The Dragon's Eyes and Ears: Chinese Intelligence at the Crossroads

The MSS has lost several of its vice ministers to spy scandals and the ever-widening net of President Xi’s anti-corruption campaign. What happens next?

A little over a week ago, Hong Kong media reported and, on January 16, Beijing confirmed investigators had detained Chinese Ministry of State Security Vice Minister Ma Jian as part of China’s ongoing anti-corruption campaign. While Ma’s detention gives Xi Jinping and political analysts the opportunity to boast, his dismissal from the Ministry of State Security (MSS) opens a void at the top of China’s civilian intelligence service. Ma is the third vice minister to be shown the door in recent years, and each could have succeeded Geng Huichang, the current Minister of State Security, who is due to retire in the next two to three years. With an open playing field, the choices made by Xi Jinping and his colleagues will go a long way toward deciding the future of Chinese intelligence.

The MSS has lost its vice ministers to spy scandals and the ever-widening net of President Xi’s anti-corruption campaign that is sweeping up the debris of former security chief Zhou Yongkang’s network. In 2012, under President Hu Jintao, Executive Vice Minister Lu Zhongwei was disciplined and retired early because one of his close aides reportedly spied for a foreign government. Like the current minister, Lu had worked his way up the MSS ranks in the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations—one of China’s most prestigious international affairs think tanks and staffed entirely by MSS officers. While Lu may only be the second CICIR analyst to rise to the vice-ministerial ranks, he followed a typical MSS pattern of a headquarters bureau director taking the helm of one of the provincial departments, in this case the Tianjin State Security Bureau, prior to being promoted to the front office.

The next vice minister to fall was Qiu Jin, a counterintelligence/counterespionage specialist, who was one of the first victims of Zhou’s disintegrating patronage network. Qiu probably is best known outside of China for his role in escorting would-be defector and Bo Xilai sidekick Wang Lijun from the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu back to Beijing. Earlier in his career, Qiu reportedly directed the MSS headquarters counterespionage investigations bureau and the marquee provincial unit for counterespionage, the Beijing State Security Bureau. His crimes reportedly included directing an associate, Beijing State Security Bureau Director Liang Ke, to clandestinely monitor senior Chinese leaders.

A thirty-plus year veteran of intelligence operations, Ma Jian, the latest intelligence official caught in Xi’s anti-corruption web, most recently served as executive vice minister, presumably claiming the position after Lu left the service, and once was regarded as a strong candidate to succeed Minister Geng. Ma also probably took over Qiu Jin’s counterintelligence portfolio after the latter’s ouster this time last year. Vice Minister Ma had been a key player in Chinese event security, including the Asian Games in Guangzhou in 2010 and probably the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Ma did not commit any obvious crime; however, it appears he was guilty of assisting family members in their business dealings and presumably exploited his MSS position to do so. He is also believed to be close to Ling Jihua, Hu Jintao’s former top aide, who was himself detained last month.

The current MSS chief, Geng Huichang, ascended to the position in August 2007 as a scandal forced a ministerial shakeup ahead of the 17th Party Congress and routine ministerial changes due at the 2008 session of the National People’s Congress. Geng will turn 64 this year, leaving only a short time before he is due for mandatory retirement. He was the first minister selected with a foreign affairs background; however, he still reflected the tendency to choose a politically-neutral or weak minister who could not become a political force of his own or be used as a cat’s paw in leadership struggles.

With three potential candidates ousted from the ministry, the question is who is left to replace Geng? This is a difficult question as the leadership lists remain mostly hidden from public view. Only the minister and the provincial-level department directors are officially listed. With Lu, Ma, and Qiu gone, the only publicly-identified vice ministers unaccounted for are Sun Yonghai and Dong Haizhou.