Feb 5, 2020 - World

New book unveils China's formidable spy agencies

Credit: U.S. Naval Institute

Chinese espionage hinges on a sophisticated network of spies focused on state-sponsored tech theft, according to a new book that dispels outdated theories of how Beijing collects intelligence around the world.

Why it matters: Old tropes cast all ethnic Chinese as potential amateur spies, a belief which has led to racial profiling. In reality, China's intelligence agencies employ highly trained professionals who operate much like spies from any other country.

Details: Chinese Communist Espionage: An Intelligence Primer, published late last year by the Naval Institute Press, doubles as an explainer of how Chinese espionage works and as a brief encyclopedia of key figures.

  • The book's authors are Peter Mattis, a former CIA counterintelligence analyst, and Matthew Brazil, a former US Army officer and diplomat.
  • Their main message: That Chinese espionage is neither mysterious nor totally different than that practiced by other nations.

Between the lines: Mattis's research in recent years has played a leading role in debunking the "thousand grains of sand" hypothesis.

  • That theory, popular among U.S. intelligence analysts during the Cold War, held that China lacked professional intelligence services and thus relied on ethnic Chinese civilians abroad to collect bits of intel for the motherland.
  • That hypothesis resulted in race-based targeting of Chinese-American scientists during the Cold War, according to Mara Hvistendahl, author of The Scientist and the Spy.

What they're saying: "The idea that all ethnic Chinese might be potential spies is particularly galling given our history in this country of demonizing ethnic minorities, including Chinese people," Brazil told Axios in an email.

  • "Beijing's espionage efforts follow much of the same tradecraft used elsewhere," said Brazil, including using professional intelligence officers to recruit assets and pay them (or coerce them) for information.
  • That includes recruiting assets that aren't of Chinese heritage--meaning that race-based profiling won't stop China's espionage.

But not everything China's spy agencies do is standard. "Other countries focus on stealing classified information," said Brazil. "The CCP pursues this standard espionage but also focuses on tech theft to benefit not only its military but also its state-owned enterprises."

Why it matters: Targeting an entire ethnic group, as the FBI has done, doesn't safeguard American secrets and has derailed innocent lives.

Go deeper: Harvard scientist charged with lying about ties to China

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The FBI is walking a tightrope on China

FBI special agent in charge John F. Bennett in a Sept. 30 news conference, announcing charges in a Chinese espionage case. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The U.S. government is trying to solve a difficult problem: How to protect scientific research from China-linked theft, without quashing international collaboration or resorting to racial profiling.

Driving the news: Last week federal prosecutors charged Charles Lieber, chair of the Harvard University chemistry department, with lying about funds he obtained through a Chinese government recruitment program.

Go deeperArrowFeb 5, 2020 - World

Exclusive: Pompeo says new China media restrictions "long overdue"

Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The State Department announced Tuesday that it has designated five Chinese state media outlets as "foreign missions," meaning that they will be treated as arms of the Chinese government.

Driving the news: In his first public statement on the new designation, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tells Axios that the five outlets are "clearly controlled by the [Chinese Communist Party], and we are simply recognizing that fact by taking this action.”

Go deeperArrowFeb 18, 2020 - World

A China-centric 21st century

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

With the U.S. paralyzed by political gridlock and western institutions stagnating, China is positioning itself as the primary architect of new power structures in the 21st century.

Why it matters: If the U.S. continues to anger allies, withdraw from global institutions, and ignore much of the developing world, in 20 years it may wake up to find itself resigned to a small corner in a world defined and dominated by China.

Go deeperArrowFeb 5, 2020 - World