Intelligence agencies in most western nations continue to focus on the threat from Russia and have only recently begun to address concerns about China’s covert intelligence-gathering and surveillance activities. By its very nature, information on counterintelligence is thin.
f I were to mention the word “spy” or “espionage” to you, which country would you think of? For most people, the answer would be the Soviet Union, or in today’s parlance, Russia. And there’s good reason for this. For 45 years, the Cold War stand-off between the West and the Soviet Union spawned countless spy stories. Most were fiction, such as the world of James Bond, or John Le Carre’s George Smiley. In real life, however, there were plenty of examples of Soviet espionage, such as the infamous Cambridge Five, who did incalculable damage to the United Kingdom. One of them, Kim Philby, was close to becoming head of Britain’s own spy service, MI6, before being exposed. Another, Anthony Blunt, was a favourite of the Queen as her art curator, with open access to Buckingham Palace for 29 years. Both had been recruited to the KGB by Soviet spies while studying at Cambridge University in the 1930s.
In a few years, however, the answer to my question will be different. It will be China. You may not know, but today China has by far the largest spy network in the world. In fact, China has three separate intelligence units that belong to each of the Communist Party (CCP), the State, or the Military. They all have the same core task—to maintain Communist Party rule. Only recently have other nations begun to address concerns about Chinese covert intelligence gathering and surveillance activities, but in fact Chinese espionage activity has been going on for a considerable time.
It was Mao Zedong who championed the CCP’s three magic weapons: ideological discipline, the military, and underground activities. The CCP recognised early that it was essential to use intelligence and espionage in order to achieve its political agenda. Mao and other revolutionary leaders honed their asymmetric warfare skills during the Chinese civil war and then during the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC’s) international isolation from 1949 to 1971. Mao also used the security agencies in his struggle for dominance within the CCP and then later turned against some of their most senior leaders.
One of these was Xi Zhongxun, father of the “princeling” Xi Jinping, now the most powerful CCP leader since the death of Mao, 44 years ago. During his reign since 2012, Xi Jinping has steadily placed his people at the top of all the core intelligence agencies, as well as the propaganda and thought work, known as “xitong”. Prior to Xi’s arrival, there had been considerable institutional and factional rivalry between the CCP spy agencies. Leadership structures were diffuse and key decisions were taken by consensus. Today, Xi’s position at the top of multiple intelligence-related xitong means that there is a higher level of coordination on covert activities. In short, the system has become more efficient and effective.
Of all the agencies under Xi, the one every country will experience is the CCP International Liaison Department (ILD) which is headed by a close associate of Xi, Song Tao. As a result, the ILD’s influence has greatly increased and it now has considerably more power that China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The ILD has representatives in nearly every embassy around the world and is tasked with gathering intelligence. You may not necessarily be aware of the ILD, but you may have read about its front organisation, the China Association for International Understanding (CAIO).
CAIO’s methods are simple but effective. Primarily it nurtures relations with political parties and politicians, giving them access to the CCP leadership for political discussions. It also offers business opportunities and vanity projects in return for support of China’s policies, inside information or, at the very least, silence on critical issues. As a conduit for relationships, the CAIO has been a leading beneficiary of talent-scouting initiatives, such as Beijing’s “Thousand Talents Programme”, which has poured billions of dollars into drawing in tens of thousands of foreign specialists to China and which also sends thousands of PRC scientists overseas to access the latest civil and military-use technology and expertise. In this way, the PLA obtains foreign technology by developing international academic links, investing in foreign companies, espionage, hacking and elite capture. The return on this investment has been impressive, with China obtaining secrets on, for example, next-generation fighter aircraft, advanced missile systems and artificial intelligence.
Occasionally, a real-life example of CAIO’s undercover activity explodes in the media. This happened last week in an exclusive from Axios, an American news website, which revealed that its own undercover reporters had exposed a suspected Chinese intelligence operative who had developed extensive ties with local and national politicians, including a US congressman. The woman at the centre of the operation, a Chinese national named Fang Fang, targeted up-and-coming local politicians in the Bay Area in San Francisco, where nearly half a million Chinese Americans live. This is one of the largest and oldest of such communities in the US and therefore easy for a Chinese spy to melt into the background. Fang did exactly that, when in her early 20s she enrolled as a student at a Bay Area university. She became a student activist and following college Fang was able to get very close to political power through campaign fundraising, extensive networking, personal charisma, and romantic or sexual relationships.
Even though US officials say that they don’t believe Fang received or passed on classified information, a current senior US intelligence official admits that Fang’s case “was a big deal, because there were some really, really sensitive people who were caught up in the intelligence network”. Among the most significant targets of Fang’s efforts was Californian Democratic Congressman Eric Swalwell, for whom Fang took part in fundraising activities. Fang was also instrumental in placing at least one intern in Swalwell’s office and, according to witnesses, accompanied him at many events over the course of several years. US intelligence officials believe that she was also overseeing unwitting sub-agents whom she helped place in local political and congressional offices.
Fang’s activities were classic “honey trap”, although Axios is careful to report that there is no suggestion or evidence that the married Swalwell, one of the youngest Congressmen, had any sexual relations with her. Nevertheless, this case demonstrates China’s strategy of cultivating relationships that may take several years or even decades to bear fruit. The CAIO knows that today’s mayors and city council members are tomorrow’s governors and members of Congress.
Fox News’ Tucker Carlson takes a different view. Contradicting Axios, Carlson claims that “US intelligence officials believe that Fang had sexual relations with Eric Swalwell” and poses the valid question “How is it happening that at this very moment, Eric Swalwell—who has used his office to promote Beijing’s talking points almost word-for-word; a man who admits to a close personal relationship with an actual Chinese spy who helped him get elected to Congress, raised money for him and put an intern (probably another spy) in his office—continues to serve on the House Intelligence Committee, where he has unrestricted access to classified information?” Carlson, who has been floated as a potential future presidential candidate, and Fox News are strong supporters of the Republican Party and Donald Trump, whereas Swalwell is a Democrat, so it’s probable that politics is playing its part. But he does have a point which needs an answer.
US officials first noticed Fang through the surveillance they were conducting on a different person, a suspected Chinese State Security officer, working undercover as a diplomat in the San Francisco consulate. US counterintelligence officers noted that he had met and spoken with Fang on numerous occasions. The net widened and federal investigators became so alarmed by Fang’s behaviour and activities that in 2015 they alerted Swalwell, who says he cut off all ties to Fang. Fang cannot answer any questions as she fled back to China when she learned she was under FBI investigation.
As the CCP leadership’s ambitions have increased, so has the significance of Chinese intelligence activities in the contest for global power. Intelligence agencies in most western nations continue to focus on the threat from Russia and have only recently begun to address concerns about China’s covert intelligence-gathering and surveillance activities. By its very nature, information on counterintelligence is thin, but in September, Jayadeva Ranade, a China specialist formerly with the India’s external intelligence service, was quoted by Reuters “We do know that the government is looking at various China-related operations in India”.
US intelligence officials have openly announced that they believe China’s spy services have become more aggressive and emboldened in their influence and intelligence gathering operations. Fang’s case illustrates clearly how a single determined individual, working for Beijing, can gain access to sensitive US political circles, providing the CCP with priceless information. Two decades ago, Chinese intelligence operations were largely seen as amateurish, even sloppy. Xi Jinping has changed all that.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat and worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998.