Dec 22, 2020 - World

Xi Jinping's anti-corruption drive had a counterintelligence motive

hands shaking with cash
Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Widespread corruption in China made Chinese government officials especially vulnerable to CIA recruitment, and Chinese leader Xi Jinping sought to mitigate this threat by weeding out corruption, according to a new investigation by Foreign Policy magazine.

Why it matters: The anti-corruption campaign, combined with China's other counterintelligence efforts, may have reduced the CIA's visibility into what is happening on the ground in China.

Background: Shortly after he assumed office in late 2012, Xi launched a sweeping anti-corruption campaign that targeted the widespread practice of bribe-seeking and grift among party cadres and government officials.

  • The campaign has long been judged to have had two primary aims: redeeming the corrupt one-party system in the eyes of the Chinese populace and giving Xi a credible reason to go after his political foes.

Now we know of a third aim — countering CIA recruitment.

  • The Chinese government discovered the CIA was paying the “promotion fees” for some Chinese officials, Zach Dorfman reports for Foreign Policy.
  • This was a double vulnerability. Not only were these Chinese officials being paid by U.S. intelligence, but those very payments were allowing the officials to rise higher in the system, giving the U.S. even greater visibility into China’s halls of power.

What they're saying: "Paying their bribes was an example of long-term thinking that was extraordinary for us," a former senior counterintelligence official told Foreign Policy.

  • "Recruiting foreign military officers is nearly impossible. It was a way to exploit the corruption to our advantage."

What happened: Top Chinese leaders recognized corruption was threatening the legitimacy of the party and even China's national security, Dorfman reports.

  • Xi's anti-corruption campaign, combined with a counterintelligence offensive that saw the arrest or execution of dozens of CIA assets in China, mitigated the threat and reduced the CIA's footprint on the ground there.
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