“China Is Spying on Western Europe. Here’s How to Fight It”

National Review Magazine


September 18, 2022 6:30 AM

China’s President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, December 10, 2018. (Fred Dufour/Reuters)

As Washington’s allies struggle to resist Beijing’s worldwide espionage and influence offensive, the U.S. can set an example.

hen the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, many in the nation remained resistant. But in the words of Mao Zedong, the Chinese Communist Party had three “magic weapons” (法宝, fǎbǎo): a well-organized military, party building, and its United Front apparatus, now known as the United Front Work Department (UFWD). In part by stressing consensus and mischaracterizing their long-term plans, United Front cadres convinced influential figures to support the new government. Meanwhile, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) mopped up remnant Nationalist units, invaded Xinjiang and Tibet, and intervened in Korea.

The chairman avoided publicly praising a fourth magic weapon: his espionage apparatus, then called the CCP Social Affairs Department (社会部, Shèhuì bù, SHB). From 1946 to 1949, SHB spy rings thoroughly infiltrated the Nationalist Party, army, and government. As Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek later reportedly said, “there was no space that they did not enter” (无孔不入, wú kǒng bùrù).

For more, see The National Review/

The Spies of Brussels

(Online title: Brussels, the Den of Spies) The home of the EU and NATO remains an open playground for Chinese and Russian operatives.

SpyTalk, 27 August 2022

Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) in Brussels (Credit; Wikimedia Commons)

Conjure up a list of cities considered world capitals of espionage. Those featured in movies and television, with their romantic atmosphere and scenery, include Vienna, Budapest, Berlin, London, Cairo, Tokyo, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Macau, Bangkok, and Saigon. 

Not to ignore the less romantic but important cities of Moscow, Beijing, and Washington, DC. 

By comparison, Brussels seems overlooked by spy novelists and film directors, but its unusual concentration of diplomatic missions to the European Union, NATO, and to Belgium itself brings a high ratio per square kilometer of diplomats and lobbyists—as well as spies. “Washington and Brussels compete for the largest number of embassies and other representations on earth” remarked an ICT (information and communications technology)  executive close to the Belgian authorities. He added that the spy agencies of numerous countries, including America, Russia, and China “do whatever they want here; there are so many [espionage] issues going on that Belgian authorities don’t know where to start.”

His view was not contradicted by other Belgians in the private sector and in government, including the police, who requested anonymity when interviewed in July…

The article continues here

Recent Findings on Chinese Espionage: The New Books in National Security Podcast

MSS personnel at a “Police Festival” observance

In this episode from the New Books in National Security podcast, Peter Mattis and I discuss:

  • The targets of China’s Ministry of State Security and the PLA Intelligence Bureau
  • Where Beijing sees winners and losers in the espionage competition
  • Why China made cyber espionage so effective
  • How communist ideology and Xi Jinping “thought” affect intelligence collection and analysis
  • The intersection of Chinese espionage and influence operations

Peter Mattis has worked on a range of China-related issues in the U.S. government and within think tanks. Recently, he served in government as the Senate-appointed Staff Director on the Congressional-Executive Commission on China. He began his career as a counterintelligence analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency, and he was a fellow at The Jamestown Foundation when he co-authored Chinese Communist Espionage: A Primer.

Matt Brazil is a senior analyst at BluePath Labs in Washington, DC, and is currently working on a second book which will be a narrative account of Beijing’s contemporary espionage and influence offensive. Before helping to write Chinese Communist Espionage, he worked as a soldier, diplomat, export controller, and corporate security investigator. He has spent over eight years living and working in China.

The host, John Sakellariadis is a 2021-2022 Fulbright US Student Research Grantee. He holds a Master’s degree in public policy from the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia and a Bachelor’s degree in History & Literature from Harvard University.


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, https://www.spytalk.co/

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 163.com (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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China Locks Down Its History, to Its Peril and the World’s

Xi Jinping’s effort to cement lifelong power brings rigidity and fragility.

By revising official history to glorify himself, Xi Jinping is taking a page from China’s earlier rulers, not to mention Russia’s Stalin and Putin. But what may have worked in the past is far more dangerous and destabilizing in our hyperconnected present and near future.

Xi Jinping’s effort to cement lifelong power brings rigidity and fragility.

By Matthew Brazil and Peter Singer

DEFENSE ONE, November 16, 2021

By revising official history to glorify himself, Xi Jinping is taking a page from China’s earlier rulers, not to mention Russia’s Stalin and Putin. But what may have worked in the past is far more dangerous and destabilizing in our hyperconnected present and near future.

