Cracking Down on Foreign Espionage Channels

Publication: China Brief Volume: 15 Issue: 5

A senior PLA officer takes a selfie, which new Chinese laws are trying to crack down on.

On February 4, the Central Military Commission (CMC) issued a new revision of the Military Grassroots Construction Guidelines (jundui jiceng jianshe gangyao) for People’s Liberation Army (PLA) personnel. The guidelines and the accompanying press articles highlighted leadership and PLA concerns on managing foreign espionage threats as well as leaks through personal electronics, despite the far-reaching changes across PLA personnel policies suggested by the outline (Xinhua, February 4; PLA Daily, February 4). The guidelines contain little related to counterintelligence concerns that Chinese authorities had not already said or governed by existing rules. The repeated revision and reiteration of such regulations, like the updated Counterespionage Law (previously the State Security Law) passed last fall, suggests China’s counterintelligence authorities are seeing a lot of disconcerting behavior by Chinese civilian and military officials or hostile activity that they cannot explain or trace back to leaks. Ultimately, these guidelines reflect the continuing insecurity of a China that, prior to Reform and Opening, once shut down foreign espionage, but, after opening up, has faced foreign intelligence services increasingly capable of accessing China’s secrets. Foreign espionage is just one facet of the leadership’s warning that “China is facing unprecedented security risks” and a broader security crackdown ordered by President Xi Jinping (Xinhua, January 23; South China Morning Post, December 23, 2014).

The new PLA guidelines combat China’s espionage problem from several directions. First, the CMC demanded greater controls over—if not outright bans of—cellular phones and Internet access as well as most outside contact via electronic means while acting in an official capacity. Second, the guidelines banned PLA officers from mistreating their soldiers through corporal punishment, “encroaching upon their interests,” and ordering them on personal tasks as well as the already-proscribed acceptance of bribes—three things that undermine morale. Third, the guidelines expanded the scope of background checks to include psychological evaluations. Although Xinhua drew attention to mental health, psychological screening is a commonly used tool in security vetting internationally (Beijing Youth Daily, February 5; Xinhua, February 4).

Repeated Admonitions, Unfulfilled Campaign

The new guidelines, with the supporting propaganda campaign focused on counterespionage, do not raise anything novel. Observers could be forgiven for thinking that some of these rules already were on the books, as Chinese leaders consistently have emphasized the need to better protect secrets. Last September, ahead of the release of an opinion on strengthening military information security, Chinese President and Commander-in-Chief Xi Jinping emphasized that without network security there is no national security; without informatization, there is no modernization (PLA Daily, October 7, 2014; China National Defense Report, September 29, 2014). Former president Hu Jintao similarly supported information security improvements, and, nearly five years ago, his CMC also issued an opinion on improving the PLA’s information security (PLA Daily, April 6, 2010).

The use of personal electronics and mobile communications has long troubled the PLA, and China has been aware that so-called “open channels” (gonggong qudao), such as online forums, could provide for most foreign intelligence needs, including on China (PLA Daily, May 8, 2008). In 2009, secrecy protection (baomi gongzuo) personnel highlighted the threat of 3G cell phones and what their new functions meant for the difficulty of keeping secrets in military facilities (PLA Daily, April 7, 2009). Part of the PLA’s reluctance to take such drastic measures, perhaps, relates to the interest of the General Political Department in exploiting soldiers’ access to technology for political education (PLA Daily, November 3, 2014; China Brief, February 3, 2012).

Last year’s problems with espionage over the Internet may have persuaded the military leadership that the security and counterintelligence authorities’ troubles with countering online espionage had gone on too long, in addition to military exercises demonstrating the potential consequences (Global Times, November 14, 2014). Last spring, the CMC issued an opinion under Xi Jinping’s signature to strengthen security awareness for protecting sensitive computers and communications. Perhaps not so coincidentally, Chinese media outlets highlighted the efforts of the Ministry of State Security’s Guangdong department to break an online espionage ring, which involved more than 40 people across 20 provinces (China Brief, May 7, 2014). One Chinese media outlet around the same time reported that more than 70 percent of China’s leaked or stolen secrets occurred online, which, based on the recently-issued guideline, could include commercial headhunters, chatroom participants and social media contacts (Beijing Youth Daily, February 5; China Daily, May 9, 2014). This suggests an online role in many, if not most, of the 200-plus spies, according to unnamed expert at the Chinese National Defense University, that Chinese authorities have arrested since 2000 (Beijing Youth Daily, August 18, 2014).

Stricter Rules, More Leeway for Investigators

The guidelines also should be read within the context of the Counterespionage Law (fan jiandie fa) passed last November. As the rules for government and military personnel get ever stricter and more clearly defined, counterintelligence authorities also have gained a broader remit and no longer need to prove a connection to foreign or overseas organizations. In some ways, the Counterespionage Law suggests the authorities are walking back from the policy at the outset of Reform and Opening, when espionage was defined as a “concrete act” that involved a foreign party (Xinhua, June 30, 1979; People’s Daily, April 5, 1979). Merely possessing information considered state secrets or the communication of such information in an open forum now will be sufficient (Xinhua, November 1, 2014).

Although Chinese commentators have noted the law strengthens rule of law, observers should be careful about over-reading the legal niceties contained within the law (People’s Daily, February 12). Official media described the Counterespionage Law as taking the State Security Law of 1993 as its base with the inclusion of “new rules that have proven effective in practice” (China Daily, November 1, 2014). The latter part of this statement means that, in recent years, state security elements and other relevant departments have been operating beyond their authorities to investigate and deter espionage. Among these new rules is the authority to confiscate any financial or material benefits gained from espionage, and this author is aware of a number of cases where state security officials demanded compensation from Chinese citizens for payments made by foreign governments—even from a time long since passed (Xinhua, November 1, 2014).

