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The Embassy

How China Spies

Image: Screenshot from Chinese State TV.

Last year, I received an unsolicited request on LinkedIn from a man I will call Dr. Lee. I had just left government service as the special advisor for North Korea and senior advisor for Korea policy in the U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense. I was not then the established columnist and think tank contributor that I am now.

Dr. Lee offered me more than the standard commission to write for his “emerging academic journal of Asian studies” about U.S. views of potential conflict on the Korean Peninsula. I had never heard of the journal. As a longtime Asia hand, and a former intelligence officer with a decade of being professionally paranoid, this made me suspicious. I reached out to several friends in my field. None of them had heard of it, either. The purported website of this “emerging journal” did not look like it had been updated in ages.

He stressed that he needed the article very soon. I responded that I would write an article for his journal. Still, I could not agree to his timeline because of my obligations as a former national security official to get a prepublication review.

After obliquely implying that he could offer me more money if I skipped security review, Mr. Lee moved on to asking me to write an “anonymous article” or conduct a “phone interview” with his associate, who would then write the article for me. I, of course, declined.

Like many other national security professionals on LinkedIn, I receive weekly requests from self-identified independent consultants asking me to write on this or that topic. Sometimes it is for an “anonymous firm” that “values its privacy.” Most recently, it was a commission for a “private assessment” of a potential China-Taiwan conflict.

I always say no.

China’s Espionage: Methods and Goals

My experiences prompted me to read Chinese Espionage: Operations and Tactics by the pioneering Nicholas Eftimiades. The author does yeoman’s work and offers the free world an important service by painstakingly combing through publicly available information on how the PRC operates its vast foreign intelligence apparatus. He creates a monograph that every U.S. business professional and member of Congress should read – as should any person concerned about free markets and fair competition. I read it in one evening. It is only 56 pages, but that is more than enough. Eftimiades is trying to sound an alarm, not win a Man Booker Prize.

Analyzing 595 cases over a 10-year period, and using disparate data including U.S. Department of Justice filings, asset control briefs, import/export applications, and foreign government information, Eftimiades presents a compelling narrative of just how pervasive PRC intelligence is, what are its global goals, and how it has already co-opted private industry to advance its agenda.

We should all intuitively expect well-known organizations such as the PRC Ministry of State Security (MSS), Central Military Commission Joint Staff Intelligence Bureau, and United Front Work Department engage in espionage. But Eftimiades shares more alarming revelations.

For example, the author makes a compelling case that ostensibly private industry in China – not just state-owned enterprises – can task PRC intelligence to collect foreign trade secrets, to advance both the company’s bottom line and the greater economic glory of China. One can see why, because any sensitive or proprietary information collected by the state would also be made available to other industries.

The implications are staggering. The United States and many other advanced republics do not protect private networks, nor do they make intelligence assets available to private corporations. The U.S. government does make specific network security safeguards a condition of working on a sensitive project, but it does not act as an operational arm of those businesses’ bottom line. In the PRC, Eftimiades shows, clandestine state power is made available to businesses for use against private companies and individuals.

Compare this to the well-documented cases of U.S. businesses such as Google not wanting to assist the U.S. military, while at the same time enabling Chinese censorship.

Eftimiades’ research shows that there is a near equal distribution of identified espionage cases between the “four clusters” of PRC espionage: MSS (16%), state-owned enterprises (20%), the PLA (19%), and private corporations (23%). Topic-wise, dual-use and military technology make up around 40% of the targets. The rest are related in some way to intellectual property theft.

Eftimiades goes further by exploring PRC intelligence tradecraft. Unsurprisingly, PRC intelligence appeals to the Chinese diaspora globally, harnessing classic ethnonationalism and greed to get what it wants. The author also demonstrates that the PRC uses what are essentially private intelligence mercenaries. If true, this would be the outsourcing of intelligence in the field. It goes even further than Russia or the former Soviet Union would go via the illegal resident program so thoroughly exposed in the Mitrokhin Archive.

PRC Spies in Every Aspect of Life

The vignette with which I opened this article demonstrates my own run-ins with suspicious activity. In the cases the author studied, PRC intelligence operatives often posed as academics and journalists. Based on the studies, Chinese intelligence has adopted LinkedIn as its approach vector of choice. Why wouldn’t it? We all have our resumes and bios. It’s easy to see who has sensitive experience. In my case, it was easy to see that I was looking for work post-government employment.