The worshipful tones in official Chinese media coverage of this week’s plenum, or meeting, of the Chinese Communist Party’s Congress recall earlier centuries’ attempts to make the past serve the present. The ruthless emperor Qin Shi Huang (259-210 BCE) killed hundreds of scholarly critics and torched thousands of books to glorify himself and erase the achievements of predecessors and rivals. Not to be outdone, CCP founder Mao Zedong (1893-1976) quipped that although the emperor Qin “buried 460 scholars alive—we have buried 46,000…we have surpassed Qin Shi Huang a hundredfold.” 

After Mao’s passing in 1976, Deng Xiaoping ascended to become paramount leader of the CCP, and therefore of China. He banned “all forms of personality cult” and installed a collective leadership in the place of the previous de facto emperor, Mao. But that was an illusion: in 1989, CCP Secretary Zhao Ziyang publicly revealed that he—on paper, the country’s the top leader—was not really in charge. Final decisions were made by Deng Xiaoping, under a secret order issued two years earlier at the 13th Party Congress. Deng was retired only in form, not in reality. 

For the complete article, go to DEFENSE ONE

How Russia and China Spy on Us

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping during their meeting on the sidelines of a BRICS summit in Brasilia, Brazil, November 13, 2019. (Sputnik/Ramil Sitdikov/Kremlin/Reuters)

Do China and Russia share a common set of opponents in world affairs? One might immediately think, yes, they do: the United States, the United King­dom, and their allies.

But an even more persistent danger for the world’s great authoritarians is the free flow of ideas. In their ambition to seize the territories of unwilling neighbors formerly governed without harsh restrictions on information, and in their gradual but relentless drive to control expression and religion, Beijing and Moscow show that they have little tolerance for criticism and no room to allow uncontrolled debate. These are the threats to state power that most trouble Zhongnanhai and the Kremlin.

For more, see the September 1 issue of National Review

China Espionage Research Update, Q2, 2021

15 June, 2021

Thanks for subscribing and welcome to the second quarter 2021 newsletter. This and the earlier edition are archived here.


  • Tightened CCP Controls in Hong Kong Reflect the Party’s Intelligence and Security History
  • The Story Behind Apple User Data in China—and How the CCP Gained Control of It
  • Thoughts on Beijing’s View of the American Espionage Threat
  • New Counterintelligence Rules Underline Heightened Risk for Foreigners in China 
  • Beijing and Australian and Canadian “Spies”: Just the Latest Chapter of China’s Timeworn Use of Hostage Diplomacy

Tightened CCP Controls in Hong Kong Follow the Party’s Intelligence and Security History Script

The South China Morning Post ran one of its best stories ever on 14 June describing how Chinese Communist power has gradually come out of the closet in Hong Kong—and how the party is now openly discussing its role and expectations in the former British territory.

One thing the writers did not focus on was how the CCP still follows past practices for consolidating control of newly acquired territories – that they honed during the revolution. As they “liberated” the last holdouts of the nation’s core area during the Chinese Civil War (1946-1949) and then took control of Xinjiang and Tibet, the Party tailored its approach to the “objective conditions” of each place, as Mao liked to say, but always moved in the same direction of consolidating total control to eliminate threats from “counterrevolutionaries.” In doing so, they assigned key tasks to the Party’s intelligence and security organs alongside the CCP United Front Work Department. We wrote about this, and the associated work of CCP intelligence and underground operatives in Chinese Communist Espionage.

As Mao also said, “Make the past serve the present” (古为今用, Gǔ wéi jīn yòng). I will elaborate more in my next book, and show how the CCP’s tendency to use historical lessons can make such measures predictable, today.

As usual, run a good VPN before reading anything coming out of China, Hong Kong, and Macau, and ensure that you have installed high-quality anti-virus software.

The Story Behind Apple User Data in China—and How the CCP Gained Control of It

In case you missed last month’s New York Times story, “Censorship, Surveillance, and Profits: A Hard Bargain for Apple in  China (May 17), one of the correspondents on that story was interviewed on NYT’s The Daily podcast from 14 June. In sum, all Apple user data in China is kept on a server controlled by an unnamed element of the PRC government, and they have the keys to decrypt it any time they want.

The question remains: if Beijing demanded decrypted user data from abroad, would Apple comply?

Thoughts on Beijing’s View of the American Espionage Threat

To be fair to China’s historically paranoid outlook, the Americans are also growing stricter. The FBI and local law enforcement in the U.S. have great power to investigate the goings on in foreign firms on U.S. soil, though obvious judicial and First Amendment protections exist.

And Chinese concerns about American spying are not unfounded, what with the 2012 spy scandal in Beijing that led to the arrest and execution of perhaps over a dozen Chinese agents of the CIA, including an aide to then Ministry of State Security (MSS) vice minister Lu Zhongwei.

