You know about the CIA. And the FBI. The whole world knows that James Bond worked for MI6.
Everyone knows the name of the Soviet Union’s notorious foreign espionage service, the KGB, the training ground for today’s Russian President, Vladimir Putin. Most people have heard of the ruthlessly efficient Israeli Mossad. Most Australians have heard of the domestic spy agency ASIO. And a few will know of Australia’s overseas spy agency, ASIS. But can you name one of China’s intelligence services? Just one?
We’ve heard in recent years that Chinese spying and hacking in Australia is so rife that it’s overwhelming our own intelligence agencies. The federal government in 2018 even introduced new laws to try to limit Chinese spying and interference. But we can’t name the agencies doing it. Is it because they are so small and insignificant? Today, China has more people engaged in its spying effort than any other country, according to the 2019 book Chinese Communist Espionage: An Intelligence Primer by Americans Peter Mattis and Matthew Brazil.
So how can we be so blind to such a big enterprise? A New Zealand sinologist, Anne-Marie Brady, in a new essay on China’s spying, suggests a couple of reasons. One is what she calls “decades of post-Cold War complacency, of arrogance about the superiority of liberal democracies over communist systems”. Another is a post-September 11 preoccupation with terrorism among Western intelligence systems including Australia’s. A third is public sector cutbacks.
But there are other reasons, too. Penetrating the veil of the Chinese language is hard. The West has, lacked the interest to make the effort. Another reason – popular culture hasn’t created a Chinese James Bond. Yet. Finally, a deep-seated reason is that we haven’t wanted to know. Brady recalls that a Chinese diplomat defected to Australia in 2005, the former first secretary for political affairs in China’s consulate in Sydney, Chen Yonglin, and issued a clear warning. “When Chen said there were all these Chinese spies in Australia, everyone in Australia said, ‘Yeah, right’,” Brady recalls. “It turns out he was right.” Yet even now, 15 years later, even as Australia has started to wake to the risks, “Australia doesn’t yet have the critical mass in the police and other agencies to deal with the problem,” she tells me.
Australia was enjoying the economic benefits of a relationship it didn’t want to scrutinise too carefully. Brady’s essay will make uncomfortable reading for some Australian politicians, academics business people and officials who’ve been warmly hosted by Chinese organisations they’ve not understood or failed to probe.
Brady, a professor of political science at NZ’s University of Canterbury, offers a basic rundown of China’s main intelligence agencies in her piece, titled “Party Faithful” and published in the latest issue of Australian Foreign Affairs. First is the Ministry of State Security, modelled along the lines of the KGB. Brady describes it as a “full-spectrum intelligence agency” spying on the world. Its public face is styled a think tank, the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations. Some Western academics and other foreign visitors will recognise its name – it has served as a valued host for their trips to China. One of the jobs of the MSS is to spy on foreigners in China.
Next is the Ministry of Public Security. It’s the one that monitors dissent in China, including in Hong Kong as Beijing imposes its new “national security” law. The MPS also operates the hundreds of millions of surveillance cameras throughout China. Ever checked into a Chinese hotel and wondered why your passport and visa status are being checked so carefully? Because the MPS collects the information as part of its job of monitoring your location and that of all foreigners in China.
The military – the People’s Liberation Army or PLA – is another essential player. It has two key sections dedicated to intelligence. First, its overseas spy agency, the Joint Staff Department Intelligence Bureau. Its job is to support decisions on warfare. The JSD Intelligence Bureau also sends its people abroad as undercover operatives in companies, universities and other outfits. It has its own front organisation for welcoming foreign military officials, the China Institute for International Strategic Studies. It also operates the Institute of International Relations.
The second key PLA agency is the one that does global cyberwar. The Strategic Support Force also operates political interference abroad, siphons off military and commercial secrets, and conducts psychological and political war abroad. Apparently it’s quite good at it. The Washington Post summarised the consensus of US agencies last year as “China’s eating our lunch in cyberspace”.
Politicians in Australia and elsewhere will recognise the name of the Chinese Communist Party’s International Liaison Department. Because it has hosted just about any who’ve visited China.
Brady writes that the ILD is “tasked with gathering intelligence on foreign politicians and political parties, and developing asset relations with them”.
Finally, there’s the United Front Work Department. This is a division of the Chinese Communist Party. Brady calls it the party’s “core subversion organ”. Chinese President Xi Jinping calls it one of China’s “magic weapons”. It has no Western equivalent. The United Front has representatives in China’s embassies and consulates abroad. Its job is to try to use the Chinese diaspora abroad to do Beijing’s bidding. It has organised hundreds of faux community or friendship or patriotic associations in Australia alone. Some offer support and funding for Australian politicians at all levels. It’s also tasked with promoting Xi’s Belt and Road plan to extend influence by building infrastructure abroad.
Very interesting, you might think, but do China’s agencies conduct assassinations abroad and stage coups in foreign lands? According to reports in Western media, they are suspected of conducting assassinations in the US in recent years. And coups? “You don’t really have to when you have undermined countries from within,” says Brady. “The whole point of the United Front is to erode any resistance so you get docile politicians who won’t say ‘boo’ to China.” She likens it to water dripping on limestone. A slow, relentless, reshaping of a nation’s political landscape. And if we don’t know what Brady calls the “ABCs” of the Chinese Communist Party spy agencies, we lack the basic literacy to understand the party.
By Peter Hartcher