Shriver Case Highlights Traditional Chinese Espionage

Publication: China Brief Volume: 10 Issue: 22

Underneath the fanfare that greeted the FBI’s arrest of ten Russian intelligence officers in June, federal authorities quietly proceeded against a young Michigan man, Glenn Duffie Shriver, applying to the CIA at the direction of Chinese intelligence. The story missed major media outlets and was almost exclusively covered by local press. On October 22, Shriver pled guilty to the charges and agreed to cooperate with the FBI (Detroit Free Press, October 22). Consistent with Chinese policy on not acknowledging foreign intelligence operations, the Chinese embassy spokesman in Washington officially denied any connection to Shriver, emphatically stating that “China would never involve itself in activities damaging to another country’s interest.” In a press interview related to the case, one Chinese scholar affiliated with the Ministry of State Security went further, implying Shriver was implicating China to reduce his punishment (Global Times [Beijing], October 25).

As the most recent in a string of Chinese espionage arrests, the Shriver case could be another important data point for analyzing trends in Chinese intelligence operations against the United States [1]. The facts available are sparse and undoubtedly more information will come out, but the case already challenges some widespread views about Chinese intelligence that could shed light on conventionally held beliefs about its operations. The Shriver case also presents a modern example of Chinese seeding operations that have been an integral component of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) intelligence since the early days of the CCP [2]. The historical continuity of the Shriver case with past operations underscores the need to analyze this incident carefully.

The Facts of the Shriver Case

On October 22, Shriver pled guilty to conspiring to provide national defense information to Chinese intelligence and will be sentenced in January. He will most likely face four years in prison, assuming he cooperates with the FBI, according to the Department of Justice.

Shriver studied in China during the 2002-2003 school year as an undergraduate, but left when SARS hit. When he moved back to Shanghai in 2004, Shriver responded to an advertisement soliciting papers on Sino-American relations. Chinese intelligence—it still unknown whether this was a civilian or military organization—paid Shriver $120 dollars and proceeded to recruit him over the course of several meetings (Department of Justice, October 22).

Chinese intelligence first tried to direct Shriver into the State Department, but he failed the Foreign Service Officer exam twice. Still, Chinese intelligence paid him $30,000 for his efforts. In 2007, Shriver discreetly traveled to China and received another $40,000 as Chinese intelligence switched targets, directing him toward the CIA. Over the course of the application process, Chinese intelligence also met him in person roughly twenty times. In spring 2010, Shriver reported to Washington, D.C. for final processing to join the National Clandestine Service. Apparently, at this time federal investigators confronted Shriver about inconsistencies in his statements—such as contact with foreign government organizations and his 2007 trip to China, of which even his mother was unaware—and probably elicited a confession (Grand Rapids Press, June 25; Department of Justice, October 22).

Signaling a Possible Change in Chinese Intelligence Operations

The Shriver case has several interesting features that challenge the conventional view in the United States that China practices intelligence in a fundamentally different way than Western or Russian intelligence services. This makes the Shriver case either an outlier or an exception that disproves the rule.

The conventional view of Chinese intelligence operations is sometimes referred to as the “thousand grains of sand” or “mosaic” approach to collection, characterized by broad-based, diffuse collection of predominantly unclassified information [3]. According to this view, the Chinese vacuum up high volumes of small pieces of intelligence to later assemble into a more complete picture back in China. Instead of paying assets, Chinese intelligence prefers to target ethnic Chinese who can be pressured or appealed to on patriotic grounds; foreigners can be leveraged through positive moral inducements, sometimes so subtly they are unaware of Chinese efforts to gather intelligence [4].

The details of Shriver’s case recounted above, however, do not suggest he is a mere “grain of sand” in a Chinese vacuum cleaner. Firstly, Shriver is obviously not ethnically Chinese and therefore could be appealed to based on patriotism or pressure on his family. Secondly, Chinese intelligence relied on his greed rather than positive moral inducements, meaning the intelligence service was willing to pay for the chance to access classified information and promised to continue payment if he gained access to national security information (Department of Justice, October 22). One wonders if Shriver was promised a bonus if he successfully became employed with the CIA or another national security organization, which would have provided an even clearer indication that the Chinese are, at least now, willing to exchange dollars for documents. Thirdly, Chinese intelligence was trying to seed him into the CIA, which is not exactly the low-hanging fruit of sensitive US Government information. CIA and NSA are well known around the U.S. national security establishment for having the most rigorous screening processes for employees.