Meanwhile, Chinese anti-spy propaganda, normally general in nature, is gradually becoming more specific about threats. The popular spy drama State Secrets (国家机密, Guójiā jīmì), which premiered in 2005, depicted contemporary State Security officers investigating Chinese bad guys lured into espionage by unnamed foreign powers, as did other media such as the one-act cartoon play “Dangerous Love” (illustration below). More recently, these efforts have ramped up and become more specific. In 2016, authorities began observing an annual National Security Day on 15 April to educate the public about foreign spy threats. Meanwhile, a successor to State Secrets premiered in 2015: With the Silent Section (于无声处, Yú wúshēng chù, aka: “In the Silence” on YouTube). This updated series depicts State Security officers chasing American spies and their recruited agents in 1984, just after the founding of the MSS. Actors with American accents were employed to play the bad guys, their names in the credits followed by “美国” (U.S.).

Less specific: A red-haired white guy, David, woos Xiao Li, a Chinese state employee, in the 2016 propaganda comic “Dangerous Love” (“Red-haired person” (红毛人) is an old shorthand for foreigner).
More specific: A Chinese-speaking American spy, “Charlie,” played by Scotty Robert Cox (柯国庆)) in “With the Silent Section.” In this scene, Charlie worries that he is being followed and tells his taxi driver to turn around and go back to the hotel—not knowing that all is already lost as the driver is an undercover State Security officer. When caught with incriminating evidence as he tries to leave China, Charlie commits suicide with a poison pill.

New Counterintelligence Regs Clarify Spy Laws, Heighten Risk for Foreigners in China

Years after Beijing passed a series of espionage-related laws between 2014 and 2017[1], the other big shoe has finally dropped: its Counterintelligence Regulations[2], announced on 26 April, give details about who is required to do what, and with whom, in China’s long anti-spy campaign now going into its eighth year.

These Regulations provide detailed implementation for two of those pieces of legislation: the State Security Law and the Counterintelligence Law (aka: the Counterespionage Law).

As Murray Scot Tanner described in his 2017 Lawfare Blog article, the spate of anti-spy legislation was written to make clear that the CCP and its subordinate government require citizens and organizations  to assist in Chinese intelligence operations, counterintelligence investigations, and cybersecurity efforts, albeit with no significant limits on government and party power nor any genuine attention to preserving individual rights.

When espionage-related legislation first emerged seven years ago, many commentators reacted with a yawn, asserting that they merely codified established CCP practices dating from Mao Zedong’s time (d: 1976). However, China is now a different place. It has far more contact with the outside world, with thousands of times more foreigners on its soil than before and an economy that is not only tied to the rest of the world, but is made up of many large and powerful firms; a situation that was unimaginable just a generation ago. Moreover, more Chinese have been exposed to, or at least learned about, foreign rule-of-law systems. Thus, detailed laws and regulations make it easier to govern—and catch spies—in this more sophisticated society.

By spelling out responsibilities of state security organs and the obligations of citizens and various organizations, these laws and the Regulations mandate standardized interactions between China’s intelligence community and the public, push counterintelligence responsibilities down to the lowest possible levels, and help deter corrupt activity by officials such as playing favorites or profiting through extortion.

In the first line of the introduction to the Regulations, CCP leader and PRC president Xi Jinping is named as the “core” of the party’s decision making: not unexpected in today’s atmosphere lauding him as equal to Mao Zedong in Chinese history, but a strong hint that all concerned had better pay attention. 

Leading up to the actual listing of its 26 articles, the introduction lays the main responsibility for counterintelligence work on public and private organizations in China, which Chinese State Security organs[3] are to “guide and inspect.”[4] The former is a set phrase referring to the Ministry of State Security in Beijing and its subordinate State Security Bureaus and Departments at the provincial, municipal, and county levels.

This appears to be the start of a huge, and new, undertaking: the Regulations task State Security organs at all levels to train officials and executives in “institutions, groups, enterprises and other social organizations”[5] across China; provide training materials; conduct inspections to audit for compliance to standards; and direct organizations to rectify mistakes.

Article 4 of the Regulations has the teeth: state security organs should impose unspecified time limits on audited organizations to meet standards, and can refer the case of a negligent person or organization to law enforcement or the courts as “an offense, (with) criminal responsibility to be investigated according to the law.”[6]  In Articles 7 and 8, enterprises are required to keep a current list with State Security of their employees conducting anti-spy work, engage in timely reporting of suspicious acts, and “provide facilities and other assistance to state security organs to carry out their tasks.”[7]

Article 9.7 calls for regular anti-spy education and training for persons in contact with foreigners and those with access to secret information. However, the language of the Regulations neither includes nor excludes foreign people, enterprises, and other organizations in China, nor does it mention Hong Kong and Macau.[8] 

While this seems to insulate foreigners from State Security, only time will tell, and there is no reason for optimism by foreigners in China. Moreover, PRC regulatory authorities such as the State Administration for Market Regulation already strive to treat foreign organizations the same way they do Chinese entities, providing a precedent for espionage investigations, not to mention requiring training and audits.

