic counterintelligence operations. In April 2015, he installed Chen as the MSS party secretary, i.e. its political commissar, in effect an understudy to its boss, Geng Huichang.
When Geng retired in November 2016, Xi appointed Chen his successor. Not only that, he was awarded a seat on the CCP Central Committee, key to becoming an insider at the top of the Chinese Communist Party hierarchy.
But the “chairman of everything,” as Xi is known, was by no means done reorganizing and rectifying Chinese intelligence. And Chen, his new top spy, was to become chairman of everything in state security. In May 2018, Xi named him deputy director of the Central State Security Office, part of his new Central State Security Commission (CSSC), created to tighten party oversight of Beijing’s secret world.
Party loyalty was becoming the paramount duty of every Chinese citizen. New laws were passed requiring them to cooperate with security and intelligence organs, including in espionage operations abroad.
Chen now appears to have his hands on the controls of the party’s political oversight of the MSS, a position of considerable trust conferred by Xi. The president’s implementation of party power, meanwhile, is “harnessing the growing capabilities of the security and intelligence services into a coherent policy system that worked with rather than against overarching national policy,” according to China experts Peter Mattis and Samantha Hoffman. Now the party more firmly controls the spies, ordering them to stay out of politics and do what they’re told. In essence, it’s back to the future, to an idea central to “Mao Thought,” when the chairman famously wrote that the Party controls the gun, not the other way around.
But as China’s security apparatus gains more and more technical capability, Xi aims to keep it on a short leash. And he seems to be betting that having a loyal Chen in the wheelhouse, under close supervision, will stop the intelligence apparatus from being used to spy on rivals in a future power struggle.
The MSS, meanwhile, appears poised to become ever more aggressive in foreign intelligence gathering and technology theft. With four years to go until he reaches retirement age in 2025, Chen appears to have clear sailing ahead—barring no more major screw-ups.
The case of Xu Yanjun, arrested in Belgium in 2019 and extradited to the U.S. in connection with an espionage investigation in Cincinnati, Ohio, does not seem to have been a career-ending event. Nor was the case of a Zoom employee in China being fired by the California firm and indicted in the U.S. after turning over user information to the MSS. That’s just the cost of business in the espionage realm.
The MSS is catching up in foreign cyber operations, too. Well-coordinated MSS activity has been observed but perhaps less often exposed than intrusions by PLA cyber units such as 61398, whose hackers allowed sleuths abroad to take photos of them from their own computer cameras.
Today, Chen’s the star of China’s espionage show. But he’ll never be confused with James Bond. In the official accounts, he’s just a humble, incorruptible and well-educated cop, a loyalist who plugged his way to the top.