Former US Officials Offer a Look Inside the PRC Intelligence Community

By Sasha Ingber

NEWSY video, click here. For YouTube version, click this.

June 8, 2022

Former government officials tell Newsy that China’s intelligence often conforms to political framing, and there is no system of checks and balances.

With Vladimir Putin’s war still raging in Ukraine, U.S. officials fear China will follow suit, by one day invading the self-ruled island of Taiwan and triggering another war. They want to know what China is learning from the battle for Ukraine and whether President Xi Jinping is getting accurate intelligence.

“The lack of an independent intelligence community significantly worsened Putin’s decision making in Ukraine,” Sen. Jim Inhofe said. “What is President Xi in China learning about his intel community?”

“I think it’s a really interesting question,” Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines responded. “I’d prefer to answer it in closed session. Would that be all right, sir?”

While that answer may be in secret, Newsy spoke with former government officials who say China’s intelligence often conforms to political framing, and has no system of checks and balances.

Matt Brazil is a former diplomat who served in Beijing and co-wrote a book on China’s intelligence community.  

“What careful intelligence officers do is, they do actually outsource their analysis to foreigners, because when they do this, they can say if they’re asked about ‘Why did you bring this heretical viewpoint to the leadership?’ ‘We didn’t do it. What we’re doing is reporting on what foreign experts are saying,'” he said.

He says Chinese spies fear being quietly shuffled out or accused of corruption, which could lead to demotion, arrest, physical harm, indefinite detention, family reprisal, or even possible execution. And he says Chinese spies are operating in Ukraine. 

“The Chinese intelligence community undoubtedly has people on the ground in Ukraine,” Brazil said. “They are learning about Russian military mistakes. They are learning about how quickly Russian military morale dipped, how quick it went down. They’re learning about how the Ukrainians are vociferously defending their own country. And so the question that they are going to send to their agents in Taiwan is, what are the chances, No. 1, of people in Taiwan acting like Ukrainians?”

A former senior intelligence officer — who did not want to be named in order to speak freely — tells Newsy that unlike Putin, Xi is not completely surrounded by yes men. He has relied on a vast array of sources, including the contacts of his father, who was a revolutionary and senior official.  

The source also said the U.S. does not know how often Xi receives intelligence briefings, but that Chinese officials previously considered having their own version of the President’s Daily Brief, which is the crown jewel of U.S. intelligence products.  

Meanwhile, Beijing has been quietly and publicly pursuing efforts to build overseas military infrastructure. And recent satellite imagery, first obtained by analyst Matt Funaiole, shows China preparing to launch its third, largest, and most advanced aircraft carrier. 

“This newest carrier, it’s using all of the newest technology that China has access to. And it really is pushing the boundaries of carrier technology,” Funaiole said. “It’s also one of the first sort of indigenously built aircraft carriers in China.”

The vessel is expected to carry large aircraft that fly to gather intelligence. And the U.S. will evaluate whether that intelligence is swayed by political winds. 

China’s Shadow in the Laguna Hills Killings

The accused shooter belonged to a shadowy pro-Beijing front group

From SpyTalk, May 18, 2022,

The Laguna Hills, California church shooting on Sunday highlights a secretive and little-known arm of the Chinese Communist Party operating in the United States.

It was one of two shootings last weekend, both horrific. The worst of the two has been on everyone’s lips: at a Tops Supermarket in Buffalo, New York, where 10 people were killed and three injured when a lone, white-supremacist gunman opened fire at customers and employees. 

But in Laguna Hills, the great geopolitical rivalry between the U.S. and China played out in grisly fashion, albeit on a smaller, blood-soaked stage. The killer seems to have been driven to rage by a pro-communist fervor abetted by a secretive Beijing-backed group.

“It appears this tragic incident was fueled by politically motivated hate, and that is something we do not tolerate,” Don Barnes, Orange County Sheriff-Coroner, said. The alleged shooter, David Chou, 58, left a note in his car saying that “Taiwan is not a country.” 

Everyone involved in the Laguna Hills incident was of the same origin and ethnicity: Chinese from Taiwan. Chou’s rampage was stopped only when one brave man, Dr. John Cheng, 52, threw a chair at the man and others tied him with electrical cords. Cheng died on the scene. Five others were hospitalized with gunshot wounds. 

