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,”; 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;

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.
  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

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 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

Mobile (Signal enabled): +1-408-891-5187


[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

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

China Espionage Research Update, Q1-2021

Welcome to this first quarterly newsletter focused on research about Beijing’s espionage and influence apparatus.

In this issue, we look at the problems of researching the topic, discuss how internal corruption led to Beijing’s most recent military and intelligence reorganization, and consider how we might improve our response.

First, a quick appeal: I am soliciting financial support for my next book, China’s Secret Wars, From Mao to Now, a narrative account of Beijing’s spy apparatus. The research will involve extensive international travel for interviews, and I will hire graduate research assistants.

Please contact me for details at or I will send a formal book proposal upon request.

Understanding Chinese Espionage

This problem is plagued by a triple whammy.

First, Chinese Communist espionage is understudied compared to similar topics. A high percentage of (nearly all?) scholars in China studies avoid it for fear of losing access to the PRC or offending dangerous people.

Second, the topic is over-sensationalized in our rapid news cycle. When a case arises, media outlets strive to quickly publish exposés ahead of their competitors. Haste, as they say, makes waste.

Third, it is cloaked in a high degree of secrecy by governments and corporations doing business in China. Yes, sources and methods are at issue, but the reticence is enhanced by a desire to avoid upsetting lucrative commercial relations.

These shortfalls cause us to miss large pieces of the puzzle in understanding the history and politics of modern China, a nation we poorly comprehend.

The triple whammy generates more heat than light in Washington, D.C. policy circles. It is a situation akin to the parable of the six blind men and the elephant, each describing the animal differently after touching its side, tusk, trunk, knee, ear, and tail.

If transferred to today’s concern over Chinese spying in America and elsewhere, one might add that those six blind men neither spoke nor read a word of elephant.

The lack of reliable information on this topic makes us all more vulnerable to swallowing hyperbole. This deficit is illustrated by the plethora of books and films in English about espionage in Europe and America versus the very few about Asia.

Observers need a better set of organized facts in order to more accurately evaluate these problems. Governments, the press, and the voting public need to know more in order to improve public accountability, not only of the agencies that protect us, but of Beijing’s leaders.

These words are not meant to promote a book, but rather to urge more scholars with good language training, a clear mind, and a strong stomach to focus their efforts on this problem.

In future issues, this newsletter will highlight those who have already taken up that challenge, discuss trends in research, point out areas that need examination, and promote dialogue.

Chinese Revolutionary Intelligence History, Corruption, and Reform

China has been the hardest of targets for foreign espionage since the communist victory in 1949, and their intelligence and counterintelligence agencies have been the darkest red corner of Chinese communism. Espionage and counterintelligence have long been a core business of the Chinese Communist Party, as we show in our earlier work.

But hitherto, China’s security and intelligence agencies have often endured turf battles, internal corruption, and a lack of interagency coordination. 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, contributing to high-level penetrations.

Xi Jinping has systematically attacked these problems since his ascent in 2012, leading a drive to restore a modern version of something that Mao Zedong built in the early People’s Republic: “information dominance” (制信息权, zhi xinxi quan) over an increasingly fluid, networked, and technologically sophisticated society.

Moreover, interagency coordination looks more robust than ever under Xi’s Central State Security Commission.

Meanwhile, Xi’s military and intelligence reorganization launched in 2015-16 appears to have resulted in a sharper mission focus by the Ministry of State Security and the intelligence units of the People’s Liberation Army (to be further discussed in an event on 10 February).

The result: an ultra-surveillance state at home, and massive security breaches in the U.S. and allied nations.

As explained by David Chambers, there is no lack of booksfilms and television dramas in Chinese, produced in the PRC and approved by the party, about the history of CCP intelligence and special operations during the Chinese revolution. Their activities, bathed in founding myth that is a mixture of truth and fiction, are held up to China’s public as examples of militant communist patriotism when China faced grave dangers from foreign powers.

Toward a Better Debate on CCP Intelligence

With sufficient skill in reading and speaking Chinese, a knowledge of modern Chinese history and politics, and patience, it is possible to transcend Beijing’s anodyne official accounts (or their silence) to shed light on at least some operations and figures in modern CCP espionage.

With greater effort, we can produce works about key chapters in Chinese espionage, and foreign espionage in China, up to the level of Ben McIntyre’s excellent The Spy and the Traitor

With better information, we can improve our response to Beijing’s espionage and influence operations.