The monograph has natural limitations: Intelligence is by its nature a sub rosa endeavor. As such, the only evidence available to the author involves cases where the perpetrators got caught, and these are the most likely to have used poor tradecraft. That could skew documentary evidence to make PRC intelligence appear less capable and proficient than it actually is.

To its favor, the monograph is straight and to the point. There is no fluff, and there are no errant ideas to be found. It is tight and concise, and it represents 10 years of work on a topic that many in the free world overlook.

It is not often that a quasi-academic work warrants the widest possible readership, but Chinese Espionage: Operations and Tactics unreservedly does. There is simply no area of modern economic and military life that PRC intelligence is not trying to infiltrate and exploit. Anyone involved in modern business, the foreign and national security policy enterprise, free trade, and a rules-based international order should see what they are up against.

Anthony W. Holmes received a review copy of Chinese Espionage: Operations and Tactics. It is available now.

A 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, Anthony W. Holmes is a Florida-based senior non-resident fellow at Project 2049 and was special advisor to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs from 2017-2021. You can connect with him on LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter @anthonywholmes.

Written By

Anthony W. Holmes was a special advisor for North Korea in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2017-2021. He co-represented the Department of Defense at the first summit between the United States and North Korea in Singapore. He is a senior non-resident fellow at the Project 2049 Institute.  The views expressed are the author’s alone and do not necessarily represent the views of any agency. He currently lives in Florida.



  1. Olrik

    November 22, 2022 at 4:02 pm

    The ChiCom femme fatales sleeper agents seek your precious bodily fluids, Mr. T…

  2. afhack62

    November 23, 2022 at 9:26 am

    By now, it should be a no-brainer that very little that China does outside of China isn’t criminal in some way and a threat to everyone’s security. They have millions of individuals to put on any issue the CCP deems important, which is no small thing. Chinese nationals should be restricted in the same way Soviet citizens were during the Cold War. Allowing Chinese citizens to buy property in the US is beyond foolish. This and other western behaviors feed Chinese hubris. Those who start wars always have a superabundance of it.

  3. Alex

    November 23, 2022 at 1:50 pm

    Very interesting read. Subservience to leaders and a transactional approach to all that matters run deep in China and make this a formidable challenge. How does one deal with that without resorting to the authoritarian approach of that competitor?

  4. Stefan Stackhouse

    November 23, 2022 at 2:07 pm

    When I was studying at a public research university for a graduate degree 25 years ago, we had quite a few Chinese students. They had access to the library and a lot of high-tech stuff. I knew at least one, and she casually mentioned in conversation that she was an officer in the PLA. I doubt that any of these students were in a position to access anything highly classified – yet. However, they certainly could be, and probably were, put to work gathering any useful information that was accessible to them. This has been going on for a long time now.

  5. Stephen

    November 24, 2022 at 6:12 am

    The Author is been a bit precious complaining about Chinese Government Intelligence Agencies assisting Chinese Private Business.

    He seems to have forgotten it was only a couple of decades ago that US Intelligence Agencies were caught providing assistance to US Businesses competing in Western Europe.

    I have many concerns with China, but you aren’t winning points, and it detracts from your general message, when you proclaim “how dare they behave like us!”.

  6. David Chang

    November 24, 2022 at 7:21 pm

    God bless people in the world.

    I agree with you about the popular rumor, although China Communist Party want to recruit former America government officials, but it is not their most important working.

    Their most important working is to cooperate with Democratic Party. They hire university professors to write papers and books for promoting atheism. From ancient Greek philosophy to German and France philosophy, Communist Party and Democratic Party teach young people in the world to believe socialism and evolution, to worship democracy and science.

    God bless America.

  7. Carlos Dangerman

    November 25, 2022 at 2:13 pm

    America should end China’s access to having its people enter the US for any reason other than accredited diplomatic reasons, much as we did during the Cold War with Russians and Chinese. These people do not mean us well. They mean us harm. Many of these “Chinese students” are spies, as are representatives of Chinese companies. They should not be allowed to come here or be here.

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