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China collects information and conducts influence activities in foreign countries using the whole-of-society approach

China collects information and conducts influence activities in foreign countries using the whole-of-society approach

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) exploits a wide intelligence network to reach its strategic goals. Besides traditional intelligence services, the network includes the CCP bodies, Chinese government and private entities, universities, and NGOs. The CCP’s intelligence requirements encompass information about foreign countries’ scientific and technological potential, economic situation, foreign and defence policies, socio-political developments, and methods of influencing domestic politics. In order to collect intelligence, the regime has created a complex intelligence system which extends throughout entire Chinese society (please see the figure on page 50-51).

The Chinese intelligence system consists of three traditional intelligence services: the Ministry of State Security (国家安全部, MSS), responsible for civilian intelligence; the Ministry of Public Security (公安部, MPS), responsible for civilian counter-intelligence and some intelligence activities; and the Military Intelligence Directorate (军事情报局, MID), responsible for military intelligence and counter-intelligence. Although hierarchically all of these services are under the jurisdiction of the government (MSS and MPS) or the People’s Liberation Army (MID), in reality, all three are directly coordinated and tasked by the highest CCP authorities.

MSS and MID carry out political, economic, and military intelligence in foreign countries by exploiting networks of agents who have access to classified or other sensitive information. Intelligence services establish and develop their contacts through social networks such as Linkedin; officers use both official and non-official cover. Chinese intelligence services typically recruit their agents and provide payment for their services in China. In addition, loosely interpreted national security legislation creates conditions that allow Chinese intelligence services to force individuals to cooperate by using threats, compromising information, and blackmail. Intelligence services also use SIGINT and CYBERINT to penetrate foreign government institutions, private companies and critical infrastructure networks and intercept their information.

As a counter-intelligence agency, the MPS differs from the MSS and MID in its modus operandi. With the Chinese police forces at its disposal to ensure the counter-intelligence regime, the MPS collects information on the opponents of the CCP, supporters of the autonomy for Tibet, Hong Kong and Taiwan, foreign citizens residing in China, and the activities of foreign companies. MPS officers are often sent abroad under diplomatic cover or on a temporary basis. Once overseas, the main purpose of the MPS is to monitor and intimidate Chinese dissidents and opponents of the CCP in order to force them to return to China, where they would face criminal prosecution. These MPS’s activities are also known as ‘Operation Fox Hunt’ (猎狐行动).

Beijing is focused not only on expanding China’s influence but also on ensuring that the CCP is recognised internationally as legitimate, that its policies and interests are supported by foreign countries, and that its ideology is backed by the Chinese diaspora. To pursue these goals, the CCP has established two entities within the Party: the International Department of the Communist Party of China (中共中央对外 联络部, IDCPC) and the United Front Work Department (统一战线工作部, UFWD). These are structural parts of the CCP, but their activities have many characteristics usually attributed to intelligence services. The main task of the IDCPC is to develop relations with foreign countries’ politicians, political parties and officials in order to gain international support for China’s foreign policy. The IDCPC seeks to influence its contacts to advocate for China in their countries by promoting a positive image of China, helping to ensure the legitimacy of the CCP and China’s territorial integrity, downplaying China’s human rights abuses, and supporting China on the issues related to the ‘five poisons’. Similar to traditional Chinese intelligence services, IDCPC representatives usually present themselves as diplomats and do not declare their affiliation with the IDCPC.

Since IDCPC staff use diplomatic cover, foreign politicians and officials are usually unaware that the Chinese representative has a broader agenda than just developing diplomatic ties. IDCPC staff use their network of contacts to collect information of interest to the CCP: national decision-making on issues affecting China; activities or initiatives of opposition political organisations and individuals; and relations with the Taiwanese, Hong Kong, and Tibetan communities. The IDCPC motivates its contacts by inviting them to events in China and offering to reimburse their travel and leisure expenses during the trip. It is highly likely that the IDCPC assists Chinese intelligence services by identifying targets for recruitment and acting as an intermediary in establishing contacts between Chinese intelligence services and their potential assets.

Chinese regime employs Chinese diaspora to protect its interests AP / Scanpix

Civilian sector
In May 2021, Song Guo Zheng, a scientist of Chinese descent, was sentenced to three years in prison in the US. The scientist was the recipient of $4.1 million grant from the US National Institute of Health but had failed to disclose the fact that he had been participating in Chinese 1000 Talents Program since 2013 and had maintained contacts with Chinese academic institutions, who he shared the findings of his research with. Song was arrested at an airport on his way to China. At the time of the arrest, he had two laptops, three mobile phones, and several USB drives. Song pleaded guilty in the court.

