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How China’s spying operations are fooling the world

A new book delves into the intelligence methods applied by Beijing since the 1980s to influence politicians, diplomats or academics, with the aim of shaping the global perception of the Asian giant

A woman walks in front of the Chinese Embassy in Berlin in December 2017, when Germany accused China of espionage and trying to recruit agents.

It is April 2001. Lin Di, secretary general of a key Chinese cultural exchange organization, is giving a talk to a select audience gathered at the National Press Club in Washington, one of America’s premier conference centers. Chas Freeman, a diplomatic expert on the Asian giant, introduces him. But Lin, a well-known figure among the US elite at the time, needed no introduction: he had already met dozens of the officials, academics and diplomats who now greeted him warmly. “China is deepening its reforms to build a more open, prosperous, democratic and modernized nation,” Lin said. He then expressed his “sincerest hope” that in the century that was just beginning, China and the US would work “together to build a healthy and stable relationship for the noble cause of world peace and the progress of human civilization.” It was all a lie.

Lin was, in fact, a spy; the “head of the Social Investigation Bureau of China’s premier intelligence agency, the Ministry of State Security [MSS],” according to Alex Joske, author of Spies and Lies: How China’s Greatest Covert Operations Fooled the World, and a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. “At the time, his office was the primary US operations unit within the MSS, and he personally oversaw an extensive network of clandestine assets across the country,” Joske writes.

On October 12, four days before the 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, Joske presented his research at an event organized by the US think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIC). Along with researchers and diplomats, Lin’s contacts included, “an FBI employee who considered him her main source on China.”

According to Joske, Lin’s case exemplifies Beijing’s modus operandi where espionage is concerned: the Asian giant’s Ministry of State Security uses double agents to influence politicians, diplomats, officials, academics, organizations and even religious figures with a view to shaping the perception that foreign powers have of China to one of a country striving to move towards democratic values. However, the reality, says Joske, is that it has been moving towards greater “authoritarianism,” a trend that has been accentuated during the Xi Jinping era. Beijing’s ultimate goal, Joske says, is to influence the international policy of foreign powers and sway their position on China.

An Australian researcher of Chinese origin, Alex Joske, reached this conclusion after studying hundreds of documents, articles, commercial records and books published by China’s Ministry of State Security itself; but, also, after tracking down Chinese influence groups, mostly established during the 1980s and consisting of undercover officials, such as the cultural exchange organization headed by the spy Lin Di in the US. The scale of the espionage is huge. According to Joske’s estimates, the number of professional intelligence officers working for the Chinese Communist Party, including all its provincial and municipal arms, amounts to “well over 100,000 employees.”

A “long-term” approach

China’s Ministry of State Security “clearly played a long-term game,” according to Joske, when it came to recruitment. “I interviewed a scholar in the United States who had been targeted by three different parts of the MSS at different points in time. And it was this headquarters bureau that I focused on, the 12th bureau of the MSS, that was the most patient and the most cautious, and actually never tried to recruit him,” Joske explains. While provincial offshoots of the agency would try to bribe him, this 12th bureau “focused on trying to build up a relationship of mutual trust, of convenience and of benefit where they would invite him to China, help him get access to people inside the Chinese government, people he might want to interview.” As Joske points out in his presentation with the CSIS, it’s a way of making him a foreign intelligence asset, without forcing him to be one.

And while all countries try to control how they are perceived by both allies and rivals, Joske concludes that China’s policy “involves some aspect of interference and not just influence… All the operations I talk about in the book involve some sort of covert activity: there are people presenting themselves as journalists or as cultural exchange officials when they’re actually intelligence officers,” he says. “You have them trying to bribe people. You have them trying to honeypot people.” The scholar Joske interviewed “was taken to a massage parlor by undercover MSS officers, he was offered money by them and then he was asked, ‘can you pass us information back when you go to the United States?’” he says. “This is not normal diplomacy; it’s something that undermines and interferes in the normal operation of politics.”

There are very recent examples of coercive influence. The US Department of Justice this year hauled up a Beijing spy for attempting to smear a Tiananmen Square activist who was running for Congress – the activist was not identified, although his profile matches that of Chinese-born human rights advocate Yan Xiong. “[The MSS] sent a team to surveil him, then the plan was they would try to access his tax records and accuse him of fraud; then they would try to honeypot him – send prostitutes to go after him,” says Joske. “Failing that, the plan was, it’s alleged, to crash his car or hurt him so badly that he wasn’t physically able to run for Congress.”

But why haven’t governments around the world recognized the nature of China’s influence operations earlier? It’s a question Joske tries to answer in his book. Western intelligence agencies, he believes, have for decades been focused on other matters. During the Cold War, for example, Russia was the primary focus of its efforts.

“Later on, it was counterterrorism that really mattered,” adds Joske, who believes that there was no “political will” to investigate whether China “was a real problem… It was rising peacefully in many people’s eyes, it had become a democracy potentially, and it was opening up its economy.” Joske maintains that “intelligence operations in Chinese communities in many countries were really allowed to run deep and very extensive, harming the rights and liberties of those people. But it wasn’t viewed as a priority by many governments.”

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