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The paranoia behind China’s spy war Espionage is a fact of geopolitical life

Xi Jinping trusts nobody.(FRED DUFOUR/AFP via Getty Images)

Xi Jinping trusts nobody.(FRED DUFOUR/AFP via Getty Images)


September 16, 2023   5 mins

The revelation that a parliamentary researcher was arrested in March on suspicion of being a Chinese spy has sent Westminster “reeling” and left the British political establishment in “shock”. Or that, at least, is the impression offered by London’s news media, which has covered the scandal with barely contained excitement.

That China’s agents would dare to infiltrate the heart of the British government has been widely portrayed as an unprecedented development. “This is a major escalation by China,” one anonymous senior Whitehall source told The Times, which broke the news, adding that: “We have never seen anything like this before.” It is hard to know whether such sentiments are genuine or exaggerated for effect. Either way, they seem rather overwrought.

China has been engaged in extensive espionage operations in Britain, and around the world, for decades. As a 2021 report by the Intelligence and Security Committee stated accurately: “China almost certainly maintains the largest state intelligence apparatus in the world.” Moreover, as the report also noted, China employs a “whole-of-state” approach to espionage, co-opting a range of state and non-state actors, as well as ordinary citizens at home and abroad, to help carry out this work. Chinese students studying abroad, for example, may sometimes be pressured by the government into reporting information back to Beijing — though far more often about the activities of their fellow ethnic Chinese students than state secrets.

It is true that, in recent years, a rising China has escalated its overseas intelligence operations. Since he came to power in 2012, Xi Jinping has made what he calls “comprehensive national security” the central priority for China’s party-state. He has handed China’s premier foreign intelligence service, the Ministry of State Security (MSS), along with its military equivalents in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), greater authority and more resources both old and new (such as cyber) to more assertively collect intelligence, protect Chinese interests and project Chinese influence worldwide. The result has been the uncovering of a litany of hacks, thefts and scandals. Of these, the Chinese spy balloon that traversed the United States in February may have been the most high-profile, but was among the least successful and consequential (as compared with, say, MSS’s massive 2015 breach of US government security clearance records).

But this is simply what nation-states, and especially the world’s major powers, do. Though perhaps distasteful, it should hardly be a shock. In fact, Britain should be particularly familiar with the business, given its history as an epicentre of the Cold War spy game. Those who walk the corridors of power in Westminster and think the present situation is unprecedented had best read up on the Cambridge Five.

Of course, Britain and its allies in the Western world are also spying on China — as we taxpaying citizens might reasonably hope they would be, if China really is the security “challenge” our governments say it is. In July, CIA Director Bill Burns did not shy away from saying publicly that the agency had “made progress” in rebuilding and expanding its spy network in China, years after Chinese counter-intelligence managed to identify and kill nearly all of the CIA’s agents operating in the country, following a 2010 intelligence breach (potentially the work of either a mole or cracked encryption).

There is some evidence that our spies have been wildly successful of late — at living rent-free in Xi’s head, anyway. Because whatever the furore in London, it pales in comparison with the escalating level of paranoia about hidden hands and foreign forces that has emerged in Beijing in recent years. Not only is China in the middle of a sweeping ongoing counter-espionage campaign — with the MSS currently calling on the public to engage in a “whole of society mobilisation” to hunt down spies and traitors, and triumphantly highlighting arrests on its new social media account — but more serious, if mysterious, goings-on higher up hint that Xi’s concerns about the loyalty of his people could be playing havoc within the Chinese system.

The breaking news on Thursday night was that China’s defence minister, Li Shangfu, had been arrested and placed under investigation. The source for this information was, of course, US intelligence. But the fact had already been rumoured in China, as he had not been seen in public in weeks. Li’s fate seems linked to that of two top generals of the PLA Rocket Force (which oversees China’s nuclear weapons) who were hauled away a few months ago. The Force’s deputy commander, meanwhile, allegedly committed suicide. China’s short-lived foreign minister, Qin Gang, also suddenly disappeared and was replaced without explanation this summer.

