ANALYSIS – Thankfully, after years of benign neglect, the West, especially the United States under former President Trump, and Great Britain, began taking the China intelligence threat seriously.
But is it too late?
In an essay for the New York Times, Nigel Inkster, a former director of operations and intelligence at Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS or ‘MI-6’), explains how:
China has acquired global economic and diplomatic influence, enabling covert operations that extend well beyond traditional intelligence gathering, are growing in scale and threaten to overwhelm Western security agencies.
He notes that, unlike our previous major spy threat, the Soviet Union, the USSR was relatively “isolated and impoverished.” But with China’s successful economy, second only the U.S., Beijing’s reach is vastly greater.
Inkster notes that under Chairman Xi Jinping the Chinese Communist Party has become more dominant in Chinese society, and that “China can best be described as an intelligence state.”
What does this mean in real terms?
Well, unlike just a three decades ago, when Chinese intelligence was barely visible or capable, Inkster explains:
China’s intelligence agencies are now powerful and well resourced. They are adept at exploiting the vulnerabilities of open societies and growing dependence on China’s economy to collect vast volumes of intelligence and data. Much of this takes place in the cyber domain, such as the 2015 hack of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, in which sensitive data on millions of federal employees was stolen. Chinese intelligence operatives also are present in state-owned enterprises, state media organizations and embassies and consulates. China’s consulate in Houston was closed by the Trump administration in 2020 after it served as a national hub for collecting high-tech intelligence.
This ongoing massive Chinese intelligence effort prompted U.S. and British domestic intelligence chiefs F.B.I. director, Christopher Wray, and MI5 director general, Ken McCallum, to raise the alarm with an unprecedented joint news conference in July.
They warned of a “breathtaking” Chinese effort to steal technology and economic intelligence and to influence foreign politics in China’s favor.
They added that the Chinese efforts were growing rapidly with the number of MI5 investigations into suspected Chinese activity increasing sevenfold since 2018.
A significant reason the Chinese spy threat is so different from our previous enemies, notes Inkster, is that the “wider China challenge comes from organizations and actors engaged in activities that may not conform to normal concepts of espionage.”
While communist China has long practiced nontraditional espionage, China’s latest Intelligence Law, enacted in 2017, officially requires Chinese citizens anywhere in the world to assist intelligence agencies.
This means that, whether the liberals in the West like it or not, every Chinese national, and even those with citizenship of their host countries but with close family ties to the Chinese mainland, should be considered a potential spy.
As Inkster describes:
Much of this is organized by the United Front Work Department, a party organization that seeks to co-opt well-placed members of Chinese diaspora communities — and whose scope has been expanded under Mr. Xi. China also endeavors to entice other Western citizens. A textbook case, exposed this year, involved a British politician whose office received substantial funding from an ethnic Chinese lawyer who thereby gained access to the British political establishment. One Chinese approach is to patiently cultivate relationships with politicians at the city or community level who show potential to rise to even higher office. Another is known as elite capture, in which influential Western corporate or government figures are offered lucrative sinecures or business opportunities in return for advocating policies that jibe with Chinese interests.
Inkster argues that the U.S. and Britain must pass legislation, such as the UK’s soon-to-enacted national security bill which will broaden the definition of espionage.
This bill would create, as the Home Office put it, “a more challenging operating environment” for those acting as agents for foreign powers such as China.
Australia enacted similar legislation in 2018 to combat foreign covert political influence after major Chinese subversion operations were uncovered.
Inkster notes how this was also being done in the U.S. under the Team Trump:
Countering Beijing poses a difficult balancing act, especially in countries with large Chinese diaspora populations. A case in point was the F.B.I.’s program for preventing theft of economic and scientific intelligence from U.S. universities, started by the Trump administration under the China Initiative. The program had a chilling effect on ethnic Chinese scientists and engineers who felt they were unjustly victimized. It was terminated this year.
Whether the accusations against Trump’s ‘China Initiative’ were valid is up for debate. I argue they were grossly and dangerously overblown.
Regardless, Team Biden hasn’t replaced it with a different version, or done much to continue the fight against Chinese espionage and subversion.
It is time the U.S. again starts taking Chinese intelligence seriously, or we may all soon be ‘overwhelmed.’