Chinese espionage cases in the US have assumed alarming proportions. On July 7, Christopher Wray, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, declared: “We’ve now reached the point where the FBI is opening a new China-related counterintelligence case about every 10 hours. Of the nearly 5,000 active FBI counterintelligence cases currently underway across the country, almost half are all related to China.”
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Since the mid-1990s, evidence of Chinese espionage in the US had been mounting. However, it is only recently that the US began taking this issue seriously. Washington’s inability to recognize the threat from Beijing early on is due to its failure to understand Chinese espionage culture. This, in turn, is because the US lacks a strategic counterintelligence culture and focuses excessively on operations.
Historical Roots of Chinese Espionage Culture
Americans see the worsening of Sino-US relations from the prism of “betrayal” and “surprise.” This is because the US considers the 1972 US-China rapprochement as a watershed moment. Many in Washington believe the US was singularly responsible for the dramatic economic rise of China. Consequently, they had assumed that the Middle Kingdom would be grateful for American help and adopt Western norms over time. To their surprise, this did not happen. Beijing never really displayed gratitude and it has become increasingly defiant as it has become more powerful. The rising threat of espionage, both security and commercial, is just one of the many manifestations of this defiance.
A simple question arises: Why did the US fail to foresee the threat of espionage by China? The answer lies in the chronic inability of American intelligence and intelligentsia to pay adequate attention to the intelligence cultures of other countries. As early as the 1980s, this lacuna had been pointed out by some academics who understood the perils of neglecting foreign cultures. Their advice went unheeded, though.
To understand Chinese intelligence culture, the operative date is not 1972 but the first recorded interaction between the Chinese and Western civilizations. In the 16th century, Italian-born Father Matteo Ricci led a team of Jesuit missionaries to the village of Shanghai. In a way, these missionaries were the first Western intelligence operatives in China. They came with the mission of converting the Chinese to Christianity. The Jesuits assumed that the lure of superior Western science and technology would convince the Chinese to embrace Christianity. This didn’t happen. By the end of the 19th century, the Jesuits concluded that their mission had been a “total failure.”
The reason behind this failure is fairly straightforward. Hostility toward foreigners was deeply entrenched in the Chinese psyche. Any foreigner was categorized as “inferior” and “barbaric.” The missionaries were only welcome as long as they imparted knowledge in the scientific and technological realms. Beyond that, when they tried to propagate religion and philosophy, they were punished and sometimes executed. In essence, the Chinese saw the missionaries akin to a fat cow that was to be milked and then slaughtered. This episode offers important insights for understanding modern Chinese espionage culture.
Today, China is again milking the West for advanced scientific and technical knowledge. This time, it has sent Chinese spies to infiltrate citadels of Western knowledge, especially in the US.
Reassessing Chinese Espionage Operations
Studies on Chinese intelligence have mostly focused on operational level analysis. Analysts have largely failed to place individual espionage operations within the cultural context. Few Americans understand that the principles guiding Chinese espionage operations are fundamentally at odds with western ones.
This difference could be spotted as early as the mid-20th century when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was building up its intelligence infrastructure with the help of the Soviet Union. Subsequently, the CCP intelligence apparatus cooperated closely with Soviet intelligence. Yet, despite tutelage and operational cooperation, the influence of Soviet intelligence practices on the Chinese remained minimal.
Just as 16th century China had welcomed Western science and discarded Western philosophy, the CCP followed the same practice. Operationally, the CCP intelligence services were keen to learn the tricks of the trade from the Soviets. However, they stuck with their ancient philosophies on the subject. In particular, the Chinese stayed true to Sun Tzu, the famous military strategist of the 6thcentury BCE. There was “no imitation or even emulation” of Soviet intelligence practices, but only “customization and improvisation.”
One such customization can be seen in how the Chinese have employed the Sun Tzuvian concept of “expendable spies,” which conflicts with the Western philosophy of “ethical spying.” Empirical studies on the British, American and Soviet experience in running human intelligence operations reveal a remarkable degree of concern for field agents. In particular, Western intelligence agencies have historically shown great regard for the lives and security of their informers. The Americans and the British treated Russian informers like Adolf Tolkachev and Oleg Gordievsky rather well. The Soviets also took good care of strategic informants like the Cambridge Five. Western handling officers often insist on “informant security.”