There is no evidence, to be clear, that any of these officials were engaged in or suspected of espionage. The more likely explanation is old-fashioned corruption. The persistent rumour in China is that the PLA Rocket Force generals had taken money Xi handed them to expand China’s nuclear arsenal and pilfered it instead. Li, who previously ran the PLA’s equipment procurement department, may have been involved. But it seems plausible that the current atmosphere of extreme suspicion regarding foreign infiltration and subversion contributed to these officials’ exposure and removal, with Xi now no longer trusting the reliability of anyone, especially in his national security apparatus. Corruption itself can, after all, open the door to foreign intelligence services willing to wield blackmail or simply offer additional cash.

This distrust is particularly clear in Qin’s case. The ex-foreign minister disappeared after a Phoenix TV reporter strongly hinted that he’d had an extramarital affair (and fathered a secret child) with her while they were both previously stationed in Washington, DC. Since many Chinese officials have mistresses without facing any repercussions, and because Qin was previously considered personally favoured by Xi, some suspect that it was the fact that he’d engaged in his covert indiscretions only a few miles from Langley that was of greater concern. Naturally, the online rumour in China is that the TV reporter, Fu Xiaotian (who has also disappeared), was in fact herself an MSS agent deployed to Washington undercover.

Whatever the truth of these specific salacious cases, it is absolutely clear that Xi is quite convinced that the West and its agents are hell-bent on infiltrating China and subverting Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule. Because Western countries “have always regarded China’s development and growth as a threat to Western values and institutions”, he thundered at an assembly of top party leaders in 2016, these countries “have not for a moment ceased their ideological infiltration of China”.

In this, he was merely echoing a long series of similar declarations, as in 2013, when he warned that said “hostile forces” were “doing their utmost to propagate so-called ‘universal values’” with an aim to “vie with us [on] the battlefields of people’s hearts”, split up China “overtly and covertly”, and ultimately “overthrow our socialist system”. For Xi, China is engaged in an “extraordinarily fierce” global ideological struggle with Western liberalism that, “although invisible, [is] a matter of life and death”.

Western leaders don’t necessarily disagree. President Joe Biden regularly describes the United States as engaged in a global “battle between democracy and autocracy”. Former President Donald Trump’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, went so far as to insist while in office that the United States must “engage and empower the Chinese people” to enact regime change, because, he asserted, “if the free world doesn’t change Communist China, Communist China will change us”. British Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, for his part, this week vowed not only to improve security but to “defend our democracy” — implying that undermining it must be Beijing’s actual target, rather than mundane intelligence gathering.

Both China and the West, therefore, not only suspect infiltration by the agents of their foreign competitors, but demonstrably view this as part of a much wider, more threatening, and more enduring struggle between rival systems. The hard truth, then, is that, in a very real sense, we’ve all been thrust back into an era much akin to the Cold War, when constant spying and attempted subversion were simply geopolitical facts of life. It may be best for leaders in Westminster, and indeed in capitals around the world, to come to terms with this not-so-unprecedented reality, and to move forward with open eyes: prepared, serious, and without naivety about what’s happening — but also without any undue shock and outrage. Surely the nation of James Bond, at least, can manage to carry on with good cheer.


Nathan Levine is a Visiting Fellow in the B. Kenneth Simon Center at the Heritage Foundation and a non-resident Research Fellow with the Asia Society Policy Institute.


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Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
8 months ago

Why do the Chinese need spies? Western companies are selling the Chinese their latest technology which can be reverse engineered.
More important are the parts that the Chinese have inserted into products used by the West from the military to telecommunications to energy. The Chinese building a nuclear bomb, sorry power plant, in the UK? Has no one read the story about the Trojan Horse? What are they teaching in Classics courses these days?

William Edward Henry Appleby
William Edward Henry Appleby
8 months ago

And UK universities are falling over themselves to offer high fee yielding places to Chinese students; the students are the another pack of Trojan horses. We should severely limit our exposure to China, much like the Japanese did to the West in the 16th century.

Last edited 8 months ago by William Edward Henry Appleby
Andrew F
Andrew F
7 months ago

That is the main “feature” of the West.
Because of nature of our political, social and economic system, we allow enemies of the West to gain knowledge and technology to defeat us.
Lenin “usefull idiots”.

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
7 months ago

Terrible! The Us or UK would never stoop so low as to do anything like that …would they??