One case does not disprove a hypothesis; however, it warrants looking back at the history of modern Chinese intelligence operations to see whether the Shriver case represents continuity. The extent to which this case reflects past Chinese operations adds to the weight we should give this as a counter-example to conventional views of Chinese intelligence being exceptional to Western and Russian practices.

“Long Tan San Jie”: The Birth of Modern Chinese Seeding Operations

Analysts could cite China’s first spy, Yi Yin, who infiltrated Xia Dynasty to collect intelligence for the rising Shang Kingdom, or Sun-Tzu’s manipulation of “living” or “expendable” spies for historical Chinese examples similar to Chinese intelligence’s efforts to seed Shriver into the CIA [5]. More recently and relevantly, seeding operations go back to the earliest days of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as it struggled to survive its competition with the Kuomintang (KMT) in the 1920s. In the late 1920s, then CCP intelligence chief and future premier, Zhou Enlai, and operations chief Chen Geng directed Hu Di, Li Kenong, and Qian Zhuangfei to infiltrate the KMT in Tianjin, Shanghai, and Nanjing, respectively [6]. These three spies provided crucial warning to the CCP during the peak of the KMT’s White Terror in 1931, which arguably saved what was left of the CCP.

All three successfully gained employment with and access to sensitive KMT information, most notably Li and Qian as members of the KMT’s cryptological and radio intercept units. Hu took a position under cover as a journalist with the Great Wall Daily, which served as a front for the central office of the KMT intelligence section in Tianjin. For the three years between their successful infiltration of the KMT and their critical moment, Hu, Li, and Qian provided warning intelligence on the KMT’s increasingly sophisticated and targeted efforts to eliminate underground CCP cells across China. They also provided insight to CCP leaders on KMT methods and capabilities, enabling better CCP counterintelligence practices to deny the KMT information. The most notable of the three, Qian Zhuangfei, rapidly demonstrated his competency for the KMT and became the private secretary to Xu Enzeng, then head of the KMT intelligence apparatus [7].

The critical success came on April 25, 1931, when Qian’s position as private secretary to Xu arguably saved the CCP. On that day, KMT security officials in Wuhan arrested one of the CCP Special Department’s four operational directors, Gu Shunzhang, and persuaded him to defect. Ignoring Gu’s warning about a high ranking penetration, the KMT security officer telegraphed Xu the good news about Gu’s willingness to cooperate. Qian was the first to receive the telegraph and delayed passing the telegram to Xu, instead sending word Li in Shanghai. This warning prior to Gu’s arrival to and debriefings in Nanjing gave the CCP roughly an 18-hour head start to salvage their Shanghai apparatus before KMT authorities began cracking down. Future leaders, such as Zhou Enlai, successfully evaded capture, although the damage further weakened a CCP stricken by the KMT’s “White Terror” [8].

“We sent these men into the dragon’s lair and the tiger’s den (long tan hu xue),” Zhou Enlai stated, “without the ‘three heroes of the dragon’s lair’ (long tan san jie), the history of the CCP would have to be rewritten” (Beijing Keji Bao, December 3, 2004). This historical vignette is one of the founding stories of modern Chinese intelligence, kept alive through popular historical articles, documentaries and books. It may also have some relevance to Chinese operational methods—at least in terms of operational timelines and patience—since Li Kenong became a leading figure in Chinese intelligence from 1942 until his death in 1962.

Modern Seeding? The Case of Chi Mak

In the more recent past, Chinese intelligence also directed Chi Mak from his emigration from China through his long journey to U.S. citizenship and access to sensitive U.S. military engineering projects, according to the FBI’s affidavit. Mak left China for Hong Kong in the 1960s and onto the United States in 1978. Arrested in 2005 and convicted in 2007, Chi Maki’s intelligence activities span more than three decades—during most of which he did not have direct access to sensitive information (Washington Post, April 3, 2008).