Since the Regulations do not exempt foreigners from the tender mercies of the security apparatus, the option of treating them like anyone else in China may remain reserved for politically timely application sooner or later: perhaps first on the Chinese mainland in tier 2 cities and below (e.g. Dalian, Shenyang, Zhuhai, Xi’an, Fuzhou) where few if any foreign journalists are present, then in tier 1 municipalities like Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shanghai. Considering their sensitivity in China’s bilateral relations and the presence of foreign consulates and significant foreign populations, Macau and Hong Kong would logically come last.

Keeping in mind the present threat against Canadians and Australians in China, there is always the possibility of stricter application toward a particular set of foreigners becoming timely due to bilateral tensions with Beijing. 

Critical information infrastructure is treated in Article 10, which requires security measures to prevent and stop foreign network attacks. That may leave open the possibility of a State Security organ interpreting this part of the Regulations as requiring network isolation of a foreign enterprise from their headquarters abroad. In Articles 24 and 25, State Security may enter premises for technical inspection and testing, or to install equipment for remote testing (远程技术检测, yuǎnchéng jìshù jiǎncè).  This is not a new practice (just ask Apple), but by its inclusion in the Regulations, it will likely become universal.

The language of the articles cited above should give pause to any foreign firm in China that wishes to maintain basic network security and ordinary security operations and investigations to counter unauthorized network access, internal fraud and embezzlement, and insider IP and other theft. A lesser-known but extant practice is conducting Technical Surveillance Countermeasures, or TSCM, i.e. hunting for audio and video “bugs” (TSCM is pursued by at least some foreign firms striving to protect trade secrets). In the past, PRC security organs have kept their hands off of such operations as long as they were conducted on company premises. Foreign enterprises were also able to (sometimes) resist intrusions by Chinese authorities.

Now, there are regulations that mandate the involvement of State Security practically anywhere they wish to go.

Beijing and Australian and Canadian “Spies”: Just the Latest Chapter of China’s Timeworn Use of Hostage Diplomacy

As Australia and Canada consider how to react to the defacto kidnap of the Australians Cheng Lei and Yang Hengjun and the Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, it would be good to obtain some perspective by reviewing China’s longstanding practice of hostage diplomacy.

The allegations that these four individuals were spying for a foreign power so far lack any evidence that they actually sought direct or indirect access to Chinese classified materials. Moreover, the blaringly loud rhetoric from Beijing on these cases is reminiscent of past incidents where apparently innocent suspects were subjected to show trials, seemingly to express the CCP’s displeasure with a foreign government and gain leverage.

When will Beijing start corralling Americans as “spies” when they really ain’t—just to make a point with Washington? Probably not in the near future, because doing so is a more sensitive matter than grabbing the citizen of, in Beijing’s eyes, a less powerful trading partner.

The following is an excerpt from an article, “Thinking the Unthinkable,” published in the Jamestown China Brief in 2016 that reviews Beijing’s hostage diplomacy up to that time. It seems to retain its relevance today.

Taking hostages is a fixture in Chinese history and modern practice. It was a formal part of Chinese statecraft until the 17th Century, including taking “external hostages” to control barbarian states during ordinary times, and during hostilities to facilitate negotiations for armistice or surrender. [1]

In modern times, extrajudicial hostage taking over business disputes, often condoned by local authorities, has become common. A few of many examples: American senior executives confined for days to weeks in separate incidents during 2007 and 2013 in Beijing, when Chinese staff feared layoffs; the bankrupt consumer products company whose Chinese suppliers stormed their representative office and took American employees hostage for about a week (Wall Street Journal, June 26, 2013) [2] Hostage taking is even a strategy of choice in a Chinese business publication: if a debt becomes uncollectable, enlist the help of the local Public Security Bureau to temporarily hold the debtor (China Law Blog, May 2016).

As illustrated in the comparisons below, private disputes are different than a state-sponsored detention, but the lesson to absorb is that use of detained people as pawns is more acceptable in China than elsewhere, which raises the risk to resident foreigners of all stripes. If the current leadership wished to make a list of precedents for holding foreigners without conventional criminal charges, it might look like this:

Some Precedents in PRC History Leading to Detentions of Foreigners Under Non-Criminal Circumstances