One of the new measures of the Counterespionage Law is the addition of “indicating targets for enemies” as an activity that will qualify as espionage. Although it could be related to the networks of Taiwanese spotters, whom state security expose from time to time, the addition may relate more to online military discussion forums. China’s military enthusiasts (junmi) regularly identify interesting Chinese military developments and exchange pictures of military hardware and facilities (Beijing Youth Daily, August 18, 2014). This data has become useful for Western analysis, including the work that helped identify China’s military hackers in the 61398 Unit (budui). The Chinese authorities seemingly cannot scrub the websites fast enough to prevent sensitive information from leaking out. [1]

Inseparable from Broader Security Crackdown

In many ways, Beijing’s concern with espionage cannot be separated from the larger context of the Party’s concern with ideological subversion under President Xi going back to Document No. 9, which described threats to the regime such as Western-style constitutionalism, universal values, and neo-liberal economics as threats to the regime that required the Party to reassert ideological dominance (ChinaFile, November 8, 2013). In one of the latest examples of the Party’s efforts to meet this challenge, President Xi told a national meeting in December that “Enhancing [Chinese Communist Party] leadership and Party building in the higher learning institutions is a fundamental guarantee for running socialist universities with Chinese features well” (Xinhua, December 29, 2014). The meeting foreshadowed the Central Committee’s release last month of “Opinion Concerning Further Strengthening and Improving Propaganda and Ideology Work in Higher Education Under New Circumstances.” The opinion explicitly deals with the challenge of the “ideological battlefield” internationally and the need for China’s success in this arena to achieve the “Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese People” (Xinhua, January 19). Education Minister Yang Guiren followed up on this point stating that hostile foreign forces’ principle targets for infiltrating and subverting China are young teachers and students at universities (Seeking Truth, January 31).

Counterespionage may not be the primary driver of the ideological and national security crackdown; however, the CCP leadership, with its legacy of underground operations and subverting Kuomintang (KMT) officials, is fully aware of the interaction between ideology and espionage. Counterintelligence professionals have long held four principal factors—money, ideology, compromise/coercion and ego (known by the pneumonic M.I.C.E.)—often in combination, motivate most people to commit espionage. Ideology is a great defense mechanism where belief is strong and is a great vulnerability where belief is weak. The CMC guidelines repeated the need to prevent “sabotage by hostile forces or erosion by corrupt ideas or culture” (Xinhua, February 4). In 2011, a leaked video presentation of General Jin Yi’nan commenting on China’s vulnerability to espionage and suggesting the growing number of cases represented “moral degeneracy,” a problem certainly related to Xi’s goal of promoting a “good work style” (zuofeng youliang) for PLA personnel (see China Brief, September 2, 2011).

In addition, the Ministry of Public Security pushed forward a draft law relating to regulating non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which Beijing considers a “double-edged sword” that, in some cases, “[constitute] a threat to national security” because they incited separatists and subverted governments (South China Morning Post, December 23, 2014). The last year already has seen greater scrutiny leveled at NGOs, especially those with direct foreign funding and those that rely on foreign connections (The Diplomat, February 23; Global Times, July 23, 2014).

This month, the National People’s Congress also will consider a draft counterterrorism law that will grant the state expansive powers and access to encrypted data under the heading of Internet security management. Between this draft and banking regulations passed late last year, Beijing can demand access or retain the encryption keys to access secure corporate and financial data, leading at least one industry insider to suggest nothing will be allowed to be secret from the state (Reuters, February 27). The draft law maintains China’s broad terrorism definition. While the definition of terrorism no longer applies to “thought” for reasons of “accuracy and applicability,” it still includes broadly applicable powers: “any speech or activity that, by means of violence, sabotage or threat, generates social panic, undermines public security, and menaces government organs and international organizations.” Insecurity, more specifically problems with intelligence collection and coordination in addressing terrorism, is the primary reason given for readdressing counterterrorism (Xinhua, February 25).


Taken in context, the CMC regulations and their measures for curbing security leaks are part of a broader campaign that reflects China’s insecurity. A recent piece in a Central Party School journal by Sun Jianguo, the PLA’s senior intelligence official and president of the China Institute for International and Strategic Studies, confirms this, drawing connections between the domestic and international security environments. Listing President Xi’s national security accomplishments, Lieutenant General Sun identified the State Security Committee (also known as the National Security Council) as well as the promulgation of a new set of national security laws and regulations—which certainly would include the new CMC regulations (Seeking Truth, February 28).

These developments also signal an evolution in China’s approach to counterespionage. In 1979, Deng Xiaoping initiated the Reform and Opening Policy with talk of “opening the windows.” In 1983, Deng created the Ministry of State Security—combining the intelligence elements of the Party with the counterintelligence departments of the Ministry of Public Security—reportedly to “put up screens to keep the pests out.” Allowing the Internet into China, even with its restrictions, opened an even bigger window and one through which Chinese state secrets can depart more rapidly and untraceably. The revised PLA guidelines and the Counterespionage Law address the untraceable component and focus on the China side of any potential intelligence relationship.


  1. Mark Stokes, Jenny Lin, and L.C. Russell Hsiao, The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Signals Intelligence and Cyber Reconnaissance Infrastructure, Project 2049 Institute, November 11, 2011. For another good example of Western academics using public online postings by PLA personnel for open source analysis that rivals U.S. government analysis, see Dr. Jeffrey Lewis’ new book on China’s nuclear posture (Jeffrey Lewis, Paper Tigers: China’s Nuclear Posture [IISS], December 4, 2014).