The Asian Century 13.

            From the time of Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603, r. 1558-1603), England had a special intelligence service dedicated to thwarting the schemes of foreign enemies.[1]  Other countries took longer to reach this institutional goal.  Many countries assigned this task to intelligence departments of the military, with military attaches in foreign countries operating as case officers for spies.[2]  Impressed by the achievements of the British in the Second World War, the United States soon created the Central Intelligence Agency.[3]  On the other hand, revolutionary movements caught up in the struggle for power have to improvise.  The Bolsheviks created the “Cheka” in 1917.[4]  Later it became the OGPU, then the KGB, and now the FSB.[5] 

            The intelligence service of Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC) followed a recognizable track in its own development.  It began as a branch of the Peoples’ Liberation Army in the era of the struggle against Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang government.  It continued as such during the wars with Japan, with Kuomintang again, and then with the Americans in Korea from 1937 to 1953.[6]   The Ministry of Public Security handled the repression of domestic resistance. 

Military domination of intelligence-gathering matched poorly with Deng Xiaoping’s decision to dramatically reorient China after the death of Mao.  An opening to the West would involve allowing Westerners relatively unrestricted access to China.  This would pose a grave security threat.  However, an opening to the West would also permit greatly expanded espionage directed not only against foreign military power, but also against economic and technological targets.[7]  In 1983 Deng created the Ministry of State Security (MSS). 

In comparison to the Soviet Union, the PRC began at a disadvantage.  Many of the Westerners who spied for the Soviets were recruited during the “Devil’s Decades” of the 1920s and 1930s.  Social, political, and economic crises created large numbers of foreigners who were true believers in Communism.[8]  That intellectual commitment had died long before the MSS began its work.  Instead, it has relied upon a combination of lots of money to human agents and lots of technology to invade foreign computer systems. 

Has it worked?  Yes: spy scandals are becoming ever more common.  How much difference has it made?  It’s hard to tell because China’s astonishing ascent as a military and economic power has so many roots.  Still, in the judgement of experts, “China is today the greatest intelligence threat to U.S. interests.” 


[1] Now called MI-6, the Secret Intelligence Service.  Domestic counter-intelligence is the province of MI-5, the Security Service.  See: Christopher Andrew, Secret Service: The Making of the British Intelligence Community (1985). 

[2] See, for example, Peter Jackson, France and the Nazi Menace: Intelligence and Policy-Making, 1933-1939 (2000). 

[3] Unfortunately, one of the British advisors to the early CIA turned out to be the Soviet “mole” Kim Philby. 

[4] The All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combatting Counter-Revolution and Sabotage. 

[5] See Christopher Andrew, KGB (1990). 

[6] Peter Mattis and Matthew Brazil, Chinese Communist Espionage (2020), reviewed by Michael Auslin in WSJ, 2 March 2020.  . 

[7] Despite President Obama’s huffing and puffing, this was hardly a new approach to hurrying industrialization on the cheap.  See Doron Ben-Atar, Trade Secrets: Intellectual Piracy and the Origins of American Industrial Power (2004). 

[8] See, for examples, the Rosenberg spy ring in the United States, the “Cambridge Five” in Britain, and the “Red orchestra” in Germany and elsewhere. 

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