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.

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


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.