YearDetainee TypeIncidentCircumstances
1948-49DiplomatsConfinement to facility of diplomats, American Consulate, Mukden (Shenyang)Rising US-China tensions. Military campaign during Chinese Civil War.
1949-50DiplomatsDelayed departure of U.S. diplomats and other Americans from ShanghaiRising US-China tensions. Espionage threat in Shanghai.
1967DiplomatsBrief detention of UK diplomats during burning of British Embassy BeijingChaotic phase of Cultural Revolution.
1967-69JournalistLonger ordeal of Reuters correspondent Anthony GreyChaotic phase of Cultural Revolution.
2001  MilitaryDetention of an American EP-3 crew on Hainan IslandIncident On and Over the High Seas (INCSEA)
2008BusinessVisiting U.S. executives detained by workers at factory during labor dispute. *Local business dispute. Action ignored by Public Security Bureau.
2014BusinessDetention of Australian executive *PRC intelligence identifies and pitches a former intelligence officer.
2014-16MissionaryDetention of Kevin and Julia Garrett, Canadian missionariesCanadian-Chinese bilateral tensions prior to arrest.
2015BusinessDetention of American executive *PRC intelligence identifies and detains former intelligence officer.
2015DiplomatsDetention of American Consulate officer *Officer held and beaten by Chengdu municipal State Security Bureau for unclear reasons
2015BusinessDetention of U.S. corporate executives visiting tire factory in Shandong province. *Dispute between the firm and the local CCP committee following an earlier strike.
Sources: Chen Jian, China’s Road to the Korea War, the Making of the Chinese-American Confrontation (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), pp. 33-39; Earl Wilson, “I was looking at him, this one man between me and freedom,” in “Get While the Getting is Good,” ADST.org; Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals, Mao’s Last Revolution (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press, 2006), pp. 224-27; Anthony Grey, Hostage in Peking (London: Michael Joseph, 1970); Susan L. Shirk, China, Fragile Superpower (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 236-37. *Interviews regarding unpublicized incidents.

By coincidence, the ordeal of the Garretts began two months after the Canadian government accused China in July 2014 of state-sponsored spying against the National Research Council in Ottawa (Xinhua, January 28, 2016; CBC News, July 29, 2014). Espionage charges were laid followed by deportation, possibly a signal example that the CCP is willing to use detentions and expulsions in a random way to pressure a foreign government. More recently, the dispute with South Korea over the THAAD deployment triggered the unexpected expulsion of an uncertain number of South Korean missionaries. Despite the declining number of Western and Korean missionaries after three years of CCP pressure, possibly thousands remain in China, subject to sudden official hostility (Christianity Today, March 8, 2017; Toronto Globe and Mail, August 25, 2014; billionbibles.org).

The 2001 EP-3 incident likely provides the most hints of how the CCP leadership would consider using Americans in China should a bilateral conflict suddenly arise. Chinese military leaders talked about preparing to fight the U.S., internal security bodies wanted to put the Americans on trial, and others who worked the bilateral relationship wanted to release the crew gradually or right away, and keep the aircraft. One Chinese advisor noted that “The internal negotiations were much more difficult than the negotiations with the US.” CCP General Secretary Jiang Zemin allowed the crew to depart China after 11 days, and their aircraft was disassembled and shipped back to the U.S. as freight. [3]

If tensions with the U.S. should escalate today, a similar internal debate should be expected—but this time the decider is Xi Jinping, a “hard authoritarian” who at least aspires to firmer control compared to recent CCP leaders. [4] Xi has taken an increasingly unforgiving stance against the American presence in Asia and may consider himself more secure in authority than did Jiang (China Brief, October 4, 2016). Strong though he may be, Xi’s choices in a crisis may be constrained by an accompanying rise in popular anger against foreigners. Moreover, the large number of Chinese immigrants in the U.S. also poses a problem in controlling a bilateral crisis.

  1. Yang, Lien-sheng. “Hostages in Chinese History.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, vol. 15, no. 3/4, 1952, pp. 507, 509-11, 516, 519-20. jstor.org/stable/2718238.
  2. Interview with a corporate security executive from a U.S. technology firm, 2007.
  3. Susan L. Shirk, China, Fragile Superpower (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), pp., pp. 236-39. For a discussion of the material compromised during the incident, see The Intercept, April 10, 2016.
  4. David Shambaugh, China’s Future (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2016), pp. 2-3. In chapter four, especially pp. 98-100, the author argues that the “soft authoritarians” Jiang Zemin, Zeng Qinghong, and Hu Jintao were displaced after 2009 by “hard authoritarians” surrounding Xi Jinping.


保守国家机密慎之又慎 !

Bǎoshǒu guójiā jīmì shènzhī yòu shèn

One cannot be too careful in guarding state secrets!


Don’t miss our glossary of Chinese Intelligence Terms, a one-of-a-kind reference with hundreds of espionage and counterintelligence terms, translated into English with sources referenced so that you can see that is the product of research—not a leaked document.


My next book, China’s Secret Wars, From Mao to Now will be a narrative account of Beijing’s spy apparatus. The research will involve extensive international travel for interviews to obtain perspectives from outside the Washington, DC Capital Beltway. I will hire graduate research assistants when finding is sufficient.

