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. http://www.ankki.com/AboutNewsDetail_83_2636.html

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  https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/05/opinion/china-espionage.html. That quote was also cited this year: https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/news/as-us-warns-against-spy-threat-chinese-nationals-keep-getting-arrested-in-florida. 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)
  2. https://www.politico.com/story/2018/08/08/trump-executive-dinner-bedminster-china-766609.

Hong Kong’s “First Spy”

An entry from Chinese Communist Espionage: An Intelligence Primer, by Peter Mattis and Matt Brazil,  published in November 2019 by the Naval Institute Press.  See “New Book…” page link at top right for more information.

Above: John Tsang (Zeng Zhaoke) attending Chinese National Day celebrations in Beijing, 1 October 1962.  In the background at right, wearing a hat is Rewi Alley.  Photo credit: Wen Wei Po News (Hong Kong)  

Zeng Zhaoke (曾昭科. Aka: John Tsang, Cantonese: Tsang Chao-ko, aka: Tsang Chiu-fo. 1923-2014)

John Tsang was the most senior ethnic Chinese officer in the Hong Kong Police Force, and a noted marksman, when he was arrested on 3 October 1961, accused of leading a Chinese Communist espionage ring. In a misnomer of sorts, he was dubbed “Hong Kong’s first spy” because, before then, none had been publicly named.

Zeng (Tsang) was born in Guangzhou of Manchu parentage. He attended primary school in Hong Kong and university in Japan, where he was exposed to Marxist writings; he may have been recruited into the CCP at that time. In 1947, Zeng arrived in Hong Kong and began working for the police.[1]

British and Chinese sources carry few details of the work done by Zeng’s ring. However, his organization may have been the source of important intelligence, including the nature of the colony’s defenses and internal security, and on matters such as the investigative findings by British authorities concerning the 1955 bombing carried out by Taiwan agents in Hong Kong, targeting Zhou Enlai [2] (see the Kashmir Princess Bombing). Research has not uncovered their names or positions, but fourteen “foreign nationals” were arrested at the same time as Zeng, and four of these were expelled with him to China.[3]

Zeng’s access was probably quite broad. He was a rising star in the Hong Kong Police Force, and according to one Chinese media report was the senior CCP agent in Hong Kong.  At one point a bodyguard for the Hong Kong governor, Zeng became the deputy commandant of the Police Training School at Aberdeen[4] in 1960.

On 1 October 1961, a CCP intelligence courier entering Hong Kong from Macau was discovered carrying microfilm and a large amount of cash, after he was observed by an off duty Hong Kong Police detective transferring a wad of $100 banknotes from one pocket to the other. Under interrogation, the courier revealed his affiliation with mainland Chinese authorities and his destination: the home of a woman later determined to be Zeng’s mother. [5]

Zeng was arrested two days later and interrogated for almost two months. Instead of placing him on trial, Hong Kong authorities deported Zeng to China on 30 November. Due in part to his fluency in Japanese and English and owing to academic training in Japan and Britain, Zeng became a professor of English at Jinan University in Guangzhou, where he worked before and after the Cultural Revolution (research has not revealed Zeng’s fate during that society-wide upheaval). In his later years, Zeng was head of the English department at Jinan University in Guangzhou and a member of the Guangdong Provincial People’s Congress.[6]

According to one Chinese media report that lauds Zeng’s accomplishments, he also “assumed remote personal command of the Hong Kong and Macau intelligence networks” after arriving in Guangzhou,[7] though it remains unstated how long he held such duties and where he spent most of his work day.

Zeng’s funeral honors in 2014 included a wreath from CCP head Xi Jinping and indications that he had worked for the Party before the 1949 Communist victory.[8] If Zeng was already an underground or intelligence operative when he arrived in 1947, the party may have instructed him to obtain employment that included useful access to secrets, such as with the police.

In the absence of details about Zeng’s specific activities, one can consider why the British decided to deport him as an alien rather than place him on trial as a British subject. Zeng’s arrest and deportation in October – November 1961 came in the midst of China’s great famine. In November 1960 China began supplying Hong Kong with much needed fresh water, and in July 1961, Chinese authorities began to allow easier access to Hong Kong by mainland refugees fleeing famine. [9] The circumstances may have allowed the Chinese side to pressurize the British on the Zeng matter, among others, at a time when they were considering what to do with “Hong Kong’s first spy.” They may also have been inclined to rid themselves as quietly as possible of a galling embarrassment.

In some sense, this case carries parallels that of Larry Wu-tai Chin (Jin Wudai), who according to his confession was recruited by CCP intelligence at about the same time as Zeng, and instructed to apply for a job at an American diplomatic post in China. He used that position to gain eventual employment in CIA.  The case of Glenn Duffie Shriver also carries this signature of a trained agent being “thrown into” (da jinqu) a target organization. Foreign businesses in China that have valuable intellectual property should be aware of this technique and pursue thorough background checks when appropriate.

[1] Some sources date Zeng’s entry into the Hong Kong Police as 1947, and some as 1948. “Zao zhu chujing Xianggang di yi jiandie Zeng Zhaoke qushi…”[Zeng Zhaoke, Hong Kong’s first spy who was expelled, dies] Apple Nextmedia, 29 December 2014 http://hk.apple.nextmedia.com/news/art/20141229/18984529; Gene Gleason, Hong Kong (New York: John Day Company, 1963), p. 109.

[2] Steve Tsang, “Target Zhou Enlai: The ‘Kashmir Princess’ Incident of 1955,” in The China Quarterly, No. 139 (Sep 1994), p. 775.

[3] Gleason, op. cit, p. 109.

[4] “High profile funeral for ‘James Bond’” in The Standard (Hong Kong), 30 December 2014. http://www.thestandard.com.hk/section-news.php?id=152765&story_id=43611882&d_str=20141230&sid=4

[5] Apple Nextmedia, op. cit, 24 December 2014; Gleason, op. cit, p. 109. The courier was rumored to have been carrying instructions from a controller in Macau. There may be more to this story since carrying a lot of cash would not seem unusual for someone arriving from Macau, a gambling haven.

[6] Wen Hui Po (Wenhui Bao), 26 December 2006, http://paper.wenweipo.com/2006/12/26/CH0612260002.htm

[7] Ibid.

[8] Guan Qingning, “Wo suo zhidaode Zeng Zhaoke xiansheng” [Zeng Zhaoke as I knew him]. Ming Pao, 19 January 2015, news.mingpao.com

[9] Roderick MacFarquhar, The Origins of the Cultural Revolution 3: The Coming of the Cataclysm, 1961-1966 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), pp. 205-206. Gleason, op. cit., pp. 110-111.

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