In January 2022, the UK’s domestic counter-intelligence and security agency, the MI5, issued a public warning that a Chinese citizen, Christine Lee, affiliated with the UFWD, was developing contacts with British politicians. Using various forms of inter-parliamentary cooperation, Lee had been active in British politics for more than 15 years. A law firm set up under Lee’s name provided support to selected politicians, amounting to around half a million pounds

In July 2023, Germany’s domestic intelligence service, the BfV, publicly warned German society that IDCPC activity in the country was increasing. According to the BfV, the IDCPC was actively developing contacts with German political parties and members of the parliament with an aim of persuading them to make public announcements and decisions in line with the CCP interests.

In July 2021, the US Department of Justice accused nine individuals of links to ‘Operation Fox Hunt’, a programme for monitoring and intimidating Chinese dissidents abroad. One of the defendants, Hu Ji, an employee of Uhan MPS, coordinated a group of people that persecuted Chinese expatriates in the US between 2016 and 2019. Members of the group tracked and blackmailed individuals of Chinese origin threatening to physically harm or execute their relatives if they refused to return to China.

In November 2021, Xu Yanjun, an MSS employee, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for economic espionage. Using the cover of a Chinese university employee, he established contacts with US aviation industry personnel, coordinated the activities of other MSS agents, sought to identify potential targets working in the US defence sector, and collected economic and technological intelligence. It is assessed that the intelligence information gathered by Xu Yanjun was of great importance to the Chinese aviation industry.

In March 2021, Tarmo Kouts, an Estonian scientist, was sentenced to three years in prison for spying for China. Kouts, who was working in the Estonian defence industry and NATO’s underwater research centre, had a security clearance. He was approached by Chinese military intelligence officers using the cover of think tank employees. The scientist managed to only share his views and assessments because the Estonian security service, KAPO, interfered and prevented him from passing on classified information. In return for his information, Kouts was rewarded with free trips to Asian countries, accommodation in luxurious hotels, and dinners in high-end restaurants as well as with financial payments. The total value of the rewards was approximately €20,000.

The UFWD is the CCP’s main tool for developing relations with the Chinese diaspora abroad and mobilising them to support the CCP and marginalise its opponents. The UFWD coordinates a wide network of secondary associations that Chinese living abroad are encouraged to join (e.g. Chinese expatriate or student organisations). These organisations typically have a clear hierarchy and exercise strong ideological control over their members. Organisations coordinated by the UFWD are used to promote narratives favourable to the CCP, to maintain links with the members of the Chinese diaspora and ensure their loyalty and accountability to the Party. Leaders of the Chinese associations maintain close ties with Chinese embassies, where the UFWD officials are usually stationed under diplomatic cover. UFWD staff are responsible for coordinating the activities of Chinese associations, identifying the emergence of anti-CCP sentiment in the associations, and rallying the Chinese diaspora to protest against the decisions or initiatives that the CCP considers contrary to China’s interests.

The UFWD also aims to influence political processes and election results abroad. Chinese individuals who have acquired foreign citizenship and the right to vote are encouraged to support candidates of Chinese origin and to protest against politicians or political parties whose agenda is contrary to China’s interests. Like representatives of the IDCPC, individuals affiliated with the UFWD collect political intelligence, develop their agency abroad, seek to shape public opinion in favour of China and, highly likely, assist Chinese intelligence services by identifying targets for recruitment.

The legislation regulating the activity of Chinese intelligence services allows them to operate in a ‘grey zone’ and to use Chinese society and the diaspora for information gathering: students, scientists, professionals working abroad, members of NGOs. This resource is extremely valuable to Chinese intelligence because groups of such individuals have credible cover and can have access to sensitive information or to people who have access to such information.

The CCP seeks to maintain access to Western technology and know-how to enhance its economic competitiveness and accelerate military modernisation. The CCP uses both traditional intelligence capabilities and non-traditional collectors to achieve these goals. For example, by implementing the policy of military-civil fusion, the CCP uses universities affiliated with the Chinese defence sector for espionage and covert acquisition of Western technology and knowledge. Due to the obligation to cooperate with Chinese intelligence, Chinese scientists and students working or interning abroad become potential targets of Chinese intelligence. China has a keen interest in Western scientific innovations and their application in areas such as artificial intelligence, big data processing, quantum computing, cloud systems, semiconductors, biotechnology, telecommunications, new energy resources, and aviation. China is gathering information on these technologies not only through intelligence methods but also through lawful means: by conducting joint research with foreign scientists, setting up joint research laboratories, establishing joint capital companies, and recruiting scientists to work in China.

Chinese intelligence uses Chinese scientists working abroad for espionage SIPA / Scanpix
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