The claims of Wang Liqiang, a self-proclaimed spy from China who is now seeking political asylum in Australia, brought Chinese espionage activities into the spotlight when national media broke his spectacular account of nefarious activities on 23 November. His claims caused a firestorm and brought swift rebuttals from Beijing.
Wang, just 27 years old, claimed to have had a hand in the kidnappings of the Causeway Bay booksellers in Hong Kong, infiltrating Hong Kong student organizations, and conducting information operations in Taiwan. These were impressive scalps for one of such a tender age in the intelligence community. Indeed, he asserted he was the "boss" of a cyber army in Taiwan.
However, Adam Ni and Yung Jiang, co-founders of the China Neican analysis website, warned that Wang's claims should be taken with a grain of salt. They commented: "Many of Wang's public claims are unsupported or uncorroborated based on the available evidence thus far. Some of his claims are not true, and some of his statements detract from his credibility. Circumstantial evidence has raised additional questions."
Ni and Yung cited information presented by Wang as being "general and vague in nature. The operations he mentioned are known in the public domain, and he did not reveal new credible details about these operations." Furthermore, on at least three occasions he called the Joint Staff Department (JSD) of the Central Military Commission (CMC) by three different names, each time incorrectly.
The two academics also added: "He claims to be working for military intelligence but appears to be unclear about the work breakdown between the People's Liberation Army (PLA), Ministry of State Security (MSS) and other party-state actors involved in intelligence." Thus, from an early point, they were "sceptical of Wang's claims and credibility".
However, no matter how this story plays out, it is an opportune time to discuss Chinese state and military espionage activities outside China. These operations, which are rife around the globe, are conducted primarily by the PLA, MSS and United Front Work Department.
This article primarily focuses on the former, the military intelligence efforts of the PLA. The aforementioned JSD is an umbrella organization that includes the PLA's former 2nd Department that was created in the early 1950s and, until recently, had not adapted well to changing times. However, under President Xi Jinping's tutelage, the PLA is being dragged into the modern era.
At The Jamestown Foundation's Sixth Annual China Defense and Security Conference, analyst Peter Mattis noted that intelligence serves three functions in the PLA. "The first...is supporting decision-making at all levels from the CMC down to the tactical level. It is a recognised and valued military staff function. The second is enabling deterrence and compliance, so that controlled pressure can be applied to a foreign country without triggering a war. The third is enabling information warfare in which intelligence plays a role at every level, including how to understand an adversary's society and social structures, and across each information warfare discipline."
China and the PLA view intelligence as critical in deterring would-be opponents and coercing countries diplomatically. Of course, Beijing would vociferously reject such allegations.
A case in point is China's current success in turning President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines into a subservient vassal who willingly concedes to Chinese pressure. The Manila government now is very different from the one that took a case against China's maritime territorial claims in the South China Sea to the Permanent Court of Arbitration and won it decisively.
Mattis further explained aspects of how intelligence can aid Chinese decision-makers. "The first is to provide a systematic understanding of the other side's decision-making, including both organizational and psychological factors...The second is to help China's leaders calibrate and match Chinese objectives to the right strength of coercive or deterrent measures...The third is to target deterrent measures against 'a target that the enemy must save', forcing the adversary to cede the initiative, take defensive action, and/or withdraw...Finally, intelligence provides a feedback mechanism that alerts Chinese decision-makers to how the adversary is responding to the PLA's coercive or deterrent measures."
He summarised, "A properly working intelligence feedback mechanism helps Beijing maintain the initiative because intelligence allows decision-makers to respond promptly and with confidence to the inevitable crises and contingencies that arise when force is used against an adversary."
According to Chinese doctrine, intelligence is one of four components of information warfare. The other three are network warfare, political/psychological warfare and electromagnetic warfare. The aim of all four is to disintegrate enemy forces.
After the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76, military intelligence drifted towards supporting party leadership rather than solely PLA objectives. Too, defence attaches from the 1980s through to about 2005 rarely had any operational experience.
However, a key milestone occurred when the Strategic Support Force (SSF) was created on 26 November 2015, as this gave military intelligence impetus to catch up with the rest of the PLA that had been modernizing at a rapid clip.
Under reorganisations, military intelligence functions were parcelled out to the JSD, SSF and presumably the PLA Army Staff/Headquarters Department. The JSD appears to be responsible for human intelligence and strategic-level intelligence as performed by the former 2nd Department. The JSD now contains a subordinate unit called the Intelligence Bureau.
Meanwhile, the SSF consumed the technical reconnaissance capabilities of the former General Staff Department (GSD). The PLA's technical reconnaissance units/bureaus (principally the former 3rd Department) employ technical equipment to gather information. It controls Chinese satellites, for instance.
The Army Staff/Headquarters Department probably received certain components of the former GSD too. The formation of such a national-level body was an important development. The PLA has long realized the need to hold intelligence functions close to key leaders.
The Liaison Bureau within the Political Work Department of the PLA may be responsible for political and psychological warfare (absorbing the former Base 311, which performed public opinion, psychological and legal warfares).
This restructuring reflected the PLA's acknowledged need to clarify responsibilities and to manage a growing tidal wave of information being received from its new sources. Indeed, the PLA is receiving a plethora of new equipment such as satellites, unmanned aerial vehicles, underwater sensors, submarines, electronic warfare equipment and radars. The problem is overload, so the PLA must be selective in what data to process, with an emphasis on speed and unification of all PLA services and systems.