Various Chinese communist news sites, including (also see here) acknowledged the incident and the assailant’s identity but then turned to anti-Taiwan rhetoric and the Chinese Communist Party’s oft-used victim narrative—that it’s constantly under assault by the U.S and its proxies and can’t be blamed for the occasional violent act by an aggrieved fervent supporter.  

Turns out there’s more to it than that.

Ties That Bind

Unsurprisingly, mainland Chinese news items do not mention that Chou belongs, or belonged, to the Las Vegas chapter of the National Association for China’s Peaceful Unification, or NACPU (中国和平统一促进会)—a Beijing front group. (The name of the organization varies in English on different websites but the Chinese name is consistent). 

Radio Free Asia, a U.S.-government-backed nonprofit news organization, was one of the first English-language sources to explore Chou’s connection to the group in detail. Another organization, the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, created by Congress, had also taken note of the NACPU’s role in overseas Chinese front groups in a 2018 report

During the Trump Administration, the State Department designated the NACPU a “foreign mission,” as it did earlier with the Confucius Institutes in the U.S., and alleged that it is controlled by the CCP’s United Front Work Department. That is the party organization, known for clandestine operations abroad, that specializes in cultivating relations with non-communist organizations considered friendly to Beijing. 

photo has emerged showing Chou holding a microphone in front of a banner with two slogans at a NACPU Las Vegas event. The most relevant at the top, in red, reads, “Seize the opportunity to give chase, quickly and violently annihilate the (Taiwan) independence evil spirits” (顺势速追击, 迅猛灭独妖, shùnshì sù zhuījí, xùnměng miè dú yāo).

That kind of language goes back to the 20th-century Chinese revolution and civil war, which ended with the 1949 Communist victory that drove the old Nationalist government from the mainland to Taiwan. Its successors survive today as the Republic of China, shunned diplomatically by most of the world’s governments in favor of the People’s Republic and its “big emerging market.” The two sides remain at bitter odds: Beijing simultaneously trumpets an inevitable final victory that brings Taiwan—a “renegade province”—under its control and fearfully rages against the possibility that the island’s leaders will declare themselves forever independent. A strong plurality on Taiwan does not wish to join the mainland, but a small minority would welcome rule by Beijing.

In my observation over the past several decades, Chinese people from the mainland and those from Taiwan who live in the United States normally treat each other with respect, often become friends, worship together in temples and churches, and sometimes intermarry. Worldwide, however, they establish separate student groups: the pro-Beijing Chinese Students and Scholars Associations (CSSAs) and the Taiwan Student Organizations (TSAs). Since Xi Jinping came to power, CSSAs outside of China have been pushed to maintain closer links to the nearest PRC diplomatic post, and reports have emerged of CSSAs keeping tabs on the loyalty of Chinese students and reporting on them to Chinese officials. 

Guns and Ammo

There was a particularly American flavor to the Chinese rivalry that erupted in Laguna Hills. Chou, an evidently disturbed individual inspired by an extreme variety of pro-Beijing ideology, was able to legally purchase firearms to carry out the attack on his fellow immigrants and their families. According to police, he had purchased two 9mm pistols in Las Vegas and planted Molotov cocktails in the church. It was a volatile combination, no surprise given the surge of mass shootings in American life and Beijing’s mounting, violence-tinged rhetoric against Taiwan under Xi Jinping’s leadership. 

It’s doubtful that the NACPU instigated Chou to perpetrate such a blatant, self-incriminating act. The CCP would likely see such an act as antithetical to its interests. But the poorly understood NACPU is linked to the party’s shadowy United Front Work Department. It would behoove U.S. national security agencies to get a better grip on and ultimately regulate such secretive Chinese Communist activities in the U.S. Alas,  federal law enforcement has largely stumbled on this front, launching  misplaced prosecutions while complaining that it is overwhelmed by Chinese espionage cases. 

All this means that the U.S. needs to up its game. A better understanding, and coverage, of the NACPU might not have prevented the Laguna Hills tragedy, but there’s clearly a need for expediting awareness training of state and local police, and not just the feds,  on China’s nefarious activities, to include foreign area studies and language training for those who are interested and qualified.  That’s a big reach, but what’s the alternative? As tensions with China rise, being under-equipped to respond to Beijing’s worldwide espionage and influence offensive is no longer a viable option. 

As for the easy availability of weapons in the U.S., that’s a whole ‘nother story, as they say. And it’s getting more complicated by the week. Black citizens in Buffalo and elsewhere can be excused for wanting to arm themselves now. The parishioners of Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church might now feel the same. Such an outcome only bodes ill for the future.

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