China has the world’s largest spy network, but its approach to intelligence has one crucial difference from that of other states. It has separate intelligence units that belong either to the party, the state or the military – and the core task of all is to maintain Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule. This diverges from intelligence agencies in liberal democracies, whose purpose is not to support one political party or leader but to focus on national security. The CCP’s broad-ranging approach to covert activities, which makes extensive use of assets, disinformation and proxies, makes its foreign spying and political interference challenging to combat with traditional counterintelligence measures. Add in decades of post–Cold War complacency, arrogance about the superiority of liberal democracies over communist systems, and cutbacks in the public sector, and the Western targets of CCP espionage are revealed as unaware and underprepared.
After September 11, many Western intelligence agencies focused almost exclusively on counterterrorism. NATO states also continued to focus on the threat from Russia. But most foreign nations, institutions and businesses have only recently begun to address concerns about China’s covert intelligence-gathering and surveillance activities.
The resources and expertise to assess and address Chinese espionage is alarmingly thin across the Five Eyes network and its partners. China conducts in-depth studies of its foreign adversaries, even tracking the attitudes and statements of individual China watchers in Western countries. However, the targets of this surveillance often lack basic knowledge about the organisational structure of the CCP intelligence system. For example, in a speech in February 2020, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo told US governors that the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (commonly known as the Friendship Association, or Youxie), which had compiled dossiers on them and their attitudes to China, “is the public face of the Chinese Communist Party’s official foreign influence agency, the United Front Work Department”. Actually, the Friendship Association has three “mothers-in-law” (to use CCP parlance): the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference – which is affiliated with the United Front Work Department – and the International Liaison Department. The Friendship Association, like all CCP agencies and affiliates, engages in united front work, but it is not “the public face of the United Front Work Department”. It was a telling error from Pompeo, who, before joining the White House, was the director of the CIA.
Veteran Jesuit China watcher Father László Ladány once remarked that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was based on a triple foundation: ideology, the power of the party and the secret police. In essence he was paraphrasing Mao Zedong, who championed the CCP’s three magic weapons: ideological discipline, the military and underground activities – what the CCP calls united front work. The CCP recognised early on the necessity of intelligence and espionage in achieving its political agenda. Mao and other revolutionary leaders honed their asymmetric warfare skills during the Chinese Civil War and then during the 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.
As the CCP leadership’s ambitions have increased, so has the significance of Chinese intelligence activities in the contest for global power. The COVID-19 pandemic has both posed a risk to China’s power and allowed opportunities to extend it. A report by the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, an intelligence think tank affiliated with China’s Ministry of State Security, has warned that the PRC’s attempt to cover up the early stages of the epidemic and corner global supplies of personal protective equipment, such as masks, made China politically weak and risked global pushback against its agenda. The Xi government has tried to seize control of the global narrative on COVID-19 and has tightly censored information about the situation in China, while also aggressively promoting disinformation internationally. The Chinese military has taken advantage of other countries’ focus on containing COVID-19 to assert its position in the South China Sea, India, Taiwan and Hong Kong with shows of force. The FBI reported that China has launched cyberattacks against US COVID-19 research facilities. China’s political interference against foreign governments during the pandemic has become increasingly brazen. And it has used economic coercion to intimidate states such as Australia, which have spoken up for Taiwan at the World Health Organization and asked for an international inquiry into the origins of COVID-19. China’s multiple intelligence agencies have played a role in all these actions.