In the indictments announced by Attorney General Merrick Garland, we reported on 24 October how China’s spy agency, the Ministery Of State Security (MSS), fooled the western world into projecting an alleged Chinese peaceful rise. As we have seen the CCP’s repressive capacity’s consisted of several layers.

What initially led to the research involved with the Garland indictments started as early as 2018 when a senior MSS Chinese intelligence officer convicted of espionage was arrested in Belgium.

He had been working with Chinese universities and institutions to identify and target specific engineers with the secrets China needed, passing on the data to the government, academia, and companies. His American lawyer declined to comment, but the Chinese Foreign Ministry is reported as saying the case was a “pure fabrication.”

In November 2021 Xu Yanjun was convicted of economic espionage.

“From a perspective of threat against United States national security and our interests, [the] Chinese is number one by far,” says Bill Evanina (pictured below), a former FBI official who is now director of the US National Counterintelligence and Security Center which co-ordinates the defense of America against foreign spies.

According to Bill Evanina, especially US universities are a soft target for China’s spies

The Way To The White House

Here, the articulation of the ‘peaceful rise’ concept marked the beginning of a phenomenally successful influence operation orchestrated by the MSS through the China Reform Forum. The United States dogmatic confidence in China’s political liberalization, coupled with the MSS’s influence peddling, doomed Washington to failure in recognizing and reacting to China’s political course. Yet this stunning success emerged from a particularly tumultuous period of US-China relations around the turn of the century.

China’s rise as a global economic power and the accompanying increase in its international political and security role has raised questions in the United States and abroad about whether its emergence will be stabilizing or destabilizing. Zheng Bijian, the Chairman of the China Reform Forum, is the principal proponent of the theory of “China’s peaceful rise,” which posits that China can emerge as one of the world’s leading economies without threatening the international system.

China Reform Forum had been probing US politics for years, aided by numerous intelligence officers stationed in DC and New York as diplomats and journalists. In the early days of the Bush administration, the forum invited politically connected American China scholars to Beijing, quizzing them on Washington intrigue: who was up for promotion, who might be favorably disposed to China, and so on. The MSS was slowly working its way closer to the White House.

The MSS Moves Into Washington

The scene was set for Zheng to lead the MSS’s political influence professionals into Washington.

Despite her strong comments on China, ‘Condoleezza Rice was still one of the few options we had to work on’, explained Li Junru, then a deputy director of China Reform Forum. The scene was set for Zheng to lead the MSS’s political influence professionals into Washington.

With an invitation from two venerable DC think tanks, they busily worked their contacts to line up meetings with key decision-makers.This task was made easier by the fact that Zheng was recognised as a leader of Communist Party chief Hu Jintao’s new task force on US-China relations.Tellingly, expert theoreticians and narrative crafters like external propaganda official Zhao Qizheng – not diplomats – formed the group’s core.1 This was an influence operation, not a policymaking committee.                                                                      

 For both sides, it was a chance to gauge the waters. In December 2002, the US State Department’s head of policy planning, Richard Haass, gave a speech just three days before Zheng’s team departed for the United States.

Haass attempted to lay out a ‘post-Cold War’ agenda for the relationship that would make up for what he called the previous decade’s directionless ‘fits and starts’. The speech was a defining document of what now feels like the distant history of US–China relations. This new era would be defined by ‘tangible actions to build a more cooperative US–China relationship’. Mere ‘engagement’, Haass argued, was not enough – America’s new Chinese mission was to build concrete cooperation on key areas.

The Bush administration also believed China could and should be integrated into its international ‘system of shared interests and values’. A core but shaky pillar underlying this premonition was the belief that ‘prosperity will lead inexorably to demands by Chinese citizens for greater inclusion in their political system’. Haass called for China to move towards political liberalisation and openness, but the coming years showed that the US was willing to leave that up to the Party’s discretion. Haass, for his part, was emphatically opposed to competition with China.2

Picture of Zheng Bijian with Former U.S. President George Bush:

The  MSS Collaborators

Zheng and his MSS collaborators arrived that December as the first high-level delegates to study Haass’s proposal on the ground. Was this a ploy to distract and undermine China, or could the Party embrace the benefits of US partnership while dallying on the question of human rights and political change? For the MSS, this was an opportunity to analyse the situation in America as it honed and revised its influence operations, seeking to avert attention from signs of the Party’s growing misdeeds and ambition.

They couldn’t have gathered a better focus group to investigate and test their lines on as they crafted what became the ‘theory of China’s peaceful rise’. The delegation visited senior congresspeople and officials from the departments of state and commerce. Half a dozen retired officials who continued to shape foreign policy discussions, including Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft, weren’t forgotten either.

