Is China Swarming With Foreign Spies?

The Communist Party is finally getting serious about ferretting out Western spooks. But a new counterespionage law, passed on Nov. 1, may be just a finger in the dike.

China Photos/Getty Images
China Photos/Getty Images

Sometime in 2011, Gen. Jin Yinan gave what he thought was a closed-door briefing at a corporate conference in China, where he spoke about the dangers of espionage. In September of that year, what appeared to be the official video of his remarks turned up briefly on the Chinese video sharing site tudou.com, before being taken down. Jin gave tantalizing details of eight recent cases in which senior Chinese officials had allegedly spied for foreign governments, several of which had never previously been made public. The highest-ranking official was Kang Rixin, a member of the elite Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership body, the Central Committee, and head of China National Nuclear Corporation, which oversees China’s nuclear programs. The official version held that Kang was sentenced to life in prison in November 2010 for bribe-taking. But Jin said the real sentence was espionage: Kang had sold nuclear secrets to an undisclosed foreign nation, in a case that made the top leadership "extremely nervous."

Concerns about foreign espionage in China seem only to have grown. On Nov. 1 of this year, Xi signed a Counterespionage Law, replacing the 1993 National Security Law. The biggest change appears to be a greater emphasis on rooting out both foreign spies and their Chinese collaborators. When Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Secretary Xi Jinping and President Barack Obama meet in Beijing on Nov. 11 and 12, cyberspying will almost certainly be part of their discussion. But the new law suggests that it’s the potential of human spies to wreak havoc that has China really worried.

It’s difficult to build an open-source picture of foreign espionage operations in China: as in Kang’s case, the Chinese authorities appear to hide espionage cases behind other crimes, to save themselves embarrassment. It’s likely that many arrests and trials simply never come to public attention.

But outside observers can assume two things: First, much of the foreign spying against China is related to deciphering the country’s military capabilities and strategic intentions. This may seem rather obvious, but it’s in contrast to China’s spying abroad, much of which appears aimed at stealing industrial and commercial secrets.

Second, it may seem that China would be a tough place for a foreign spy to operate, but you can bet that the United States and its allies have dozens of assets in place. Anyone who has lived and worked in China’s surveillance-saturated cities could be forgiven for wondering how on Earth a foreign spy could function there. But function they do. China appears to be infested with spies, and it knows it. In early August, a graduate student in aerospace engineering surnamed Chang in the northeastern city of Harbin was reportedly arrested for selling sensitive information to a foreign intelligence agency — he allegedly spied for two years, for which he received more than $32,000. He appears to have been recruited online, and to have conveyed his product the same way. As is often the case, the reports don’t identify the foreign agency involved. Perhaps the Chinese authorities don’t even know from where his handlers hailed.  

Occasionally, a story breaks that is sufficiently detailed and well sourced to give a real flavor of what’s going on. In May, the Communist Party newspaper People’s Daily reported the story of a man surnamed Li who, while living and working in an unnamed seaside city in the wealthy southern province of Guangdong, struck up acquaintance over the Internet with a user calling himself Feige, which means "Flying Brother." Feige reportedly paid Li over several years to gather and forward military publications from libraries and online bookstores, to glean information from chatrooms used by military enthusiasts, and to take photographs of military installations. Feige was working for a foreign intelligence agency, said the paper, without specifying which one. Li ended up with a 10-year prison sentence, which seems lenient, and could suggest that the snippets of information and the military journals marked "neibu" or "internal" that he supplied were relatively low-level material.

But Feige’s Internet trail led investigators to no fewer than 40 other suspected spies across the country, suggesting 1) that the operative was part of an effort to take advantage of the explosion of connectivity in China, and 2) the difficulty for Beijing of ensuring that sensitive information does not leak onto public servers. As the analyst Peter Mattis points out, the digital Chinese state is now a very leaky place, and the majority of publicly reported state secrets cases have an online component to them.

The cyber and signals intelligence elements of U.S. collection efforts take advantage of this leakiness on a grander scale. Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelations of the National Security Agency’s penetration of China, particularly of the telecommunications behemoth Huawei, are well documented: According to materials viewed by the New York Times, the NSA penetrated Huawei’s network and stole source codes for its products, in the hope that this would enhance the NSA’s signals intelligence capabilities. In an activity that really annoys the Chinese military, U.S. spy planes and spy ships routinely loiter off the Chinese coast, sucking up electronic signals, which a spokesman for China’s Ministry of National Defense Yang Yujun called in August "large-scale, high-frequency, close-proximity surveillance."

But despite all this activity, China watchers here in Washington say that the holy grail of political intelligence collection — an understanding of the intentions and vulnerabilities of the CCP — remains frustratingly elusive. Little emerges from U.S. intelligence agencies on the inner workings of the CCP, one Washington consumer of intelligence on China told me. "We still don’t really understand the mechanics of how Xi Jinping became general secretary," he said, referring to the intra-party drama that lifted Xi to the country’s top position in November 2012. For an indication of the way U.S. intelligence views the task of collecting intelligence from China, take a look at the recently issued 2014 National Intelligence Strategy of the United States. China is the first country mentioned in the document, and "remains opaque in its strategic intentions and is of concern due to its military modernization." In other words, spying on China is difficult and necessary.  

Occasionally, though, signs suggest the CCP has been penetrated at a senior level in a way that might provide the kind of insight Washington seeks. In mid-2012, Reuters reported that an aide to Vice Minister Lu Zhongwei of the Ministry of State Security, the agency responsible for much foreign intelligence collection and counterintelligence, had been arrested for spying for the CIA. Since then, little else has emerged: no official version of events, no news of a conviction or a sentence. The Hong Kong press spat out florid reports that the alleged agent had been recruited in true "honey-trap" style by a beautiful seductress. All of this makes for great copy, but none of it appears to have been confirmed.

A half-seen human drama such as this tantalizes the journalist and the writer. What kinds of people serve, and then betray, the Chinese state? In my 2014 novel, Night Heron, an angry Chinese aerospace engineer sells classified documents to Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service. In imagining his motives, I thought of the corruption and arbitrariness permeating the Chinese justice system and the broader party state, and the resentment that might breed. It seemed plausible to me that, despite the Leninist legacy of state secrecy, Beijing might be a place where potential agents abound, even among the military and CCP elites.

Certainly, General Jin’s leaked video testimony would seem to support such a notion. He describes how an Air Force attaché in Tokyo, Wang Qingjian, planted listening devices in the Chinese Embassy on behalf of Japanese intelligence. Another Air Force officer, Jia Shiqing, angry at being passed over for promotion, loaded memory sticks with information, stuck them up his own rectum and smuggled them out to Hong Kong to hand to a foreign intelligence agency, Jin said. It’s the human spy — the Chinese citizen who turns on his own country, negating every national narrative of unity and patriotism — that the Party finds most threatening and demoralizing.

Jin confirmed that Li Bin, no less a figure than the former Chinese ambassador to South Korea, was charged with corruption, but was actually deemed guilty of passing state secrets to Seoul. "What country has an ambassador who spies?" the general asked plaintively. "We do."

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