Virtual Espionage Challenges Chinese Counterintelligence

Publication: China Brief Volume: 14 Issue: 9

Guangdong State Security Department HQ
Official media publicly credited Guangdong elements of the Ministry of State Security (MSS) with breaking open an espionage case last week in which the chief suspect received a ten-year prison sentence. An unnamed foreign intelligence service reportedly recruited the suspect, one “Mr. Li,” in an online chat room, and he provided the foreign intelligence service with a variety of classified military documents and publications (People’s Daily, May 5; China Daily, May 5; China News Service, May 4). The espionage case publicized within two weeks of a new set of Central Military Commission directives on security and developing security consciousness highlight another aspect of China’s insecurity over cyber. Despite Chinese authorities’ successful investigative efforts of individual cases, they cannot seem to staunch the creative approaches foreign intelligence operations and the leak of information online. Old tenets of secrecy no longer seem as effective as problems multiply with increasingly reliance on information technology (Outlook Weekly, May 6, 2012).
As the Guangdong State Security Department (GSSD) investigated “Mr. Li” and his online contact “Feige,” they discovered that “Feige” had more than 40 other contacts—12 in Guangdong—spread over 20 provinces and provincial-level cities. Additionally, “Feige” had been an active online persona since 2007, collecting information off of military enthusiast (junmi) discussion boards and using services like QQ to meet others like “Mr Li.” Those who “Feige” recruited collected military information through friends and contacts, subscribed to sensitive and internal military publications, and even took pictures of local military installations (People’s Daily, May 5; China News Service, May 4).
Interestingly, Chinese authorities did not identify the foreign intelligence service behind the theft of military secrets. Beijing is generally tight-lipped about the perpetrators of espionage, unless the culprit is Taiwan, which has had repeated successes against mainland targets as well as dozens of caught spies. The publicizing of such cases serves a deterrent function, putting people on notice that they can and will be caught no matter innocuous the crime might appear—an approach that has been advocated rather than trying to hide embarrassment (Global Times, September 1, 2011). “Mr. Li” collected only a few hundred renminbi per month and, now, ten years  in prison, because the GSSD is as present as “air and water” with “information on everyone” (China News Service, May 4).  If “Feige,” however, was operating for years, it gives lie to MSS capabilities and indicates that the ministry has trouble tracking the flow of information.

For a state known to be as controlling of information as China, the amount of sensitive information that is publicly accessible is a bit staggering. The GSSD’s involvement in the investigation suggests “Mr. Li” was civilian, because most military espionage cases are handled internally. This raises the question of how a civilian could obtain access to sensitive, internal military documents. The People’s Liberation Army has made novel use of Internet-enabled technologies and communications for such things as political education—however, it still faces prolonged pressure on security, despite efforts to crack down on Internet usage and mobile devices (“PLA Puts Political Education Online,” China Brief, February 3, 2012). According to security officials, more than 70 percent of state secrets cases involve information being leaked or passed to a foreign intelligence service online (China Daily, May 6). This situation exacerbates Beijing’s sense of siege in the face of what it calls U.S. Internet hegemony, the ubiquity of foreign-made communications technology in sensitive Chinese systems, and the alleged U.S. exploitation of Huawei’s equipment (Xinhua, April 22; Seeking Truth, September 5, 2013).

Two weeks ago, the Central Military Commission under Xi Jinping’s signature issued a new opinion “On Efforts to Conduct Confidential Work under the New Conditions.” The opinion placed emphasis on new standards for secure computers and communications as well as efforts to develop security consciousness among leading cadre, who need to take greater responsibility for protecting secrets (PLA Daily, April 22). As a commentator article noted the next day, security always has been a matter of survival for military organizations. The rapid modernization process, however, had left a lot of loopholes at the same time—contrary to Western perspectives—the value of secret intelligence is going up (PLA Daily, April 23). The commentary also tied Xi’s objective of combat preparedness and preparing “to fight and win” wars to the military’s ability to rejuvenating the confidential work (baomi gongzuo) system , suggesting that the effort to bolster security will get folded into Xi’s wider military reform program (“Newest Small Leading Group to ‘Deepen Reform of National Defense and the Military’,” China Brief, March 20; “Restructuring the Military: Drivers and Prospects for Xi’s Top-Down Reforms,” China Brief, February 7).
The wide-ranging activities of just one online case officer provide a telling case study about the challenge of information control in a modern authoritarian state. Compared to uncovering previously unknown activity, investigation is easy. “Mr. Li” and “Feige” demonstrate the Chinese authorities are capable of building up a sophisticated profile of the online activities of individuals; however, the MSS and supporting agencies still have a long way to identify espionage in the offing. The vulnerability that the Guangdong case exposes—an ordinary individual can access classified materials and could be willing to work with a foreign intelligence service for years with low compensation—highlights the uncertainty of life in China and concerns about the party’s public legitimacy that Major General Jin Yi’nan drew attention to in a leaked video presentation (“General’s Spy Comments Reveal More Than Just Espionage,” China Brief, September 2, 2011). If China cannot stop such intelligence efforts, what confidence can leaders in Beijing have that expert foreign intelligence services can be held back?