This correspondence is featured in Australian Foreign Affairs 10: Friends, Allies and Enemies.
To read the full issue, log in, subscribe or buy the issue.
“Party Faithful” by Anne-Marie Brady
Professor Anne-Marie Brady’s essay on China’s spies (AFA9: Spy vs Spy) comes as the “hidden battlefront” – to use one of the Chinese Communist Party’s favoured terms for covert work – is being forced into the spotlight. Hong Kong’s new state security office represents the first official presence of China’s intelligence agencies in the region. In July, the US government ordered China to close its consulate in Houston, Texas, alleging it was a hotbed of espionage. Weeks later, a former CIA officer was charged with working for China’s Ministry of State Security. Growing tensions with Beijing have come as governments around the world refresh and expand their counterintelligence capabilities.
Despite the proliferation of cases linked to China’s intelligence agencies, very little is known about these agencies publicly. There are few researchers outside of government who specialise in this area. Accurate information is hard to come by, and even harder to unearth. The Chinese military’s Political Work Department Liaison Bureau – one of the Party’s most important interference and espionage agencies – doesn’t even have its own Wikipedia page. In 2012, Andrew Forrest and former China ambassador Geoff Raby were pictured with the agency’s head, who was operating through one of its front groups. With notable exceptions such as Peter Mattis and Matthew Brazil’s Chinese Communist Espionage and Michael Schoenhals’s Spying for the People, books and essays on the Party’s intelligence work are often unreliable and woefully incomplete. Indictments from China-linked espionage cases are an important resource in finding out and establishing more about the Party’s inner workings.
This lack of reliable and accessible material on the Party’s intelligence work presents a challenge to Brady’s exhortation that “knowledge of Chinese intelligence agencies should be a standard feature of the workplace education of politicians, diplomats and other public servants”.
Brady’s essay itself demonstrates the depth of this knowledge gap. I can’t confirm its claim that the Ministry of State Security (MSS), China’s primary civilian intelligence organisation, was recently split into separate counter-intelligence and foreign intelligence agencies. The theory traces back to a Hong Kong media report that has not been substantiated. The essay’s description of bureaus under the MSS has its origins in decades-old Taiwanese government information. This leads to the essay’s reference to the “Enterprises Division”, a bureau that probably no longer exists, and an erroneous description of an “Imaging Intelligence Division” as the MSS’s cyberespionage bureau.
Details such as the responsibilities of different MSS bureaus are time-consuming to uncover. For most politicians, diplomats and public servants, the key will instead be understanding what distinguishes the Party’s intelligence work from Western preconceptions of spying.
In this context, Brady rightly draws attention to the CCP’s bureaucratic systems. These are groupings of agencies around functional lines, such as foreign affairs, united front work and propaganda, that coordinate across the bureaucracy and ensure directives are implemented. They are an important feature of the party-state’s bureaucracy, highlighting how dozens of agencies can work under common guidance and objectives.
The picture isn’t as straightforward with China’s intelligence agencies. The split between military and civilian intelligence agencies means they may not be as coordinated at the top. Still, the idea that different arms of the Party contribute to intelligence work is important.
While Brady characterises two of those Party organs as “intelligence agencies”, it’s important to highlight that their work is distinct from, yet integrated with, intelligence.
For example, the United Front Work Department’s focus on building and managing networks of Party-aligned groups and individuals is complementary to intelligence work. This activity can be both overt and covert. United front networks can be a way for the Party to mobilise overseas communities for cultural events. They also enable recruitment and intelligence gathering. Examples of Chinese espionage from Hong Kong and Taiwan, as well as Western cases such as that of Katrina Leung, who was accused of handing FBI secrets to Beijing, demonstrate how widespread this practice is.
In a 1939 politburo meeting, Zhou Enlai, the father of China’s United Front and intelligence systems, advocated “nestling intelligence within the United Front”. In other words, united front work is also designed to serve as cover or noise in which clandestine activity can hide. But the two kinds of activity are distinct.
This little-understood nexus of united front work and intelligence work often manifests as political interference. A search warrant from the ongoing investigation into John Zhang, a former staffer to New South Wales politician Shaoquett Moselmane, highlighted this. The warrant accused him of working on behalf of both the MSS and the United Front Work Department. Similarly, the case of defector Wang Liqiang, who claimed to have worked in a political interference network involving a university alumni association, an education charity, media executives and two listed companies, points to such “nestling”.
A country’s understanding of the interweaving of united front work and intelligence work will shape its response to China’s operations. Australia’s response to these threats focuses on interference and espionage, and rightly distinguishes between influence and interference – the latter a covert, corrupting or coercive subset of influence. But the Party’s efforts involve “using the legal to mask the illegal; deftly integrating the legal and the illegal”, to quote Zhou Enlai again. In fact, one emblem the MSS uses includes a symbol believed to represent the integration of covert and overt work, of black and white. This mismatch between China’s activities and our responses creates a serious challenge that all democracies are forced to navigate.
Alex Joske is an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s International Cyber Policy Centre.
It is great to receive feedback on my article “Party Faithful”.
I scoured every available public source on China’s party, state and military intelligence organisations to write the piece. I am grateful for Alex Joske for adding in some extra details, which were not available to me at the time of writing. These additions are very important to mainstream knowledge of how intelligence agencies work in China.
I hope that more authors will take up the challenge to shine a light on this area of Chinese politics.
Anne-Marie Brady is a professor at the University of Canterbury and a global fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington, DC.