Did a Female Chinese Super Spy Wreck CIA Ops?
SpyTalk plumbs Chinese intel history for facts behind David Ignatius's semi-fictional "The Tao of Deception"
The newest work of The Washington Post’s prize winning columnist David Ignatius is a spy thriller—oddly serialized in the paper’s opinion pages—about the espionage battles between the CIA and China’s Ministry of State Security, or MSS. The Tao of Deception, as it’s called, features a savvy, U.S.-educated young woman by the name of Ma Wei, who, over the course of the novella, rises from junior recruit to the head of the agency’s North America section—and destroys the CIA’s spy network in China.
In Ignatius’s tale, her years at the University of Wisconsin at Madison give Ma Wei insights into the culture and psychology of Americans, tools which she eventually employs with devastating effect against the CIA. Early in her career, just after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, when U.S.-China relations were far warmer than today, “Ma Wei was one of the young MSS employees in Beijing sent to attend counterterrorism seminars offered by the CIA for ‘the liaison service,’” Ignatius writes.
That doesn’t track with what at least one former senior U.S. intelligence official experienced. “There may be some they kept from us, but every contact at the liaison level was a man,” he said on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.
Asked whether Ma Wei was based on a real woman working at the darkest red corner of the Chinese Communist bureaucracy, Ignatius told the SpyTalk podcast this week that, “Yes, there was a very sophisticated senior operations officer who did some real damage to the CIA.”
If that’s true, who would her real life counterpart be? SpyTalk went looking.
“They have women operatives recruited from all over China, particularly from Beijing University’s School of International Relations and Diplomacy,” a Chinese researcher of national security issues told Spytalk on condition of anonymity to discuss such a sensitive topic.
Nicholas Eftimiades, a former CIA and DIA official and the author of two books on the subject, including Chinese Intelligence: Operations and Tactics, told SpyTalk that female operatives have been seen at the operational levels and have achieved some well-known espionage recruitments, such as Americans Glenn Duffie Shriver and Noshir Gowadia.
Those two were small fry compared to former CIA operatives Jerry Lee and Alexander Yuk-ching Ma, whose treasons are sometimes linked to the 2010-2012 spasm of arrests of dozens of agency assets. MSS women may have been involved in their interogations.
Peter Dahlin, who was detained in Beijing for 23 days in January 2016, identified a “Mrs. Zhang” as his lead interrogator, although that may have been a pseudonym. After his release, Dahlin went on to found Safeguard Defenders, the organization that recently exposed part of China’s worldwide network of covert “police stations” used for tracking and harrassing dissidents and ethnic minorities abroad.
Women have served as intelligence operatives for the communists as far back as World War Two, and perhaps earlier. One famous female spy was Shen Anna, who in 1935 infiltrated the communist’s rival for power, the ruling Chinese Nationalist Party, as a stenographer in the office of its Central Committee. Her spy work provided critical intelligence that helped Mao Zedong’s revolutionaries achieve their 1949 victory, sources say. A historian in Asia who asked for anonymity told SpyTalk that Shen retired in 1983 but was an adviser to the Shanghai State Security Bureau at the time of her death in 2010.
But some close observers of Chinese intelligence expressed doubt that any real-life person lay behind Ignatius’s invention of Ma Wei, at least during the decades covered in The Tao of Deception, which opens in 1985 with the (real life) defection of senior MSS official Yu Qiangsheng and climaxes with the lethal US-China espionage wars of the past decade.
Red Stars Rising
There are women serving in both the analytic and operations sides of the MSS today. They are prominent in the China Institutes for Contemporary International Relations, a front organization for the analysis bureau of the MSS. They also are observable in another innocent-looking State Security front, the China International Culture Exchange Center, according to Australian scholar Alex Joske, author of Spies and Lies: How China's Greatest Covert Operations Fooled the World. Joske told SpyTalk that the body includes women tasked with building social networks and carrying out influence operations for the MSS.
But there is one woman who may well have served as a rough model for Ignatius’s Ma Wei. Her name is Liu Li (刘莉). Now retired, the 71-year-old rose to become the director of the MSS’s political department, a rank equivalent to a vice minister, around 2006. At one time, Liu was listed on a web page of the National People’s Congress, or NPC, which has since been deleted but preserved on the Internet Archive. That page tells us only that she was a Japanese language specialist, born in Raoyang, Hebei Province in 1951, and who, after her MSS retirement, became a member of the NPC’s Internal Judicial Affairs Committee.
Other non-official pages add that Liu majored in Japanese at Hebei University and held her highest post in the MSS until 2013, when she was elected to the NPC. Clearly highly regarded (or connected) she was also elected in 2018 to the 13th Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, an advisory body to the party, but there is no mention of a re-appointment this year. Although Liu appears to be fully retired now, according to these unverified sources, she may well be working as an informal MSS adviser, like Shen Anna.
But both women are outliers, as far as we know.
Ma Wei appears to be made of whole cloth, weaved from threads Ignatius picked up from his own reporting on China, which he has visited several times over the decades, not to mention the impressive network of U.S. and other intelligence sources he has acquired over the years. It’s certainly true that the MSS has used Chinese students in the U.S., male and female alike, to gather open source scientific and technical intelligence and relay it back to Beijing. And today, a new generation of more worldly women (and of course men) does appear to be on the rise in the MSS.
Ignatius happily volunteers that The Tao of Deception, which he plans to flesh out into a full novel, is fiction. But as with so many of his spy yarns that closely parallel real events, people naturally wonder what’s true and what’s entirely made up in his books. The under-reported destruction of CIA networks in China by the MSS, he said on the SpyTalk podcast, made for enticing material.
“I…thought, what's a story that I know about that could be fictionalized, could be embroidered, that has a nut of just absolutely fascinating trade craft and mysterious, shattering consequences,” he said. “And the one that has always stuck in my mind is the story of how the CIA's network in China got rolled up about just over a decade ago.” 劇終
SpyTalk Contributing Writer Matthew Brazil is the co-author, with Peter Mattis, of the authoritative Chinese Communist Espionage: An Intelligence Primer.
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