Five Ways China Spies

Not as different as you might think.

Every time a fleeing or exiled Chinese official or public intellectual issues a warning about Chinese spies, the statements attain an immediate significance. When ousted Beijing University professor and Cato Institute visiting fellow Xia Yeliang made such remarks on February 27, press the world over picked up his remarks. Dr. Xia said “Every year among those top universities there are some visiting scholars, and among them I can definitely say there are some people who are actually spies…They don’t do any research—probably they just do some surveys for their boss.”

One of the reasons such remarks garner attention is that a mystique surrounds Chinese intelligence. The Chinese have not faced the same exposure that the Russians faced when Westerners helped defectors like Oleg Gordievsky, Vasili Mitrokhin, and Sergei Tretyakov write about the Soviet KGB and its successors. The shroud of mystery has meant Western observers treat Chinese intelligence as a kind of inscrutable beast, operating in fundamentally different ways than their Western and Russian counterparts. However, security services worldwide have uncovered a wide-ranging and familiar set of operational methods used by Chinese intelligence.

One of the reasons Chinese intelligence operations do not seem to make sense to observers is that they mistake intelligence for the theft of secrets. Intelligence does not mean the acquisition of “classified” or “secret” information. Intelligence is the acquisition and processing of information that assists in formulating policy and guiding action. Classification has nothing to do with it; Beijing’s concerns do. China concerns in the United States go beyond U.S. policy, including overseas Chinese populations, democracy activists, counterintelligence, and scientific expertise. And, as will become clear below, the Chinese seem to be very comfortable with merely secondhand access to sensitive information.

Here are five important and unmistakably familiar ways that China collects foreign intelligence.

1. Diplomats, Defense Attachés, and Journalists

Whoever said China spies in a fundamentally different way than others in the spy business got it wrong. Concealing spies within the embassy staff—the bread-and-butter of international espionage—has been and continues to be a hallmark of Chinese intelligence operations. In the past, these officially- or quasi-officially covered intelligence officers have lain low, focusing on eliciting information from interesting contacts rather than trying to recruit them. But that appears to have changed in recent years.

A little over three years ago, Sweden convicted a Uighur refugee, Baibur Maihesuti, from China of spying on other refugees inside and outside the country. His Chinese case officers were a journalist and diplomat, who paid him in exchange for telephone numbers, travel patterns, and other personal information about his fellow Uighurs. Around the same time, German officials also expressed concern that Chinese intelligence officers were operating more aggressively out of their diplomatic facilities. Although it might seem odd to a Western audience for a journalist to be associated with an embassy, Chinese journalists are state employees, giving them no deniability if they are caught in the middle of an operation.

2. Seeding Operations

Chinese intelligence services have been trying to feed intelligence officers and recruited agents into the adversary’s organizations since the 1920s. In fact, China’s first espionage heroes were the so-called “Three Heroes of the Dragon’s Lair,” who infiltrated the Kuomintang’s intelligence apparatus. When a senior Chinese Communist Party (CCP) official defected, these three officers sounded the warning that allowed the CCP to survive. While communist intelligence employed this method with success throughout the Chinese Civil War, seeding emerged only more recently in operations against the United States.

The first, and so far, only case to reach a U.S. courtroom was Glenn Duffie Shriver, who Chinese intelligence recruited in 2004 while he was in Shanghai. In exchange for $70,000, Shriver made several attempts to join the State Department and then the CIA’s National Clandestine Service. CIA’s background check, however, alerted security officials that something was not quite right, and further investigation revealed the connection to Chinese intelligence.