Please contact me for details using the contact us page at mattbrazil.net

Naval Institute Press, 2019

“This is an important and timely book. Brazil and Mattis place China’s sustained campaign of espionage in context. Chinese Communist Espionage: An Intelligence Primer is a must-read for all who play a role in protecting free and open societies from this pernicious threat to security and prosperity.” —H.R. McMaster, author, Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Lies that Led to Vietnam

“In this painstakingly researched and very detailed effort to pierce the veil of Chinese opacity, Brazil and Mattis have helped limn both the history and current dimensions of the still shadowy world of Chinese intelligence and counter-intelligence operations.” –Orville Schell, Arthur Ross Director, Center on US-China Relations, Asia Society

“Mr Mattis and Mr Brazil provide a useful field guide to Chinese intelligence services.” –The Economist

“A well-laid-out account of how Chinese intelligence works, along with its internal contradictions and conflicts.” –Foreign Policy

“Chinese Communist Espionage: An Intelligence Primer is precisely what the subtitle says it is, a primer, and a very useful one…. Serious students of Chinese espionage and anyone interested in doing additional research–which the authors encourage–will find the footnotes and the bibliography extremely helpful.” –The Cipher Brief

“This timely work joins a select body of literature that examines China’s intelligence operations. This book is a very strong contribution to the field of study and unlike sensationalized or journalistic accounts, it presents an accurate and descriptive view of China’s Espionage activities.” –Nicholas Eftimiades, Assistant teaching Professor, Penn State University, and author Chinese Intelligence Operations

“The first book of its kind to employ hundreds of Chinese sources to explain the history and current state of Chinese Communist intelligence operations, Chinese Communist Espionage: An Intelligence Primer profiles the leaders, top spies and important operations, and links to an extensive online glossary of Chinese-language intelligence and security terms.” –The Foreign Service Journal

“This book will be of interest to the security specialist…. It will also be useful to those who are engaged in research on and teaching of comparative intelligence systems.” –Security Management

“Messrs. Mattis and Brazil’s book is the most comprehensive attempt yet to outline the range of China’s spying and the complicated web of agencies that carry it out. The scale of China’s relentless espionage activities is far more understandable thanks to their work. Readers may be surprised, for example, to find out that some of the earliest American Cold War spies gave their loyalty to Beijing, not Moscow, prompting one to wonder: Does China today have its own Kim Philby? The ignominious list of Americans, both of Chinese descent and otherwise, who have sold national or corporate secrets to China, or attempted to do so, is enough to raise questions about how much of China’s military and economic rise could have been achieved without espionage.” –The Wall Street Journal

See www.mattbrazil.net for links to other articles and to some of my online talks about this topic, available via YouTube and on podcasts.

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Matt Brazil​​

Non-resident Fellow, The Jamestown Foundation

Contributing Editor, SpyTalk

San Jose, California

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[1] The 2014 Counterintelligence Law (反间谍法, Fan jiandie fa); the State Security Law (国家安全法) and Counterterrorism Law (反恐怖主义法, Fan kongbu zhuyi fa) in 2015; the Cybersecurity Law (网络安全法, Wangluo anquanfa) and Foreign NGO Management Law in 2016; and the 2017 State Intelligence Law (国家情报法Guojia qingbao fa), updated in 2018.

[2] 反间谍安全防范工作规定, Fǎn jiàndié ānquán fángfàn gōngzuò guiding. The title of the Regulations employs the Chinese phrase 反间谍 (Fan jiandie), literally “anti-spy,” which is variously translated into English as counter espionage and counterintelligence.

[3] 国家安全机关,  Guójiā ānquán jīguān

[4] 指导和检查, zhǐdǎo hé jiǎnchá. Perhaps by coincidence, this seems to reflect the trend in Western corporations to advocate that business units and individuals “own their own security” by avoiding rookie mistakes like posting company information on social media or thoughtlessly clicking on email attachments from unknown senders.

[5] 机关,团体,企业事业组织,和其他社会组织  Jīguān, tuántǐ, qǐyè shìyè zǔzhī, hé qítā shèhuì zǔzhī

[6] 构成犯罪的,依法追究刑事责任,  gòuchéng fànzuì de, yīfǎ zhuījiù xíngshì zérèn

[7] 为国家安全机关依法执行任务提供便利或者其他协助, wèi guójiā ānquán jīguān yīfǎ zhíxíng rènwù tígōng biànlì huòzhě qítā xiézhù

[8] 涉密、涉外人员 shè mì, shèwài rényuán. Some online translation tools mistakenly interpret the latter, 涉外人员, to mean “foreigners” because it contains the character (wài), for outsider. However, the Regulations do not contain any of the standard terms for foreign enterprises or foreigners (外国企业, 外国人, 外国公民, 国际友人, 外客, 外宾, 外籍人员, Wàiguó qǐyè, wàiguó rén, wàiguó gōngmín, guójì yǒurén, wài kè, wàibīn, wàijí renyuan), nor is there any reference to “citizenship/nationality” (国籍, guójí).