Mak’s first projects on behalf of Chinese intelligence were relatively innocuous. While in Hong Kong, Mak reportedly kept logs of U.S. warships making port calls in the British territory. In 1986 and after immigrating to the United States, Chinese intelligence asked Mak to serve as a courier for Dongfan “Greg” Chung, who was convicted in 2009 for economic espionage and acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign power. Not until Mak became a citizen in 1985 was he in a position to get a security clearance—which he got in 1996—and gain access to U.S. military secrets (Affidavit in USA v. Chi Mak, October 2005; New York Sun, March 23, 2007).

After gaining his secret clearance, Mak worked on classified and unclassified projects for the U.S. Navy at Power Paragon, a subsidiary of L-3 Communications / SPD Communications / Power Systems Group. Chinese intelligence provided at least two lists of US technologies for Mak to acquire information on, including data on the Quiet Electronic Drive, DD(X)-related, and other advanced naval technologies (Affidavit; Washington Post, November 16, 2005).

Mak and Shriver demonstrate the willingness of Chinese intelligence to invest time into agents who do not have immediate access to important or sensitive information. This is not the patience of putting tiny bits of information together, but the patience of waiting for opportunities. Yet, these two recent examples differ from the “long tan san jie” in one vital respect. Mak and Shriver were recruited agents of Chinese intelligence, whereas Hu, Li, and Qian were officers of the CCP intelligence apparatus. This begs the question of whether Chinese intelligence today still dispatches its officers to infiltrate sensitive intelligence targets and the role of the party in intelligence gathering.

Trying to repeat the exploits of the “long tan san jie” against foreign governments today would be substantially more difficult—or at least more time-consuming—than infiltrating the KMT. First, the target country would have to be one that allows immigration and willing to admit immigrants into its national policymaking structure, such as Canada and the United States. Second, the Chinese intelligence officer would have to qualify for immigration and be properly processed (possibly for years!). Third, that officer would have to pass the targeted country’s vetting system without alerting security officials in the process or have other issues disqualifying the officer. Given the relative secrecy of such vetting methods, this process could require a lot of expensive and frustrating trial-and-error if Chinese intelligence was starting without a baseline. Indeed, there is not a single public example of Chinese intelligence trying to seed its officers against foreign targets. Yet, no doubt counterintelligence officials both in the United States and abroad have their own ideas and sources.


The Shriver case’s continuity with the past, albeit with variations, suggests we should be open to revising the view that Chinese intelligence operates along the “thousand grains of sand”- or “mosaic”-model of operations. The Chinese intelligence organization directing him toward the CIA had clear intent to exploit his future access to sensitive US Government information, as demonstrated by the $70,000 down payment. The information Shriver might have had access to at the CIA could have provided actionable lead information for Chinese counterintelligence investigations, a sense of the US technical collection posture against China and Intelligence Community intelligence products. These are not the proverbial sand grains indiscriminately gathered for central processing.

From what little has been made public about this case, we are left to wonder about several key details. First, did Shriver’s case officers meet him overseas? Although this sounds like an obvious question with an obvious answer, most of the publicized Chinese espionage cases from Bernard Boursicot (also known as the M. Butterfly case) to the more recent James Fondren (a U.S. Defense Department official) involved Chinese case officers who were based in mainland China [9]. Because Shriver only went back to China once since 2004, this question is not academic. If Shriver was not being met in person inside China, then how was Chinese intelligence communicating with him and how did they plan to communicate with him if he slipped past CIA security? Were the Chinese case officers traveling overseas to meet Shriver (a noteworthy development itself!) since they apparently met several times possibly after Shriver’s last trip to China several years ago?

