How To Spy On China

How To Spy On China


Over the past few months, as competition with China has intensified, the Biden administration has struggled to provide the United States and its allies with a clear picture of Beijing’s intentions. In mid-February, for example, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned that China could soon begin providing Russia with lethal aid for its war in Ukraine. This step would dramatically change the dynamic of the conflict. But so far, the administration has not been able to confirm plans for such aid or to find concrete evidence that such transfers are taking place. Similarly, Central Intelligence Agency Director William Burns stated in late February that Beijing will be prepared to conquer the island by 2027. Yet there is widespread disagreement among analysts in Washington about Beijing’s military plans and if and when such an invasion might occur.

There is a reason for this enormous uncertainty. The CIA and the other agencies in the U.S. intelligence community have worked hard to understand China’s plans, intentions, and capabilities. But although Washington may have a rough sense of when China’s military will be ready to invade Taiwan, American spies have difficulty understanding Chinese objectives and leveraging that understanding to anticipate Chinese actions. Unlike Russia, which has been thoroughly penetrated by the U.S. intelligence community, reporting by the New York Times and the Foreign Policy indicates that China dismantled the U.S. spy system at its borders, famously arresting and executing the CIA’s network of Chinese informants in the early 2010s. Moreover, power within the Chinese Communist Party is becoming ever-more concentrated at the top, making it harder for secrets to leak out. And Beijing’s international footprint is so sprawling that it is nearly impossible to keep tabs on all of China’s external activities and plans.

A surveillance camera behind a Chinese flag, Beijing, November 2022

Above all, though, is the problem of Washington’s current approach to intelligence. Despite concerted efforts to do what it takes to gain more details on the CCP, the U.S. government remains largely wedded to traditional forms of intelligence gathering—government-managed, classified human and signals data—which are poorly adapted to today’s needs and have offered insufficient insight into Chinese intentions. Simply increasing the resources devoted to these existing practices is unlikely to yield the information Washington needs to predict Beijing’s behavior.

To truly gain a grasp of China, the United States needs to think much more creatively about how it approaches intelligence gathering and the tools it uses. In particular, it must give far more weight to open-source intelligence—essential to interpreting Beijing’s thinking—by establishing a centralized office for open-source analysis. It must embrace the most advanced new digital tools to harness and examine the data such intelligence provides. And it should significantly ramp up its efforts to cultivate China expertise and bring more China experts into its ranks. These steps may not give Washington perfect insight into Beijing, but they will make it possible for the United States to look for more information on China and analyze it promptly. They will also improve Washington’s ability to determine its findings’ accuracy. And at the very least, when assessing China’s next moves, they may help prevent Washington from falling into the dark.

Hard To Handle

Undoubtedly, China is a vast, complicated, and challenging intelligence target. Any spy agency would struggle to understand a strict dictatorship that governs nearly 1.4 billion people. But China’s size and system can cut both ways to maintain secrets. China has established 31 provincial-level governments, 299 prefecture-level cities, and over 1,300 counties to control its enormous population, each with its bureaucrats. The Chinese Communist Party has branches in every major Chinese university, company, and scientific lab. Overall, the CCP itself has 97 million members. This sprawling structure means that, no matter how centralized decision-making is, most of China’s policy objectives and guidance must be communicated openly, creating a call-and-response dynamic that well-positioned analysts can freely observe.

Consider, for example, the path of China’s most recent Five-Year Plan, announced in October 2020. For analysts looking to understand its most important implications, the National People’s Congress revealed very little, publishing only a lengthy but broad outline of what the plan called for. Yet, in response to that outline, China’s provinces developed their own, much more detailed five-year plans, each containing material that offers substantial insight into the direction of Chinese policy and who is responsible for which part. In the technological domain, these plans helped U.S. intelligence learn where to try to identify government-backed investment funds, new university partnerships, talent recruitment programs, and the other tools the Chinese government uses to promote innovation.

Washington should also study local officials because they pose a national security threat. For instance, Guangdong Province’s security department recruited former CIA case officer Jerry Chun Shing Lee in 2010 and then handled him as a source until his arrest in 2018. According to the New York Times, the information Lee provided was one of the reasons China was able to dismantle the CIA’s spy network a decade ago. Guangdong’s security department and local CCP officials later cultivated a relationship with Australian-Chinese billionaire Chau Chak-wing, who donated more than $2 million to Australian political parties to encourage a pro-CCP stance. According to FBI information publicized in the Australian Parliament, Chau also allegedly facilitated a UN bribery scheme, likely to bring then-UN General Assembly President John Ashe into the CCP’s web as part of Beijing’s efforts to change global governance. The bribes resulted in at least one American going to prison for helping make the payments.