Andrew F
Andrew F
7 months ago

In addition how many former British civil servants, politicians and business people are employed to advance Chinese interests to detriment of uk and the West.
Yet, Unherd still publishes article by usual Chinese stooges who claim nothing can be done to stop Chinese dominated world.
Uttern nonsense.
West was doing perfectly well without China till 20 years ago.

rod gartner
rod gartner
7 months ago

ITT:
People from the UK referring to the actual practical realtiy of modern day China with strong, explicit, corse derision as “socialist”
the simple fact that there are more “state owned enterpriseS” organized in a legal and regulatory environment that provides more control to the state sharehodler/partner/owner than is common in western nations is UTTERLY irrelevant.
as is the 1 party autocracy….. Governance and economy are distinct topics.
Indeed: The current practical nature of the Chinese economy is *VERY* close to the European norm.
Chinese people’s lives, in regard to employment, ownership of property or assets, ability to *build wealth through savings and investment*, and access to taxpayer funded services and play out ALMOST IDENTICALLY to the lives of British, French, Norwegian (Speically included due to their notorious sovereign wealth fund).
Again: the fact that these people have no true political franchise or even ability to break through and participate is IIRRELEVANT (Prove to me that the average citizen of the UK, or the US *truly* possesses this ability as more than a statistical outlier)
edit: the “social credit score” ratings creaed by government contractors in China compare quite favorably to the opaque private sector “regular? credit score” ratings that private companies assemble from the data that they purchase from facebook and Amazon in the US, and which are used for the same reason (to enable and facilitate the economic and legal liability mechanism that underlies the enforcement of contracts and social/cultural norms, by providing risk quantification, always and forever based on *all available information* accessible by the rating agency and and a reference scale to measure from)

Last edited 7 months ago by rod gartner
Malcolm Webb
Malcolm Webb
8 months ago

All Socialist and other autocratic regimes are corrupt and bound eventually to fail – but that obviously does not mean they are not extremely dangerous in the meantime. People aiming to be governed though representative democracy.should resist and counter attempted Socialist incursions into our body politic, and our economy in general, at every step of the way. Treating Chinese Communists as being “just like us” is certainly a grave mistake.

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
7 months ago
Reply to  Malcolm Webb

Aren’t we lucky to have Capitalism and all those nice food banks, and soaring inflation, and wealth transfer, and crumbling schools and infrastructure and disappearing services etc. We’re so lucky..

Simon Blanchard
Simon Blanchard
8 months ago

My worry in all of this is the demonisation of ordinary Chinese people. Such as the kindly old couple running the ping pong table repair shop in my parents’ village next to the American airbase in Lincolnshire.

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
7 months ago

Beware the Yellow Peril and the Reds under the bed and the Bogeyman.. it’s a miracle we’ve escaped them these last 75 years.. but they’re definitely coming to get us.. I can feel it, even through my tinfoil hat!

Andrew Boughton
Andrew Boughton
8 months ago

Nice work. Even according to a rather embarrassed Telegraph lead the day after the sensationalist story, the alleged Westminster Chinese agent appears to have been a ruse engineered by opponents of Sunak’s engagement with China. If so, would the original allegation not have been callous toward one of our own dedicated staffers, but a sign of hysteria across our political leadership? So, where has the tale turned most lately, does anyone know?

Reginald Duquesnoy
Reginald Duquesnoy
8 months ago

I spy with my little third eye…do only the paranoid survive, as claimed Bob Noyce? Certainly the military-industrial complex thrives on it. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black.

Chris Hayes
Chris Hayes
8 months ago

It is nigh on impossible for open, democratic societies to eliminate espionage. We do, however, make it rather easy for the Chinese. We’ve impoverished our educational establishments, forcing them to establish campuses abroad and accept increasing levels of foreign students: and once they are here, the students gain entry into our educational, research, and technological establishments and from there into industry and politics.

I suspect the numbers over here are more that we could possibly imagine.

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
7 months ago
Reply to  Chris Hayes

They’re everywhere.. run for your lives!

Arthur G
Arthur G
8 months ago

The CCP is the most oppressive police state ever to exist. It is engaged in active genocide, and mass religious persecution. It harvests organs from live political prisoners to sell to rich Westerners. It unleashed a devastation pandemic that killed tens of millions through sloppiness at what very well may be a bio-weapons lab.