Mattis concluded: "PLA thinking on intelligence has evolved remarkably little over the last 15 years because, in many respects, it has not been necessary. The PLA's steady modernization effort to conduct joint operations on shared knowledge of the battlefield with precision-guided munitions demanded more from the PLA's intelligence apparatus than it could give without a serious overhaul. The ambitious set of intelligence missions - supporting decision-making at all levels of command, helping calibrate deterrence operations, and guide information warfare - suggests the challenges for PLA intelligence is not in the concepts, but the organizational infrastructure to execute."
Each of the five PLA joint theatre commands possesses a joint operations centre, and each contains intelligence centres. Command posts down to the regimental level contain such cells as well. The organization of each intelligence centre varies depending on the situation, but they prepare a joint reconnaissance plan to support the headquarters and operational forces. Each centre consists of intelligence collection, intelligence processing, dissemination management and technical support departments.
The PLA collects information relating to political, economic and military parameters, indeed anything that could impact operations or give it an advantage. An important part of this is peacetime intelligence collection, whether through "innocent" tourists or open sources. In Taiwan, for example, the Ministry of National Defense clamped down on attendance at open days at local military bases about ten years ago, because many Chinese citizens were found to be entering, wandering freely around and taking photos.
As for its part, the PLA observes strict operational security, amongst the strongest in Asia-Pacific. Military intelligence helps maintain strict control over information and systems through active and passive measures, and the PLA is well versed in intelligence deception and deterrence too. This is why news articles appearing in Chinese media, often talking up the capabilities of a new piece of technology, must not be swallowed hook, line and sinker.
China's sweeping National Intelligence Law came into effect on 28 June 2017 "to strengthen and safeguard national intelligence work, and to preserve the national security and interests". It has 28 articles with the overarching purpose to "preserve the national political power, sovereignty, unity, independence and territorial integrity, the welfare of the people, sustainable social and economic development and other major national interests". Of course, national political power outweighs all the rest.
One controversial article in the law stated that "national intelligence work institutions shall lawfully collect and handle information on the endangerment of the national security and interests of the People's Republic of China that is carried out by foreign institutions, organizations or individuals; or by domestic institutions, organizations, individuals connected to foreign institutions, organizations or individuals." This would force foreign entities to hand over any information that Beijing asks for.
Another important tenet is Article 13, which decrees that "relevant departments of all levels of people's governments, enterprises, public institutions and other organizations or citizens, shall provide necessary assistance to national intelligence work institutions lawfully carrying out their work, and shall preserve secrecy".
Such a law puts paid to Huawei's earnest protestations that it would never pass secure information to the Chinese government. Huawei is required by law to do so, no ifs and buts.
China has already become an Orwellian society where citizens are minutely monitored. For instance, the Golden Shield project links national and local-level databases with personal information. This helps the Ministry of Public Security and other bodies to keep tabs on all people. It even goes far beyond domestic intelligence and has become an intrusive social management system.
The use of facial recognition and even gait recognition is greatly helping the Chinese authorities to track not only its own citizens but also foreigners and expatriate spies. Indeed, there are acute concerns in places like the CIA that its operatives can no longer remain incognito or go wherever they wish, for technology will track them remotely.
Chinese start-up Watrix claims it can identify a person from 50m, even if their face is covered or if they have their back to the camera, just by using gait recognition. Such technology takes data such as body contour, toe-in/toe-out gait and the angle of arm movement. Police in Beijing, Chongqing and Shanghai have already run trials.
Traditionally, Chinese spy and intelligence operatives emanate from the Nanjing International Relations Institute and the Luoyang Foreign Language Institute, as well as the PLA Information Engineering University.
China has enjoyed intelligence coups in places like Taiwan, where numerous military personnel, some very high-ranking, have been convicted of spying for China. In addition, the USA recently sent Jerry Chun Shing Lee, a former CIA operative, to jail for 19 years for spying for China, including delivering the identities of CIA assets. He was the third former CIA agent to be convicted in the past year. Such coups for China have resulted in a decimation of the CIA's network there as many agents were rolled up never to be seen or heard from again.
Mattis observed, "Chinese security authorities are allowing fewer and fewer slip-ups as they become accustomed to the ways in which researchers and foreign intelligence services exploit the internet."
Intelligence services routinely do Beijing's political bidding. For instance, in direct retaliation for the arrest of Huawei's chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou in December 2018, China's MSS immediately arrested former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor for "endangering national security". Such a charge in China is ambiguously defined and easy to manipulate for whatever spurious justification the Chinese government offers.
Returning to Wang Liqiang's case, already Australia has responded by creating the so-called Counter Foreign Interference Taskforce consisting of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, Australian Signals Directorate and intelligence section of the Australian Defence Force to pool information with the Australian Federal Police. The unit has been funded to the tune of AUD 90 million to date.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison stated: "Our security and intelligence agencies have been clear that the threat from foreign interference has never been greater. This taskforce is our next step to combat those threats as they evolve and to identify and disrupt the very people who want to undermine our democracy and way of life. My government is constantly monitoring and reviewing the threats our country faces so our agencies have the right tools at their disposal.
(This story has not been edited by Business Standard staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)