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. 


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)

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; 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.

[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,

[7] Ibid.

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

[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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