• Hamsini Hariharan

Powerful, secretive and mysterious: Tracing the rise of China's espionage

This article first appeared in CNBC TV-18 on August 24, 2020 and can be accessed here.


This weekend, the Delhi Police arrested a freelance journalist associated with an Indian think-tank for passing information to Chinese intelligence officers in Yunnan. But this is not the only incident regarding Chinese espionage in the recent past. Last week, the Indian Expressreported that the Shenzhen-based firm, Zhenhua Data, was tracking 10,000 Indians in various positions. In August, a Chinese spy was arrested for allegedly being involved in a multi-crore hawala racket and spying on the Dalai Lama.


Around the world, allegations of Chinese espionage are on the rise. In the last month, the Belgian government accused a former MI-6 officer of passing on sensitive information; Chinese hackers reportedly stole data from a Spanish lab working on a COVID-19 vaccine; Like India, the United States banned WeChat and TikTok over concerns of national security.

Why are cases of Chinese espionage on the rise? On the one hand, Chinese intelligence may be amping up its activities worldwide. Countries are expressing doubts about Chinese technology and how non-transparent companies might be using data. They also point to the Chinese government’s paranoia with “foreign infiltration,” expelling foreign journalists, using draconian laws like the Hong Kong National Security Law, and how it fosters an environment of self-censorship. In turn, the Chinese government argues that these actions are because of other countries’ insecurities about China’s peaceful rise and that it does not have the political will to become a hegemonic power. Often, it puts down the charges of arrest as xenophobia or targeting.


The truth possibly lies somewhere in the middle. China does have an extensive espionage system, like most of the major powers. Its history goes back to the founding of the Chinese Communist Party. Zhou Enlai served as the first head of the Red Army’s Special Services Section and remained involved in intelligence operations until he died in 1976.  However, during this time, the intelligence community was repeatedly purged to root out those whose faith in the Communist system was not strong enough.


When Deng Xiaoping came to the fore, he overhauled much of the Chinese bureaucracy, including the intelligence establishment. The Ministry of Security Services (MSS) and the People Liberation Army’s General Staff Department’s Second Bureau (2PLA) became the lead agencies for collecting intelligence. As China’s rose, so did its capability to gather intelligence. In Chinese Communist Espionage by Peter Mattis, he points out: “From the vantage point of 2018, Chinese intelligence has arrived as an indisputable global power. Other intelligence systems may be superior in specific ways or in specific capabilities, but Chinese capabilities across the board cannot be dismissed or underestimated. The Chinese services have demonstrated the ability to collect intelligence abroad using creative methods and to shut down the principal intelligence threats operating inside China.”


While animosity against the Chinese government seems to be higher than ever within India, it is essential to remember that, as citizens, our view of intelligence is shaped much more by popular culture than the more real aspects of national security. The Press Club of India has expressed outrage over Rajiv Sharma’s arrest, citing the Delhi Police’s dubious record in such cases. Rather than hounding innocent people, we could watch time-pass movies like ‘London Confidential’—it will tell you exactly how espionage does not work.