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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.

Go deeper

Jan 26, 2021 - World

DOJ considering amnesty for foreign funding disclosure

Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

The Department of Justice is considering an amnesty program that would allow researchers to disclose previous foreign funding without penalty, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Why it matters: The department is facing mounting criticism that its prosecutions of academics who failed to disclose China ties is too harsh.

8 mins ago - Health

Health policies at stake in Democrats' infrastructure bet

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Democrats are at a pivotal moment in their quest to expand health care coverage, slash the cost of prescription drugs and create a social structure that prioritizes people's health.

Driving the news: Democrats have a clear list of health care priorities they'll be fighting for this week. Among them is a measure to expand Medicare to cover dental, vision and hearing benefits.

China's crypto throwdown

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

China's latest move to ban cryptocurrency shows how tough it will be for the technology to deliver on its backers' vision of disruptive, decentralized change.

The big picture: Control of the currency is a foundation of sovereignty, and governments don't plan on losing that control even as money inevitably turns digital.