From the bookshelf: ‘Chinese spies: from Chairman Mao to Xi Jinping’
21 Dec 2020|

As China expands its reach around the globe, it is important to understand not only its foreign, economic and security policies but also its massive covert operations. Roger Faligot, an investigative journalist who specialises in studying intelligence agencies, first published Chinese spies in French. It proved so successful that he recently had a significantly expanded version translated into English.

Faligot’s ambitious book spans a century of Chinese espionage, from the beginnings of the Chinese Communist Party to the Xi Jinping era.

In the 1920s, a youthful Zhou Enlai organised Chinese communist cells, in Hong Kong under the alias Stephen Knight and in France as Wu Hao, while Deng Xiaoping, then a factory worker in Paris, spent his evenings mimeographing underground pamphlets. The Chinese secret services modelled themselves on the Soviets, who trained many of their operatives. Both wove complex webs, spying on factions, dissidents and each other. The Belgian Hergé was inspired by real characters in 1930s China to write the Tintin adventure The blue lotus.

Once the People’s Republic was established, intelligence operations moved into high gear. Taking a page from the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover, China’s first spymaster, Kang Sheng, even bugged the offices of Chairman Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou.

The Tiananmen Square protests, the collapse of the Soviet Union and China’s fear of contagion ushered in an era of reform and internationalisation of intelligence operations, including the establishment of a network of think tanks. Operation Yellowshirt used ‘deepwater fish’ around the world to pursue dissidents who had fled China. Operation Autumn Orchid, again, spent a decade overseeing the return of Hong Kong and Macao, including a smear campaign against Governor Chris Patten.

As China’s global relations expanded, so did its covert presence. According to Faligot, at least 40% of Chinese embassy staff worldwide conduct intelligence work, compared with 20% in Russian embassies. Evidence suggests that China has singled out Australia and France as the two countries most vulnerable to manipulation.

In the internet age, the People’s Liberation Army set up a vast empire of cyber warriors, working on security, military and economic issues. In the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, China even established a sports intelligence department tasked with spying on other countries’ athletes and ensuring that China won the most medals.

Faligot provides valuable insights on China’s methods. In the early days, operations were conventional cloak and dagger, including wiretapping, double agents, the ‘beautiful woman stratagem’, bribery and torture. Once Deng opened the economy, China quickly moved into industrial and economic espionage, even setting up a specialised school in Beijing in 1984. More recently, China has become a global leader in cyber espionage, hacking and financial manipulation.

China’s intelligence agencies draw on a vast diaspora of students, academics and businesspeople, which gives them a significant edge over their competitors. Covert drops are history, with strategic information on artificial intelligence, civil aviation, energy and medical technology flowing to China from myriad sources.

Appendixes provide information about China’s clandestine agencies, from the ministries of State Security and Public Security to the innocuous-sounding China Institute for Contemporary International Relations. The United Work Front Department supervises China’s soft power, including the ubiquitous Confucius Institutes.

Faligot’s book is thoroughly researched and brims with little-known information. In the 1980s, when Bill Clinton was governor of Arkansas, he regularly ate for free at a Chinese restaurant. There he was befriended by ‘John Huang’, who went on to work at the Commerce Department before being unmasked as a spy in the ‘Chinagate’ scandal.

The US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999 was described by President Clinton as a colossal mistake, and he apologised profusely to China’s leaders. In fact, both sides knew it was intentional, as the embassy was equipped to gather intelligence on Western weaponry being used in Serbia.

Faligot reminds us that intelligence is a two-way street. Over the years, the KGB gathered embarrassing information on ‘Ivan Sergeyevich Dozorov’, better known as Deng Xiaoping. The highly classified dossier is still kept in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s safe, ‘just in case’. The book also details the intelligence work that brought down Xi Jinping’s arch-rival Bo Xilai and, ultimately, intelligence chief Zhou Yongkang, in the process breaking the unwritten rule that Politburo Standing Committee members are untouchable.

The cat-and-mouse game of cyber espionage will accelerate further with the introduction of 5G, with the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei set to dominate a significant part of the global market. China is already the world’s data powerhouse, accounting for 23% of cross-border data flows, compared with America’s 12%. It also recently eclipsed the US in satellite surveillance. With the world’s largest network of intelligence operatives, a large diaspora and a growing economic presence, China’s covert operations can only expand.

Faligot’s ground-breaking book is essential reading for both intelligence professionals and generalists seeking to understand the reach of China’s hidden hand. Given rapid technological developments, one can only hope that Faligot is working on a follow-up volume.