Said regime has been robbing the West blind of its technology and intellectual property for 30 years, abetted by global corporations. It has infiltrated our Universities, corporations and Gov’t. It is planting “bugs” in the technology it sells us.

The West is NOT NEARLY paranoid enough.

Last edited 8 months ago by Arthur G
Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
7 months ago
Reply to  Arthur G

Sorry, what did you say was the name of that movie? You forgot to mention it..is it called : Beware the Yellow Peril? or Check for Reds under the Bed? Best stop using that China tea set.. it’s probably spying on you!

Last edited 7 months ago by Liam O'Mahony
Samir Iker
Samir Iker
8 months ago

The problem is that the West isn’t paranoid enough.

Can you imagine anyone suggesting during the cold war that the Russians should be allowed to pilfer high level defense and state secrets, that the West transfer and build advanced industrial plants to Russia and let them gain a monopoly in industries such as rare earths, or that US telecoms use Russian build chips with Russian software.

You would be considered a lunatic at best and might be arrested as a traitor very likely for even harbouring such thoughts.

The problem is, Western leaders, bureaucrats and academics are stuck in the past and too impressed by their own supposed intellect.

Otherwise, it might have occured to them that China is their enemy and preparing for a showdown within decades at most (check out the pace at which they are churning out warships), or for instance mass illegal immigration or wokeism in corporates can have consequences.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
8 months ago

Before we start blaming China for promoting Western forms of cultural Marxism, it’s worth remembering that this stuff is a world away from errr,.’Marxism style Marxism.’

Does China even have the skills and positioning to promote it?

And China won’t touch that stuff with a bargepole in its own country.

T Bone
T Bone
8 months ago
Reply to  Dumetrius

Right because Marxism is just an “economic system” not a religion of social progress that creates fluid vocabulary to trick gullible idiots into defending it.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
7 months ago
Reply to  T Bone

The cadre of the CCP sitting here with me says that in ‘Marxism style Marxism’, vocabulary certainly is not fluid.

James Kirk
James Kirk
8 months ago

Let it be known we feed them false information so they distrust the real info they acquire. In fact, forget that, tell them everything so they can make it and sell it back to us at a tenth of the price our own robbers would charge us. What? They already do that? Oh…

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
8 months ago

“persistent rumour in China is that the PLA Rocket Force generals had taken money Xi handed them to expand China’s nuclear arsenal and pilfered it instead”
Real life is way more hilarious than any Hollywood comedy movie script can be.

Howard S.
Howard S.
8 months ago

How much money does the CCP pump into the Asia Society Policy Institute to keep it afloat?

Arthur G
Arthur G
8 months ago
Reply to  Howard S.

Spot on. At least a 50% likelihood that the writer works for a CCP front group.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
7 months ago

I think the author has somewhat missed the point. It’s not the bog standard espionage that should surprise us, it’s the infiltration into every aspect of public and commercial life.
The universities are obvious examples but let’s not forget Chinese manufactured security cameras in government departments, the joint GCHQ/Huawei unit set up to demonstrate that it’s safe to have Huawei kit in our mobile phone networks, nuclear power station construction, Chinese purchases of UK companies in critical industries, unofficial Chinese police stations in our major cities, commercial espionage.
The establishment has been asleep at the wheel for two decades at least.

Ana Cebrian
Ana Cebrian
8 months ago

I read the Mitrokhin Archive, some time in the mid 1990s, and one thing stood out: In spite of all of this sort of Cold War rhetoric, it was pointed out that the Soviet KGB had been founded as a revolutionary organisation (called the Cheka, I think), so it’s primary goal was to encourage and enable revolution.
It did of course try and find out the diameter and muzzle velocity of a new western power’s gun, but it equally spent time working to cause the collapse, from the inside, of the west.
Having similar roots, I would think that the Chinese intelligence service is much the same.
Looking at the suicidal tendencies of western governments, one might conclude that either they’re succeeding rather nicely, or that Douglas Adams’s “shoe shop intensifier ray” wasn’t really about shoe shops at all.

