On Wednesday, October 7th, The Institute of World Politics hosted a webinar entitled Chinese Communist Espionage, led by Dr. Mathew Brazil. This event was a part of the Asia Initiative Lecture Series.
About the Speaker
Dr. Matthew Brazil is a non-resident Fellow at The Jamestown Foundation. He worked in Asia for over 20 years as a U.S. Army intelligence officer, an American diplomat based in Beijing, and a corporate security investigator. He is the co-author of Chinese Communist Espionage: An Intelligence Primer (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, Nov 2019), which can be found in hardcover and Kindle versions here.
More information on the book and this topic may be viewed at https://www.mattbrazil.net/. The author’s compendium of espionage terms in Chinese and photos from the world of Chinese Communist espionage may be seen at https://www.ccpintelterms.com/.
China and its Intelligence Community
Dr. Brazil began the lecture by recounting China’s Century of Humiliation, which encompassed China’s difficulties following the First Opium War. Dr. Brazil described how after the war an increasing number of foreign powers – such as Germany and Russia – established areas of influence in China, which impacted intelligence operations in those regions. During this period, a concern for the Chinese intelligence community and the CCP was the presence of Millenarianism and the loss of the “Mandate of Heaven.” Dr. Brazil stated that the CCP’s greatest fear at the time was losing this “mandate” in the minds of the populace, which, they believed, could lead to mass revolts and political movements.
Dr. Brazil explained that with an increase in the potential threat of a civilian uprising, the control of popular sentiment became a core interest of the CCP. An example of this is the PRC’s “control cartel,” which are deemed kingmakers and considered the most powerful government bodies in China. These bodies include the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the Organization Department, and the Propaganda Department. Their purpose is to keep foreign companies in line with the CCP’s rules and regulations.
Dr. Brazil described how China’s intelligence sectors exhibit strength and how they carry out increasing efforts to control the narrative about China abroad. The CCP has also produced a paranoid narrative in the country by cultivating a suspicion of foreigners, inflating the actual presence of spies in China, cracking down on political enemies, and implementing anti-spy campaigns. All these counterintelligence practices, Dr. Brazil stated, were the “early warning signs” that China’s intelligence operations differ greatly from those of other countries.
The Chinese Communist Revolution: The CCP Develops its Intelligence and Security
Dr. Brazil then discussed accounts from the early days of Chinese intelligence, specifically during the Chinese Communist Revolution. The first counterintelligence operation he discussed was a CCP spy ring inside the Kuomintang (KMT). The three spies were communist agents who obtained prominent positions in the central government’s national intelligence apparatus. Such infiltrations allowed the communists to obtain intelligence, which kept party members from being rounded up and annihilated between 1929-1931.
He also described how, during this period, the CCP became desperate because the Nationalists had managed to encircle the Red Army, gradually tightening the noose around communist-controlled areas. From 1932 to 1934, the CCP looked to Mo Xiong to help the Red Army survive. Dr. Brazil revealed that Xiong was a CCP intelligence agent who became an officer in the Nationalist Army. Because of his position, Xiong was able to obtain the plans for the Fifth Encirclement Campaign and send them by courier, using secret writing in student books, to the communist areas housing the Red Army and its leaders.
Dr. Brazil explained how after the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937, the communists upgraded their intelligence efforts. They established the Department of Social Affairs, a higher-ranking organization within the party that put intelligence at the same level as organizational work, propaganda work, and military work. To carry out their anti-Japanese war efforts, the department created liaison offices in nationalist-Chinese-held cities. After the 1949 victory, these liaison offices were considered a model for their diplomatic missions established abroad.
Beijing’s Spy Agencies and the Chinese Ultra Surveillance State: Intelligence and Security in the Modern Era
Due to the increasing number of foreigners in China, Dr. Brazil stated that the CCP created new governmental bodies that solely focused on intelligence and security. He discussed the Ministry of Public Security that has been part of the CCP since 1949. This governmental body acts as China’s national police and tracks political and religious dissidents within China.
A second body is the Ministry of State Security, started in 1983, which was founded due to the presence of foreigners in China. The Ministry carries out counterintelligence operations, such as deploying agents abroad, surveilling foreigners in China, and uncovering spies. Additionally, it maintains almost total control over diplomats and the business community who reside in China. Dr. Brazil highlighted some of the Ministry’s most notable successes: the elimination of 12-20 Chinese intelligence leaks working for the CIA in 2010-12, the 2015 OPM hack that harvested the data of 22.1 million Americans, and the recruitment of a former CIA officer (until 2018).
Dr. Brazil outlined the 2015 and 2016 reorganizations of the CCP’s Central State Security Commission. This Commission is a state security bureau with locations in various provinces. Each bureau has a different responsibility; for example, the bureau in Shanghai specifically targets the United States. Dr. Brazil believes that the creation of these types of government bodies is an attempt by the CCP to regain intelligence dominance over domestic and international societies that match the Mao regime. This desire for information has led China to become an “ultra-surveillance state” that uses AI to process information and apply it to its counterintelligence operations. Recently, the Chinese government implemented a social credit system that rates a citizen’s behavior and trustworthiness when it comes to the support of the CCP. The use of surveillance in China’s private sector has also increased: since 2012, anyone with money can purchase surveillance equipment such as covert cameras and listening devices.
CCP Espionage Operations
Dr. Brazil also discussed the integral aspects of the CCP’s espionage operations. The first aspect he mentioned was the selectivity of CCP recruitment. The criteria for selecting new members are that they must believe in Marxism and the idea that Chinese society is full of domestic and foreign enemies gathering secrets for hostile reasons. He then discussed the CCP’s use of military intelligence operations, standard espionage operations that utilize cyber ops and AI, expanding government bodies dealing with intelligence and security, and the continued use of internal purges.
To highlight the differences in Chinese counterintelligence operations, Dr. Brazil compared their operations to that of other nations’ counterintelligence practices. He discussed how, like other nations, China keeps its operations secret from other foreign and domestic entities. Due to a dramatic fear of spying, the CCP keeps substantial control over certain agents by using metaphors to monitor the Chinese population. Finally, the CCP acquires technology for Chinese State-owned enterprises (SOEs) and allows those enterprises to seek out technology themselves. Dr. Brazil then described how the CCP uses different counterintelligence techniques: employing massive numbers of ordinary people living abroad, forcing every student studying abroad to cooperate with the CCP, and recruiting only ethnic Han Chinese individuals as spies.
The Current State of Chinese Counterintelligence
In closing, Dr. Brazil discussed the aspects of current Chinese intelligence and security practices. He stated that the CCP conducts espionage like other countries; however, they utilize other unique methods like technology, intellectual theft, and mass domestic surveillance, which increases the threat of China’s access to information. He then noted that the Chinese Communist Party’s politics under Xi Jinping had created the perfect situation for the PRC to cultivate a high-risk, espionage-prone environment for business and foreigners in China. Such an environment raises the risks for foreign companies and other organizations to operate in China, where they potentially face highly coordinated espionage attacks against their establishments.
Dr. Brazil’s lecture demonstrated how the current form of Chinese counterintelligence stems from its historical response to foreign influence and its obsession with preventing domestic movements and revolts. As the CCP consolidated power, it created new government bodies focusing on intelligence and security, tracking dissidents, deploying agents abroad, and surveilling both foreigners and citizens. While the CCP similarly spies on other countries, it utilizes unique methods, such as technology and intellectual theft, that expose foreign companies operating in China to influence operations and coordinating espionage attacks. Such measures have allowed the PRC to create a risky environment for foreign companies and entities that want to do business in China.