A Wild Ride into a Future War with China

The fast-paced techno-thriller, ‘2034: A Novel of the Next World War,’ offers an all too believable scenario for a US-China clash, but misses the mark on Beijing

By Matt Brazil, from www.spytalk.co

The possibility of a future clash between American and Chinese forces, and how to avoid another disastrous world war, are among the most debated issues in Washington.

Now comes 2034: A Novel of the Next World WarThe story tackles the prospect of a future war head-on in a rapid-fire narrative that, in the mold of Tom Clancy’s best military techno-thrillers, features present and soon-to-come cyber combat as a key weapon in a military showdown between the U.S. and China. Penned by retired four-star admiral James Stavridis, a former supreme commander of NATO, among many other high callings, and Elliot Ackerman, a much lauded author and Marine combat veteran of Afghanistan, 2034 arrives as Washington policymakers, awakened by an emboldened China, hold hearings to seriously consider potential scenarios for a Beijing grab of Taiwan: an across-the-beach invasion that makes the island’s cities unlivable, and an “all means short of war” intimidation campaign that forces Taiwan into voluntary surrender, suborned like Hong Kong under the “one country, two systems” model, thereby sparing its population and economy mass casualties. 

The persuasive realism of 2034’s well informed narrative has brought it wide, well deserved acclaim. From its foreboding opening pages to its shuddering, frightening, and all-too-believable finish, it’s a heart stopping rush. The authors show many strengths in relating how devastating a Sino-American war would be to both nations. But the novel contains an important blind spot in its uninformed depiction of how the Chinese side actually works.

It is a concern underlined by recent war games, where one team playing the U.S. side couldn’t prevent a “red team” of Chinese forces from invading Taiwan. In those exercises, sponsored by the Pentagon-connected RAND Corporation, the U.S. suffered heavy losses of Navy warships and bases in Guam and Okinawa.

It’s been just over 70 years since Chinese and U.S. forces clashed, in Korea. Back then the People’s Liberation Army was a primitive force that was willing to suffer enormous casualties to push U.S. troops back from its border. Now, in 2021, the technology gap between Chinese and American forces has dramatically shrunk. Rapid Chinese advances in artificial intelligence, computing, aerospace, precision machining, missiles, and telecommunications technology, to name a few, make American planners wonder how long they can maintain a lead on the battlefield. 

The East is Red

In the world of 2034, Chinese forces seem almost invincible, and the Americans appear not to have made a single solid technological and military advance since 2021. Oddly, despite the prominent role of Chinese cyber attacks in the novel, the National Security Agency, a crucial  player in U.S. cyber operations, goes almost unmentioned, as if it doesn’t even exist. More importantly, the authors also do not mention how China would have overcome its own internal political and economic problems and mediocrity in joint force operations. Nor do they describe how Chinese forces defeat Taiwan’s considerable, U.S.-supplied defenses. The narrative simply fast forwards to Beijing’s seemingly inevitable victory, as if narrated by a Pentagon Rip Van Winkle. Heroes and a few villains, of course, dominate the story. The human toll of this theater-wide conflict is a backdrop. 

And yet 2034 succeeds on many levels. The novel’s greatest strength is its convincing depiction of how both sides slide toward mutual destruction. With a great advantage in the cyber realm, the Chinese start by paralyzing U.S. forces, exploiting America’s “worship of technology,” portrayed as a crippling addiction. American Navy communications and navigation equipment fail across the Pacific. Ships are sunk. Fighters are shot down. Thousands of sailors go down in the South China Sea. Off the coast of Iran, a U.S. Navy jet is hacked by Beijing’s ally, Tehran, and brought down onto Iranian territory in a coordinated operation. 

Mutual nuclear destruction of Chinese and American cities seems inevitable. America’s first woman president, oddly unnamed throughout, seems barely effective. Meanwhile, we find that India has risen to be an equal to China and America, with a corresponding ascendant role in geopolitics.

In this sense, the book does a great service by dramatically presenting the reality of growing Chinese power, especially along its periphery, amid the chilling prospect of American decline. In a field of literature that might be characterized as speculative future-conflict fiction, the authors are excellent at depicting force structures, notional technological advances and inadvertent escalation leading toward unintended disaster.

Bù Hǎo

By contrast, the book has a set of shortcomings related to China that undercut its credibility and could’ve been avoided with the help of a graduate student in China studies. There are minor issues at first, such as the inconsistent spellings of Chinese names, annoying to those who have more than a passing familiarity with the country. (Not to be picky, but Defense Minister “Chiang” uses an old spelling style; the name of the Chinese ship Wén Rui, affixed with the only tone mark in the whole book, places it above the first word, but not the second. As it is, Wén Rui could mean several things, including a general term for gnats and mosquitos.) 