Condoleezza Rice and Bush’s chief of staff were key parts of the agenda. The China Reform Forum team sat down with Bush’s young national security advisor, effectively Bush’s top foreign policy advisor alongside the secretary of state. According to the Chinese side’s rather condescending account, Zheng and Rice got off to a cold start. ‘Your qualifications aren’t enough to be the US national security advisor,’ Zheng said. ‘You don’t understand China because you’ve never been to China.’ Rice had in fact visited China before, but Zheng pressed the point. He quizzed her on the essence of the Chinese Communist Party and laughed when she claimed it was the ‘three represents’, Jiang Zemin’s recently introduced policy emphasising the importance of the business sector.

Zheng left Rice with three gifts. First was volume three of the Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping, which covers most of the 1980s (‘to tell her that our internal and external policies aren’t tricks, that they’re open’). Second were the memoirs of Pu Yi, China’s last emperor who was detained and re-educated as a gardener by the CCP (to show China’s history of anti-imperialism, class struggle and humanism). Finally, he gave Rice, an accomplished pianist, a copy of the Yellow River Piano Concerto, hoping that the score would somehow showcase China’s ‘vibrant culture and deep history’.

Zheng described how his American counterparts often expressed concerns that China was on an inexorable path to conflict with the United States, that it ‘will inevitably become a potential threat to the United States. He rejoined that China would forge a peaceful and groundbreaking path to development, relying on socialism with Chinese characteristics. Spicing up the novelty of his approach, Zheng said that his American interlocutors remarked they’d never considered the idea before and told him it was ‘very deep’. He claimed that America’s foreign policy giants – Kissinger, Brzezinski, and Scowcroft – were all swayed by and in agreement with Zheng’s proposal. All he requested to take the idea further was approval to focus research efforts on ‘peaceful rise’ and access to platforms where he could promote it to international audiences, which is where the Bo’ao Forum for Asia fits in.

More than anyone else, Chinese scholars aimed at Zheng’s theory. Two professors from Beijing’s Renmin University summarised the main critiques, which centered on how the ‘Taiwan issue’ and America’s attitude towards China undermine the idea that China can rise peacefully. For one, China’s Taiwan policy officially reserves the right to use armed force to conquer Taiwan, though dressed up in defensive language. The peaceful rise concept cannot limit this ‘sacred right.’ Second goes the critique, America will try to constrain China’s peaceful development. Both countries had their share of folks who believed some sort of confrontation was inevitable. 

Zheng Bijian Meets With Former U.S. Secretary Of State Henry Kissinger:

The peaceful rise theory ‘always had a kind of half threat’, an American China scholar who heard Zheng speak recalled. ‘It was like, “China will rise peacefully unless …”

The theory’s challenges and contradictions allow ill-informed observers to interpret it differently and map it to their aspirations for China. This flexibility allowed ‘peaceful rise’ to catch on as an unfalsifiable cultural meme that could be conveniently adjusted and elaborated on. It took on a life of its own, outlasting its official endorsement.

Yet Zheng’s global influence is undeniable. No less than Henry Kissinger, the giant of American foreign policy who was central to opening US-China relations, praised Zheng in his bestselling 2011 book On China. Kissinger, one of Zheng’s frequent interlocutors, elevated the peaceful rise narrative to a statement of Chinese government intentions. The fact that Zheng’s proposal dropped out of official usage as quickly as it appeared, and for that matter, was never about policy anyway, gets left out.4

More so than any other Chinese think tank, the MSS’s China Reform Forum could lure in foreign friends from the highest levels of politics and government. While its promises of ‘peaceful rise’ proved to be a lie. Yet a spectacular new landscape unfolded before the MSS once it learned to wield these powers. It could now orchestrate more closed-door discussions (like  and deals with world-class foreign scholars and policymakers. These private meetings opened up new possibilities for influence operations, the kind China’s spies once only dreamt of.

1. The Foreign Ministry’s Li Zhaoxing and General Wang Zaixi of the Taiwan Affairs Office were also named as members of the group, although apparently with lower status. James Kynge, ‘Apparatchik who may raise the party’s clout’, Financial Times, 15 March 2002. 

2. Richard H. Haass, ‘China and the future of US-China relations’, US Department of State, 5 December 2002,

3. China Reform Forum [website homepage], archived 8 June 2003,

4. Henry Kissinger, On China, Penguin Books, New York, 2011, p. 449.

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