The “expendable spies” doctrine, on the other hand, does not extend to the field agents the privileges that come with “ethical spying.” The arrest of Candace Claiborne, the State Department official, illustrates this point. Claiborne’s true identity was revealed when she unsuspectingly accepted a compliment from an undercover FBI operative that she was one of the “highest regarded” assets of the Ministry of State Security (MSS), the intelligence, security and secret police agency of China. This incident reveals that Chinese intelligence seems to have offered zero security training to an agent who enjoyed top-secret clearance. The CCP treats agents as “disposable” because it still follows Sun Tzu’s theory of “expendable spies.”
The expendable and ethical schools of intelligence lead to a qualitative versus quantitative dichotomy when it comes to informer networks. Western agencies look for a few reliable informers who can be secured. The Chinese employ a vacuum cleaner approach and prefer using a large number of intelligence collectors instead of a few trained professionals. This qualitative-quantitative distinction is certainly well known, but few Americans appreciate its historical origins that date back to the formative years of the CCP intelligence apparatus.
Beijing has used the quantitative approach relentlessly when it comes to commercial espionage. In 2015, John Lewis of the Obama administration insisted to his Chinese counterpart that they discuss this thorny issue. After a few failed attempts at dodging it, the Chinese official made a rather candid observation. According to the official, the Chinese intelligence culture did not distinguish between espionage for national security and for economics. Such a dichotomy was solely a Western one. For the Chinese, it did not exist. Despite this clear confession, it took another five years for the American establishment to completely wake up to the reality of the Chinese threat.
Fixing the American Culture of Counterintelligence
The US can contain the Chinese threat by effective counterintelligence. However, the current state of play does not inspire much confidence. American misreading of Chinese espionage culture has given birth to an inadequate counterintelligence response. The US focuses too much on individual cases and not enough on developing a strategic counterintelligence doctrine.
In such a strategy, the US would employ offensive operations to disrupt enemy intelligence goals. Instead, the FBI currently deploys a defensive strategy that involves the prosecution and conviction of foreign agents. This has two obvious flaws.
First, prosecution takes up scarce time, energy and money. It has an opportunity cost. It fails to exploit a compromised spy who could be used as a double agent. Prosecution also alerts enemy intelligence agencies who can then cover up their tracks.
Second, convictions are hard to obtain in intelligence matters. Evidence is often insufficient, critical details of operations cannot be revealed and the gray matters of espionage do not translate as easily to the cut and dried approach of the court of law. This makes convictions difficult to secure. In fact, the shrinking arrest-to-conviction ratio feeds into the Chinese intelligence offensive, which feeds on accusations of racism and witch-hunting by the Americans. Every person accused by the FBI who walks away free adds to China’s psychological operations (PSYOP).
In theory, PSYOP is shaped and targeted at a particular set of audiences to achieve a well-defined set of objectives. By accusing Americans of racism, the CCP aims to appeal to the sentiments of the American people in order to turn them against the FBI. In this regard, Beijing seems successful as American academic and scientific institutions have repeatedly resisted the FBI’s requests to monitor Chinese students. These institutions fear accusations of racism and perhaps a drying up of Chinese money. China has cleverly created rifts between American security agencies and its intellectual institutions to further its own purposes.
To extricate American counterintelligence from this imbroglio, the US will have to embrace a strategic counterintelligence doctrine. It will have to use PSYOP effectively too. In particular, it could focus on China’s violations of human rights such as the brutal “traitor weeding” program followed by its intelligence agencies. Already, educated Americans are turning against Chinese actions in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet.
Therefore, the need of the hour is for Americans to embrace the famed Sun Tzuvian dictum: “[K]now thyself and know thy enemy; a thousand battles, a thousand victories.”
*[Atul Singh provided guidance for this article.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.