Ultimate magazine theme for WordPress.

Spies and Lies by Alex Joske — inside China’s intelligence operation

0 13

Much has been written in recent years about China’s espionage, from the covert activities it conducted out of its consulate in Houston to clandestine attempts to obtain American aircraft engine technology. Many of these efforts have been carried out by China’s Ministry of State Security, perhaps the least known and understood major intelligence agency of our times.

While western counterparts may have made an impression on the general public — thanks in part to the big-budget movies or television shows that have given us Jason Bourne and the CIA, James Bond and MI6 or Malotru of France’s Direction Générale De La Sécurité Extérieure — not that much is known about China’s MSS. That is something Alex Joske hopes to address in his book, Spies and Lies, which looks at the history of the MSS and how its officers have conducted covert influence operations over the past few decades, partly in an effort to shape global opinion about China.

Joske, a former senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a Canberra-based think-tank, explains how the MSS used overt and covert means to insert itself into webs of connections between Chinese officials and foreigners. In doing so it helped to broker access in China for visitors in an effort to help open doors for its officers around the world.

At the more innocuous end of the spectrum, the MSS used cultural front groups to bring foreign musicians to China, including French pianist Richard Clayderman. With MSS help, Julio Iglesias became the first western entertainer to perform live on Chinese television. And in one of many fascinating details in the book, Joske unearths a photo of George Michael sitting beside Wang Shuren, a top Chinese spy, at a banquet for Wham!.

But Joske looks mostly at more formal policy-oriented institutions that are more than they seem. One of the most prominent is China Reform Forum, a government-affiliated research institution with high-level MSS connections that gives foreign officials and scholars access to Chinese policymakers and top officials in Zhongnanhai, Beijing’s leadership compound.

“It was cocaine for China watchers from Washington to Tokyo to Paris, manufactured in Beijing by the MSS,” writes Joske. MSS found a receptive audience in some visitors to China who were part of an “access cult” who would return home boasting about the powerful people that they had met.

Under the leadership of Zheng Bijian, a prominent top Communist party adviser who, Joske writes, was a front for the MSS, the ministry was influential in propagating the theory that China would engage in a “peaceful rise” — a slogan later changed to “peaceful development”.

Depending on your perspective, such sloganeering was propaganda to ease anxiety about the “China threat” narrative that gained currency in the west after China fired missiles into the Taiwan Strait during the 1995-96 Taiwan crisis. Alternatively, it was a genuine initiative that was quickly derailed by hawks who worried that it would constrain the Chinese military.

Joske credits the MSS with a prominent role in pushing the idea as an “influence operation” and concludes that foreigners who engaged with the China Reform Forum just “helped propagate MSS lies into capitals the world over”. Other China watchers have argued that the concept was a party-led idea and not the brainchild of the MSS.

The real strength of Joske’s book is the fantastic research he has conducted with Chinese language open-source materials. This has allowed him to piece together the identities and roles of MSS officers who appear in different guises and with different aliases at various points in their careers.

One such character was Yu Enguang. As Joske tells it, he spent the 1970s in London as a reporter for China’s state-run Xinhua news agency and later moved to Washington where he covered the Carter and Reagan administrations.

Back in Beijing in 1988, Yu ended up interacting with George Soros as the head of the China International Culture Exchange Center. The Beijing government had told Soros to replace his Chinese partner at China Fund — a group he had created to promote reform — with CICEC, which was actually an MSS front operation. Joske also found that Yu was listed in the Paradise Papers — a trove of international financial records leaked in 2017 — as the director of a company in Bermuda and, astonishingly, had put the address as the MSS headquarters in Beijing.

In one of the book’s many revelations, Joske discovered that Yu Enguang was none other than Yu Fang, vice-minister of the MSS — a fact he discovered by finding photos that showed they were in fact the same man.

While the book contains much illuminating detail about the MSS, there are areas where it would have benefited from more probing. In describing the interactions US interlocutors had with MSS-related groups, Joske says little about how the Americans viewed the exchanges and particularly whether they were aware of the MSS connections.

Best Books of the Year 2022

From economics, politics and history to science, art, food and drink — and, of course, fiction — our annual round-up brings you top titles picked by FT writers and critics

The undertone in Spies and Lies is that most foreigners were duped. While there were almost certainly visitors who were hoodwinked, there were definitely cases where they went in with their eyes wide open. It would have been valuable to include the views of some of the visitors to China to get a more nuanced sense of how they viewed the situation.

Another area that could have been explored is whether the MSS has really been that successful with its influence operations — given how the mood in Washington, for example, has during the past couple of years turned so sour.

In the end, however, one of the strongest lessons from the book is how much information can be gleaned from open-source materials, even if intelligence agencies tend to put more weight on more sexy covert spying. Joske has shown how one person with Chinese language skills and a keyboard and screen can find fascinating stories.

Spies and Lies: How China’s Greatest Covert Operations Fooled the World by Alex Joske, Hardie Grant Books £16.99, 304 pages

Demetri Sevastopulo is the FT’s US-China Correspondent

Join our online book group on Facebook at FT Books Café

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.