French investigative journalist Roger Faligot has been writing about Chinese spying and intelligence for more than thirty years. His encyclopedic knowledge of the history of Communist China’s intelligence services is on full display in his book Chinese Spies, originally published in France in 2008 (and later updated in 2015) and now in an English translation by Natasha Lehrer.
This book could not be more timely. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s expansion of the People’s Liberation Army and Navy, coupled with the Belt and Road Initiative’s geopolitical reach, threatens to upend the “liberal world order” established by the United States and its allies after the Second World War. China’s intelligence services, most especially the Guoanbu (Ministry of State Security), will likely play a key role in Xi’s “China Dream”.
Faligot sees the Guoanbu as the 21st-century successor to the Soviet KGB—it is both the sword and shield of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its intelligence tentacles are worldwide. Faligot traces its roots to early 1920s Shanghai where Chinese communists organized under the auspices of the Moscow-led Comintern, created by Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin to foment world revolution. China was an early target.
China in the early 1920s was a political and military battleground fought over by the CCP, the Nationalist Kuomintang, and various warlords. The Soviets established ties to both the Communists and Nationalists, and for a time oversaw the nascent intelligence services of both parties. Faligot notes that the Chinese diaspora in Paris (he calls them “Hakkas” after a Chinese ethnic group known for traveling beyond China)—including Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping, Chen Yi, Ye Jianying, and Zhu De—would play important roles in the formation of the CCP and the leadership of its intelligence services.
In the late 1920s, Zhou Enlai created the Zhongyang Teke or Central Committee Special Branch in Shanghai and placed it under the leadership of Kang Sheng, one of the most important figures in the history of CCP intelligence. Organizationally, Faligot notes, the Teke was responsible for the protection of Party leaders, intelligence and counterintelligence, the elimination of traitors, and communications. Kang Sheng used the Teke to fight a clandestine war against Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang. In the 1930s and 1940s, he joined Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai to establish “an embryonic communist state” in Yan’an, Shaanxi province.
Faligot describes Kang Sheng’s “reign of terror” unleashed in areas of China under communist control in 1942. He employed
a diverse range of techniques of repression … that are still employed by the political police in 2019.
These included forcible confessions, brainwashing, slave labor, and various means of torture. “Kang established,” Faligot writes,
an inquisitorial system, utilizing techniques of punishment and interrogation inspired by the millennia-long Chinese tradition of torture, updated by twentieth-century Stalinism for the requirements of the era.
The CCP’s intelligence services helped Mao gain power in October 1949, and since then have served China’s interests in Asia and other parts of the world. Faligot describes Chinese intelligence activities in Korea, Indochina, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Australia, Europe, and the United States. A Ministry of Public Security, or Gonganbu, was set up in 1949 and was headed by Luo Ruiqing, known as the “Chinese Dzerzhinsky” (after Felix Dzerzhinsky, the first head of the Soviet Cheka, later called the NKVD and KGB). The Gonganbu was Mao’s instrument of domestic repression, and played a role in the horrific repressions of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.
Faligot shows how China’s intelligence services targeted the Soviet Union after the Sino-Soviet split and helped pave the way for the improvement of relations with the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
China’s de facto alliance with the United States, however, did not survive the end of the Cold War. Chinese leaders rightly feared that events in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in the late 1980s could spill over into China. The Tiananmen Square protests were brutally repressed. There would be no Chinese Gorbachev.
China’s intelligence services engaged in economic espionage in the 1990s, seeking industrial and technological secrets from the West, especially the United States. Geopolitically, China’s intelligence community focused on reunification with Hong Kong, undermining movements for formal independence on Taiwan, and challenging the economic and military primacy of the United States.
21st-century Chinese intelligence activities include cyber warfare, cultural infiltration (via the proliferation of Confucius Institutes throughout the world), and the promotion of global Chinese interests. There is also a renewed emphasis on cracking down on domestic opposition, such as the Falun Gong movement and Uyghur nationalists. Also, in 2018, Xi instructed the Guoanbu to partner with foreign intelligence services to promote and secure the Belt and Road Initiative.
One of the book’s most important chapters describes the growing partnership between Chinese and Russian intelligence services in the 1990s and early 2000s. Faligot blames US policymakers for failing to foresee that the end of the Cold War and increased competition between China and the US could lead to a Sino-Russian rapprochement. It has happened, and the geopolitical consequences could be great.
A common thread throughout the history of CCP intelligence agencies is the extent to which they are headed by family members of key CCP leaders and descendants of the survivors of the Long March. These so-called “Red Princes” also head-up state-controlled economic enterprises that also engage in intelligence and espionage work abroad. This political nepotism among the Chinese nomenklatura is an instance of guanxi, a “special web of relationships”.
This remarkable book also includes fascinating spy stories, such as the rescue of Chinese dissidents by Western intelligence services after Tiananmen, and colorful characters, such as the female Chinese spy Gong Pusheng, a daughter of one of Sun Yat-sen’s generals, who became a confidante of Eleanor Roosevelt. It also includes a fascinating and revealing account of the Chinagate scandal in the United States during the Clinton administration, where the Democratic Party received millions in donations from groups tied to Chinese intelligence for President Clinton’s reelection campaign.
Faligot ends the book with a warning. Chinese intelligence services, he writes, are the world’s largest. They are competent and effective. They are “involved in the massive siphoning of economic, scientific, and technological intelligence” from other countries. President Xi has amassed more individual power than any Chinese leader since Mao, and he is committed to use the intelligence services and all the other pillars of Chinese power to advance China’s global economic and geopolitical interests.
Francis P Sempa is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century and America’s Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics and War. His writings appear in The Diplomat, Joint Force Quarterly, the University Bookman and other publications. He is an attorney and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University.