Peter Mattis and Mathew Brazil, one an analyst and one a former official and now an historian and consultant, are right in their introduction to this new book. Espionage from, by, and on China is necessarily a somewhat opaque world. Little has been written about it. Richard Deacon wrote one work which came out as far back as 1974. Since then, there have been others. But unsurprisingly, in a political culture that privileges controlling knowledge about even some of what one might consider its more open operations, China has proved increasingly effective at guarding the gates of the ultimate inner citadel – that of using unorthodox means, through human and signals intelligence – to work out what others are up to – the enemies outside, and within: espionage.
In a time of increasingly frenetic language and claims about the country and its government, `Chinese Communist Espionage: An Intelligence Primer’ (Naval Institute Press, 2019) offers some much needed calmness and reflection. All countries spy – or at least should do! There is nothing intrinsically evil about this. Ironically, as the two authors make clear, while the era of the Internet has offered some excellent opportunities for the country’s Ministry of State Security, it seems that the Marxist Leninist ideological framework within which everything needs to be interpreted and evaluated internally, rather than what they describe as `the empirical, positivist tradition that permeates Western intelligence’ (22) remains the most significant weakness. Were the Chinese institutionally to use a more flexible framework, then it’s an interesting question of whether they would become even more effective. It’s clear, though, that as the various case studies in the authors’ fourth chapter about economic espionage show, in terms of intellectual property theft they have proved pretty efficient. This too, however, is a competitive field. As with other areas of policy, when it comes to helping China and Chinese make money, the Marxism Leninism gets toned down by a much deeper pragmatism. In other areas, its operations no not so demonstrably successful. But then, to thicken the plot, the sign of a truly successful undercover operation is that no one ever knows it happened – or at least till long after!
At a time in which, in the US, Australia, and indeed in Europe, an almost McCarthy era hysteria is appearing about what Chinese agents and institutions are up to, this book offers an important ingredient of caution and focus. It locates Chinese modern intelligence in the historical narrative of the revolutionary party during its years from 1927 under attack and underground. The case of Gu Shunzhang comes up many times. The chief intelligence operator alongside Zhou Enlai from 1929, his detention (bizarrely while masquerading as a magician while returning from an undercover operation in Wuhan) in 1931 by the KMT resulted in his making the choice to defect. The alternative was to die under torture. His treachery resulted in a devastating onslaught on his former fellow Communist activists. Only luck and the tip off from someone else meant that some of the Communists, including Zhou, escaped. Gu nearly finished the Party. If he had, the history of the country may have been very different. As it was, it just about survived. But this moment of almost existential threat, on top of the 1927 Chiang Kai-shek inspired April purge, left deep marks on the Party, and on Mao, its ascending leader. For Zhou, it was almost as though his failure to see the potential for weakness in his colleague was something that was laid on him for the rest of his life. It was one of the things that Mao `had on him’ and which were deployed over the decades ahead – even when he stood beside the Chairman from 1949 as his key right hand man when they were in power.
Not that the CCP were any patsies. Their response was to find Gu’s wife, and murder her, and ten of his family members – executions ordered by Zhou. After 1943 and the Salvation Campaign, those that worked in the world of espionage had to be wary of the very paranoia that the Party was asking them to service didn’t come to devour them in its turn. Pan Hannian (潘汉年) and his unplanned meeting with the collaborator Wang Jingwei in 1943 during the war, something he fatally didn’t tell his superiors about, meant that despite the effectiveness of the work he was leading into infiltrating the KMT, when he confessed his error twelve years later, his report, when submitted to Mao, got the chillingly brief `此人从此不可信用” – ‘this man can never be trusted’ – inscribed on it. That was as good as s death sentence. Pan spent the rest of his life till 1977 in jail.
This book is full of excellent and useful detail, and presented in a way that avoids getting lurid or sensationalist. It is slightly impeded by the fact that from the second chapter it is largely an alphabetical listing of figures, sometimes institutions and companies, and then entries on their role, history, etc. This means that the narrative structure after the first introductory chapter disappears, and it becomes more akin to a reference book. Of course, as the title says, this is a primer – but it is a pity that there wasn’t an attempt to do thematic chapters with more of an attempt to interlink, and analytically describe the various different figures and the events they were involved in in a more organic way. At the very least that would have avoided some of the repetition that inevitably results from choosing the current format.
On top of this, the final chapter, at a mere ten pages, about current Chinese espionage, is disappointing. This was the opportunity to perhaps offer some more concrete information for people travelling to China today – things that are widely and publicly known now. The use, for instance, of clean laptops and mobiles, or the fact that, as the recent case of Dickson Yeo of Singapore made clear, Linked In has often been used as a way for people to be sounded out before being recruited. Nor does it go into more detail, of which there is plenty, about cases like that of the British aide caught in a blackmail case during a visit by Gordon Brown to Shanghai in 2008. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/labour/2437340/Downing-Street-aide-in-Chinese-honeytrap-sting.html. Maybe that is for another fuller account the authors might be working on. Forewarned is forearmed, up to a point. And so this book fulfils at least part – and an important part – of helping to create a more informed awareness and debate about an important area. One thing is for sure. While it might not be the world’s oldest profession, spying must have been closely in second place. And in a world of dwindling certainties, this shadowy area is not likely to disappear. This book helps to manage the risk, even if that risk will never disappear.