How can we change what we are now doing? Some groups call on President Biden to end the Department of Justice “China Initiative,” asserting that the very use of the term is racist. A more sober and comprehensive analysis of the last two years of that DOJ program said that:

There is little or no doubt that the PRC (and other countries) are targeting the trade secrets of American companies and confidential government information. There is also no doubt that this represents a threat to the economic well-being of the United States…On the other hand…The vast majority of people of Chinese descent living in this country, especially Chinese Americans, are loyal citizens who contribute greatly to many scientific advances and the economic well-being of the United States. Racial profiling jeopardizes these contributions, and such targeting of an ethnic group has not ended well, the internment of Japanese-Americans being the foremost example.

…the Biden administration and the DOJ should review the China Initiative to determine whether prosecutions and investigations are based on the race, ethnicity or ancestry of the targeted individual, and if so to take remedial action to prevent such profiling in the future. Federal resources should be devoted to economic espionage prosecution and should focus on cases in which the evidence indicates that foreign governments directed the illegal activity under investigation, regardless of what nation is involved.

These are apt prescriptions. When paranoia and racism dominate the discussion, we risk repeating mistakes like the U.S. government’s disastrous handling of the 1950-1955 Qian Xuesen (Tsien Hsue-Shen) case, which gifted China with the father of their missile and space program. It is one apt warning among many of the perils of ignoring facts and losing our collective nerve.

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Other References

Matt Brazil

Contributing Editor, SpyTalk

Non-resident Fellow, The Jamestown Foundation

San Jose, California

Mobile (Signal enabled): +1-408-891-5187


China’s Top Spy, Chen Wenqing – going beyond Beijing’s official bio

China’s Top Spy is a Working Class Hero

Chen Wenqing has risen from street cop to boss of China’s powerful Ministry of State Security. Loyalty paid off.

Chen, Wenqing Chen—never a 007, no martinis shaken or stirred, no tuxedo or Aston Martin. He’s just a working-class star of China’s civilian spy apparatus, the MSS.

Tall and athletic-looking—according to official photos that only show him from the waist up—with a square-jaw and the black dyed hair common among Chinese leaders, Chen has the looks of a hero in a Chinese spy flick. Instead, he’s risen from local cop through the counterintelligence ranks to the top of China’s feared Ministry of State Security.

Since its founding in 1983, the MSS has had a preeminent role in China’s vast machinery of domestic repression. But Chen appears set to turn its foreign spying arm into an increasingly effective presence in America and elsewhere during the 2020s, says Nicholas Eftimades, one of the most well informed former U.S. government officials on Beijing’s espionage apparatus. With steady improvement in its foreign spying tradecraft over the past four years, Eftimiades says in his latest book, the MSS is now “China’s pre-eminent civilian intelligence service” and “targets political and defense information, foreign policy, overseas dissidents, military capabilities, and foreign intelligence services.” Meanwhile in the cyber realm, MSS competes with the notorious hackers of the People Liberation Army, who have repeatedly looted U.S. government files and raided corporate data banks. 


Presentations on Beijing’s Espionage Apparatus and Security of Business in China

“Dr. Brazil’s comprehensive presentation on the history and activities of Chinese intelligence, and its role as an instrument of the Communist Party, was just what my students needed to hear, and they were fascinated.  We have a vibrant program in intelligence studies at Catholic University, and knowledge about Chinese intelligence is essential for learning about our own intelligence system and the challenges facing it.”

–Nicholas Dujmovic, Ph.D., former CIA historian, director of the Intelligence Studies Program at the Catholic University of America

Matt has presented webinars that are publicly available via YouTube to:

The Institute of World Politics in Washington, DC, and

The Royal Society for Asian Affairs in London.

Matt has also spoken on the ChinaTalk, Spycast and Proceedings podcasts and appeared on the BBC, C-Span, Wall Street Television and China Uncensored. He has presented lectures to Political Science classes at the Catholic University of America and at the California State University, San Jose.

See also his writings at SpyTalk and the Jamestown Foundation.

In private forums, he has presented to The Cipher Brief, organizations in the US Departments of State and Defense, and to Infragard, the FBI-private sector partnership.

Write to Matt at or if you are interested in arranging a presentation or a study tailored to your organization’s needs.

A Better Debate is Needed about Beijing’s Espionage

Misinformation about China’s spy apparatus helps fuel a racist response in Washington and allied capitals. We must all must weigh in to improve the debate for the sake of both national defense and civil rights.  