Further analysis will be required as more information comes to light. However, the implications of the Shriver case have more practical applications than an understanding of Chinese intelligence operations. American and other foreign students traveling to and studying in China should be cognizant that the Chinese intelligence services are watching. This particularly applies to those students with scholarship obligations to the U.S. government. Former Chinese intelligence and security officials speaking publicly in recent years have highlighted how the services use a network of intelligence officers and Chinese “friends” in universities, municipal government and the entertainment industry to identify potential sources or lure them into compromising positions (Sydney Morning Herald, June 9, 2005; Taipei Times, December 17, 2005). While most visitors to China have an appreciation that they might be wandering through a fishbowl, the Shriver case provides a concrete example of how an individual’s weaknesses can be identified and preyed upon.


1. Prior to 2005, the United States had arrested and prosecuted only two Chinese spies, Larry Wu-Tai Chin and Wu Bin, who were confirmed to be working on behalf of Chinese intelligence. Since that time, the FBI has linked Chi Mak and his family, Dongfan “Greg” Chung, Kuo Tai-Shen, Gregg Bergersen, Kang Yuxin, and James Fondren to Chinese intelligence with sufficient proof to stand up in a courtroom. Other unmentioned cases were never proved conclusively or sufficiently by U.S. legal standards.
2. Patrick Tyler, “Cloak and Dragon; There is No Chinese James Bond. So Far,” New York Times, March 23, 1997. Former chief of FBI Counterintelligence Harry Godfrey III said “We have seen cases where they have encouraged people to apply to the CIA, the FBI, and Naval Investigative Service, and other Defense agencies.”
3.  “Special Report: Espionage with Chinese Characteristics,” StratFor Global Intelligence Report, March 24, 2010; Paul Moore, “How China Plays the Ethnic Card: Beijing’s Strategy of Targeting Chinese Americans is Hard to Counter With US Security Defense,” Los Angeles Times, June 24, 1999; Jeff Stein, “Espionage without Evidence: Is It Racism or Realism to Look at Chinese-Americans When Trying to Figure Out Who’s Spying for China?”, August 26, 1999; Peter Grier, “Spy Case Patterns the Chinese Style of Espionage,” Christian Science Monitor, November 30, 2005.
4. Moore, “For Both, Spies are Inscrutable” Wilmington Morning Star, 30 August 2001, p. 11A; “Special Report: Espionage with Chinese Characteristics,” StratFor: 12; 2009 Annual Report to Congress, US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 149; Hamish McDonald, “Spying the Chinese Way: Millions of Snippets from All Over the World,” Sydney Morning Herald, June 6, 2005.
5. Li Mingyang, ed., Sunzi Bingfa [Sun-Tzu’s Art of War], Hefei, Anhui: Huangshan Shushe [Yellow Mountain Books] (2001): 193-194; Ralph Sawyer, The Tao of Spycraft: Intelligence Theory and Practice in Traditional China, Boulder, CO: Westview Press (2004): 7-12.
6. Frederick Wakeman, Policing Shanghai 1927-1937, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press (1996): 138-142; Xu Linxiang, Li Kenong Zhuan, Hefei: Anhui People’s Press (1997): see Chapter 1 Sections “Chengwei Hongse Tegong” and “Long Tan San Jie de Shouci Xiangju”.
7. Xu Linxiang, Li Kenong Zhuan, see Chapter 1 Sections “Long Tan San Jie de Shouci Xiangju” and “Qiequ Qingbao”; “Zhonggong Long Tan San Jie: Qian Zhuangfei, Li Kenong, Hu Di,” Beijing Keji Bao, December 3, 2004.
8. Wakeman, Policing Shanghai 1927-1937, 151-160; Xu, Li Kenong Zhuan, see Chapter 2 Sections “Gu Shunzhang Panbian” and “Dui Gu Shunzhang Caiqu Cuoshi”.
9. Joyce Wadler, “The True Story of M. Butterfly – The Spy Who Fell in Love with a Shadow,” The New York Times Magazine, August 15, 1999; Neil Lewis, “Chinese Espionage Cases Raising Concerns in Washington,” New York Times, July 10, 2008; Superseding Criminal Indictment in United States v. James Wilbur Fondren, US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia – Alexandria Division, August 2009.