Then come a few shopworn tropes. A Chinese admiral, Lin Bao, ponders that he will never be allowed to become more “than a single cog in the vast machinery of the People’s Republic.” Chiang displays “his small carnivorous teeth.” An Iranian torturer allows “the three fingers of his mangled right hand to crawl crab-like toward the base” of his American victim’s neck. An Iranian doctor attending the American has “a bony face cut at flat angles like the blades of several knives”

Inevitably, it seems, there are numerous references to Sun Tzu’s Art of War, which seems to be America’s favorite shortcut to understand Chinese thinking.

Then there are some questionable assertions that a research assistant would have flagged, like the partly true but inaccurate common wisdom that in Chinese, “the words for crisis and opportunity are the same.” There’s the bonkers revelation that the Chinese admiral at the center of the story, Lin Bao, has dual U.S. and Chinese citizenship—highly unlikely since Beijing has zero-tolerance for such among its ordinary citizens, not to mention a senior military figure and party member with top secret security clearances. 

There are also a few WTF moments. In one passage, Chinese forces had “converged in a noose around Chinese Taipei, or Taiwan, as the West insisted on calling it.” This is just plain wrong. Beijing regularly uses Taiwan to refer to the island, and always has. They just don’t want anyone calling Taiwan a separate nation, or—trigger warning!uttering the reality that dares not speak its name: that there are, in all practicality, “two Chinas.” 

In another passage, orders to launch an attack on the continental U.S. are passed directly from a member of the Chinese Politburo to Admiral Lin Bao instead of being documented by a Central Committee notice and sent down through the Central Military Commission—a story-stopping passage to the authors, maybe, but still: In a book where Chinese tactical decisions are a key part of the drama, there’s no explanation of such a fundamental change in Beijing’s decision making. 

Later on, there’s an assassination of one of the key Chinese officials in a hotel room by State Security agents when things go bad. Again, implausible: The Chinese communists have the blood of millions on their hands, but at the top, miscreants are purged and imprisoned and, in general, executions of smaller fry are public, cast as gruesome warnings to the masses. The official’s demise might have been believable with a line about how aspects of Chinese politics had changed, but no explanations are offered.

But 2034 has other valuable elements, including the implied observation that China knows America much better than America knows China. (We must do something about that.) But the story would have benefitted by following, not just quoting, Sun Tzu’s most important maxim: “Know the enemy and know yourself, (and you) need not fear danger in one hundred battles.” (知彼知己 百战不殆Zhī bǐ zhījǐ, bǎizhàn bùdài

Come to think of it, in 2034’s telling, Chinese leaders would’ve been wise to follow that maxim themselves. Talk is far better than war.

Matt Brazil is the co-author, with Peter Mattis, of Chinese Communist Espionage, An Intelligence Primer. He served at the American Embassy, Beijing in the 1990s. 

2034, A Novel of the Next World War, by Elliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis (New York: Penguin Press, 2021)

China’s Intelligence Reform Initiatives: Echoes from CCP Espionage History and Current Developments.

Xu Yanjun, the Ministry of State Security officer extradited to the US in 2018

This webinar from 10 February is available for viewing on YouTube and may also be heard, audio-only, on SoundCloud.

The conference paper on this topic is available upon request. Message me via LinkedIn and I will supply it to you (first click here and open up Messaging).


Since their 1949 victory, the Chinese Communist Party has been highly successful in making mainland China a very hard target for foreign espionage. But hitherto, China’s security and intelligence agencies have often endured a lack of interagency coordination, turf battles, and internal corruption. 

Under Mao Zedong, they were attacked and dismantled during the Cultural Revolution, taking decades to recover. During China’s corruption crisis of the 1990s and 2000s, intelligence and counterintelligence operations were hobbled by internal graft, leading to high-level penetrations by the CIA’s China Program.

However, Xi Jinping has systematically attacked these problems since his ascent in 2012. His famous anti-corruption drive was partly intended to blunt alleged American efforts to provide cash for their agents within the Chinese state to secure corrupt promotions. Beijing’s drive to regain “information dominance” (制信息权,zhi xinxi quan) over an increasingly fluid, networked, and technologically sophisticated society appears to be broadly successful. Interagency coordination looks more robust under strengthened party oversight by the new Central State Security Commission. 

Meanwhile, the intelligence and military reorganization launched in 2015 has resulted in a sharper mission focus by the Ministry of State Security and the intelligence units of the People’s Liberation Army. One sign of the newly aggressive stance overseas by MSS was the capture of their officer, Xu Yanjun, in 2018.

This presentation reviewed these efforts, and what problems still exist. It evaluated the possibility that the 2020s will be a decade of better coordinated and more aggressive espionage operations by Beijing, and the extent to which the increasingly successful surveillance state might expand and grow ever stronger inside China.

This webinar was sponsored by the Institute of World Politics