The PRC Ministry of State Security (as a pistol) about to catch a Chinese traitor handing over secret documents to his foreign masters. Liberation Army Daily, 24 April 2018.

Chinese Communist espionage activities abroad, including in the U.S., are multi-faceted, and so the typical ad-hoc examinations by authors and journalists of the most outrageous individual cases are inherently misleading. 

When we read articles and books that look only at a technology theft in Silicon Valley, or purloined agricultural trade secrets in Illinois, or a zany attempt by a woman to talk her way into Mara Lago, they are akin to the parable of the blind men examining the elephant: not able to see the entire animal, each pronounced it to be like a tree, a wall, a snake, or a rope after touching its leg, side, trunk, and tail. 

This blind man’s assessment of Chinese espionage has led us to a dangerous fallacy, that Beijing employs tens of thousands of ordinary Chinese people in the United States and elsewhere to spy for the People’s Republic. The proponents of this view use a deeply flawed analogy, nicknamed the “grains of sand” approach to intelligence, to compare China’s security services to those of the U.S. and Russia:

“If a beach were a target, the Russians would send in a sub, frogmen would steal ashore in the dark of night and collect several buckets of sand and take them back to Moscow. The U.S. would send over satellites and produce reams of data. The Chinese would send in a thousand tourists, each assigned to collect a single grain of sand. When they returned, they would be asked to shake out their towels. And they would end up knowing more about the sand than anyone else.”

The author of the article carrying this quote concluded: In other words, the Chinese have infinite patience. [1]

Tarring an entire ethnic group with the accusation of subversion or disease is a path we have walked before, with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War Two. Countless racist attacks against people of Asian descent over COVID-19 occur even to this day. Racism shows itself in these examples as the handmaiden of incompetence. 

Even worse, in a breathtaking example that may represent only be the tip of a secret policy iceberg, President Trump reportedly told a group of American businesspeople in August 2018 that “almost every (Chinese) student that comes over to this country is a spy.” [2] 

Such tropes are inconsistent with available evidence, do little to inform policymaking or the general public, and encourage racial suspicion and stereotyping. Recent arrests of PRC citizens in Florida and elsewhere, caught in amateur acts that seem like clumsy espionage, only confuse the picture. Though it is tempting to conclude that such cases show that Chinese spies are everyday people who lurk everywhere, more careful study is needed to define them in the context of the larger set of cases reflecting standard espionage tradecraft.

Chinese Communist espionage has been professionally run since its founding in 1927. Today, Beijing’s Ministry of State Security does not employ masses of ordinary Chinese agents in its efforts. Like other intelligence services, the MSS minimizes those involved in each operation in order to maintain secrecy, using practices that harken back to the Chinese Communist Revolution and reflect standard espionage tradecraft. 

Setting aside their famous triumphs in hacking U.S. government and private sector databases, Chinese espionage “human intelligence” operations normally involve secret payments to specific recruits for information of interest to Beijing: 

– Colonel James Fondren for classified information (1999-2010);

– Retired DIA officer Ron Rockwell Hansen for high-paid “consulting” (2014-2018);

– Gyantsan Dorjee for information on Tibetan exiles in Europe (2014-2018);

– Jerry Chun Shing Lee for U.S. national defense and CIA information (2010-2018), and

– Chi Mak for passing U.S. Navy submarine technology to China (1996-2005).   

It is true that Chinese state-owned enterprises are allowed to go abroad on their own and, sometimes clumsily, steal technology. As well, some individuals engage in reckless amateur thefts and other activities. A classic case of this sort is described in detail in Mara Hvistendahl’s The Scientist and the Spy (Riverhead/Penguin, 2020).

In spite of the fact that the main character in this true story, Robert Mo, was controlled by his Chinese agricultural company, and not a professional intelligence officer, he was carefully chosen for his mission and kept his activities secret even from his own family in Florida. 

In short, the idea of every Chinese person being a potential spy is not only harmful to civil liberties; it is an inefficient waste of time that makes real espionage harder to detect.

Rather than allow our fellow citizens and elected representatives to cling to the indulgence of emotional reactions to the growing problem of Chinese Communist espionage, we must use facts and data to improve our understanding of it – not the least so that U.S. agencies become more publicly accountable for how they prioritize and conduct their work.   

  1. David Wise, “America’s Other Espionage Challenge: China That quote was also cited this year: Wise also wrote a book that provided the same sort of incomplete picture of the problem: Tiger Trap: America’s Secret Spy War with China (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011)