T Bone
T Bone
8 months ago

Mao was instrumental in jumpstarting the Western Woke Revolution aka Hippie Neopaganism blended with racial solidarity movements in the 60s. Communism is inherently subversive.  The CCP have always seen the west’s multicultural and multiracial democracy as a condition to be subverted for ideological struggle.  And hey, we’ve had plenty of Western academics that acquiesced! The disciples of Western Marxists are only starting to realize that Communism isn’t what it claims to be.

Martin Butler
Martin Butler
8 months ago
Reply to  T Bone

Well done, back to woke in the first sentence. What the hell would we talk about without it!

Last edited 8 months ago by Martin Butler
T Bone
T Bone
8 months ago
Reply to  Martin Butler

I understand that you want to project being a “reasonable centrist” and pointing out the Maoist origins of Critical Social Justice offends the Centrist caricature you’re portraying but it doesn’t negate that Woke is Maoist.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
8 months ago
Reply to  T Bone

Mao was a neo-pagan?

Or where did he acquire the skills to jumpstart such a movement?

Finicky thing, neopaganism.

T Bone
T Bone
8 months ago
Reply to  Dumetrius

I never said Mao was Neo-Pagan. I’m citing the Critical Social Justice movement back to campus radicals of the 60s; many of whom were Neopagan and enamored by Mao.

Tony Price
Tony Price
8 months ago
Reply to  T Bone

Mao was too busy killing tens of millions of his citizens in the Great Leap Forward and then Cultural Revolution to concern himself unduly with events outside of his Empire. The false perception of his idyllic system of equality and justice no doubt influenced some in the West, but not in a serious way.

T Bone
T Bone
8 months ago
Reply to  Tony Price

Respectfully, Communism is a global struggle. It has always been Globalist in ambitions and always will be. That Mao sought solidarity with “racial liberation” ideologues in the West so they would rise up is not under dispute.

I just plucked this article so you can criticize the source but Mao’s speeches and stances are public record.

Ex- “Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Tse-tung delivered this speech on August 9th, 1963 prior to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. In it, he expresses support for Black Americans’ struggles against racial discrimination and calls upon peoples of the world to unite against U.S. imperialism. Targeting the peoples of Africa, Latin America, and Asia as his primary audience – rather than Americans – this speech was part of Mao’s Cold War propaganda strategy to undermine the image of the United States globally. It was disseminated via radio broadcast and newsprint across nearly all the key battle regions of the Cold War, including Central Europe, Southeast Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America.” (World History Commons).

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
8 months ago

The discourse coming from the United States will always be pro-China in essence despite posturing from politicians. The PRC is responsible for the health of the US corporate sector owing to outsourcing; in embracing green corporatism, for instance, this Democrat administration is basically subsidising China’s renewable energy exports.
US federal and institutional cultural policies increasingly align with those of the CCP, and, gender aside, the march through the institutions of the modern identitarian Left is towards the destination almost precisely where authoritarian China has arrived.
There are even murmurings that the State Department’s Ukraine project has had unexpected benefits in driving Russia towards China as a moderating partner.

Graff von Frankenheim
Graff von Frankenheim
8 months ago

I would like to suggest a sentence to be included somewhere in the final paragraph of this article: “The West should also beef up its counterintelligence capabilities at least back to where they were during the Cold War but preferably better because even then there were dozens of undiscovered East Bloc spies in Western intelligence and diplomatic circles. Bring back the spirit of Angleton!”

Johan Grönwall
Johan Grönwall
7 months ago

Apart from the fact that China is a fascistoid country bent on world domination that must be contained for the sake of democracy (where spying is one method) there is also the chinese speciality of trolling by using whatsboutisms, of which this article is yet another example. Also predictable is accusing the West of rascism, which we see in some comment (these kinds of articles are always commented on by other trolls). Unherd should refrain from allowing these covert propaganda pieces.

Gordon Arta
Gordon Arta
7 months ago

The author is a key figure at an Institute which promotes left of centre policies ‘infused with critical race theory principles’, is supported by the Chinese Government’s Confucius Institute Headquarters, and gets funding from Soros. The column is one of a number by different authors, now appearing in MSM outlets, and is clearly part of a campaign by China’s stooges to head off the West’s growing realisation that China represents an existential threat.