On February 10th, 2021, The Institute of World Politics hosted a presentation and Q&A with Dr. Matthew Brazil on Chinese Intelligence titled Communist China’s Modern Intelligence Reforms. This event was part of IWP’s Asia Initiative Lecture Series.
Dr. Brazil pursued Chinese studies as an undergraduate at U.C. Berkeley, as an Army officer with tours in Korea and NSA, and as a graduate student at Harvard in its Regional Studies East Asia program. After a stint as the China specialist for the Commerce Department’s Office of Export Enforcement, he was assigned as a Commercial Officer with the U.S. Embassy, Beijing. He received a Ph.D. from the University of Sydney (2013), where his dissertation focused on the Chinese Communist Party’s intelligence organs. After co-authoring Chinese Communist Espionage, an Intelligence Primer (2019), Dr. Brazil has since focused his research on Chinese intelligence and has begun research on his second book investigating the history of intelligence operations in the Chinese communist movement.
China’s Intelligence Community
This presentation focused mainly on dissecting China’s intelligence community, and Dr. Brazil explained its components and reasons for being. He began by noting several similarities between China’s intelligence community and ours. China, like our own, has multiple services and institutions that implement the CCP’s intelligence efforts, the most notable being the Ministry of Public Security, Ministry of State Security, People’s Liberation Army, Strategic Support Force, and the Intelligence Bureau. Dr. Brazil highlighted that a major component of Chinese espionage is an abundance of moles. These are career agents who focus on a region or institution of particular interest to gain enemy intelligence to relay back to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Dr. Brazil also emphasized how seriously the CCP takes espionage, going as far as to execute traitors.
Chinese Perspectives on Intelligence
Dr. Brazil then revealed how the CCP’s perspective towards intelligence and counterintelligence has created unique practices in its efforts to promote espionage and thwart counter-espionage. The foremost perspective to maintain when understanding the Chinese Intelligence Community is that, to the CCP, espionage and intelligence are existential. Dr. Brazil illuminated how China’s intelligence community demands a very high degree of political loyalty to the CCP from its officers. The CCP passed the 2014 Counter-Espionage Law and the 2017 National Intelligence Law, which compels corporations and persons to cooperate with state intelligence work. In turn, this has created a highly politicized atmosphere in Chinese intelligence agencies.
This ironclad perspective has resulted in China taking aggressive measures to ensure state security. China has created a very difficult environment for foreign espionage to occur, mainly through mass domestic surveillance and technology, where rapidly advancing facial-recognition technologies and artificial intelligence (AI) can surveil the population with very intimate detail. Via cyber operations, Chinese intelligence efforts operate in tandem with technology, assertiveness, and heavy politicization.
China’s Intelligence Trajectory and Opportunities: Past and Present?
The final part of Dr. Brazil’s presentation examined the direction in which China’s intelligence community may be heading. He revealed a historical component to many of Beijing’s current anxieties towards counterespionage, where foreign residents living in China have increased significantly in the last century. In a chart, he showed how figures of foreign residents in China have risen from around 20,000 at the start of the 20th century to 650,000+ in 2020. Dr. Brazil stated that, as an intelligence officer in China, this is a clear case for alarm to the CCP.
Dr. Brazil then speculated about how China has been making efforts through reforms to solve chronic issues in its intelligence community. He noted that despite these efforts, there are chronic problems that still exist that cripple China’s espionage efforts, such as corruption, insider threats, inconsistent training, and quality in tradecraft within the Ministry of State Security (MSS). Dr. Brazil explained how sloppy handling within the MSS has crippled its capacity for effective espionage, where the institution is “bloated with old school counterespionage officers” and “amateur operations with a wide interpretation of espionage.”
Dr. Brazil’s presentation introduced the audience to China’s intelligence community and described how certain historical precedents have created a very serious and assertive attitude towards espionage in the CCP. As the nation rises in geopolitical and economic significance, Dr. Brazil anticipates that this century will be full of aggressive espionage efforts on behalf of the CCP.