The Chinese central government, of course, also tries to cultivate overseas assets. But given the scale of Beijing’s ambitions, even these efforts often happen in plain view. China’s Thousand Talents Program, which works to recruit ex-pat Chinese and U.S. scientists (in part to gain access to U.S. industrial secrets), has been widely publicized. The country runs hundreds of publicly known talent recruitment programs, boasting roughly 600 overseas recruitment stations. The CCP has multiple international united front groups—some 600 of which operate inside the United States—that support its efforts to obtain expertise and technology from outside countries. Washington is aware of each, but few individuals probably understand the full sweep of these groups’ and programs’ activities.

The United States has repeatedly said it is concerned about China stealing its technology. But suppose Washington wants to grasp the aims of these Chinese initiatives better. In that case, it needs to invest more in collecting, processing, and analyzing the large and ever-growing body of public and commercially available information. Procurement and hiring notices, award announcements, and research funding—among many other sources—can all provide valuable insights, especially when aggregated. Local CCP apparatchiks also release plenty of easily accessible data through their reports and statements that, studied broadly, can help the United States understand the full breadth of China’s plans and whether they are being carried out.

But so far, Washington’s efforts to use more public information have come up short. Over the last five years, multiple intelligence agencies have established open-source offices, but they are underfunded and do not communicate much with one another. As a result, the insights they gather tend to be siloed and incomplete. To remedy this lack of coordination and improve analysis overall, the United States should create a standalone open-source agency with authority to acquire, examine, and share open-source data across all parts of the intelligence community.

This entity could be its agency or be built into one of the existing ones. But it must have an independent voice that allows it to influence budgetary and analytic decisions and ensure that open-source perspectives are included in how Washington approaches intelligence. The office should also serve as a gateway between the government and the many open-source analysts who work in the private sector. Ideally, it would employ a workforce of cleared and uncleared personnel, allowing it to hire experts faster than traditional spy agencies yet still work closely with the intelligence community.

Since open-source findings come from publicly available data, much of the work of a central open-source entity would not be subject to the same restrictions as traditional intelligence agencies and could be shared with allies, preemptively alerting them to Chinese provocations. An open-source agency would also help Washington determine where to target its clandestine operations—and where traditional spying is unnecessary. For example, the CCP’s influence efforts have public-facing organizations and meetings that can be tracked and used to identify the officials and groups tied to the CCP and their targets. Clandestine collectors can exploit that knowledge to determine what actors they should focus on.

Fewer Haystacks, More Needles

Creating a dedicated and well-resourced open-source agency is critical to improving U.S. intelligence on Beijing. But it is not sufficient. As the United States gathers more open-source information, it will have more data than any group of analysts can process. In 2017, the director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency told an audience that if the United States attempted to manually sift through all the commercial satellite data it would obtain over the next two decades, it would need 8 million image analysts. “Even now,” he continued, “every day in just one combat theater with a single sensor, we collect the data equivalent of three NFL seasons, every game. In high definition!”

To process this glut, the U.S. National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence and the country’s Special Competitive Studies Project have argued that the intelligence community must embrace artificial intelligence (AI)–enabled tools that can identify patterns across vast quantities of data. Several intelligence agencies, including the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, have devised strategies and plans to do just that. But here, again, Washington’s efforts are insufficient. The agencies’ plans have been unevenly implemented, and various agencies have developed technology that cannot readily exchange information. Different data standards exist across other initiatives, and agencies have struggled to access appropriate computing power. Many employees, afraid of being replaced or making mistakes, have been reluctant to acquire or use new tools.

The Biden administration has pushed the intelligence community to move past this hesitancy. But to ensure they do, the community’s stakeholders at the White House and Congress must see that intelligence agencies change. Without consistent demand from policymakers, the intelligence community will continue to focus on today’s missions rather than orienting itself to how the U.S.-Chinese rivalry is evolving. The agencies’ leaders must ensure that incoming and existing intelligence officials are trained to use new technologies. It could even make familiarity with AI tools a prerequisite for being promoted to senior positions.

To drive these changes, the intelligence community should create a unit to run projects addressing the bottlenecks that make it hard for agencies to widely adopt digital technologies and artificial intelligence. Its goal should be building a shared digital architecture for the intelligence community, promoting collaboration, and ensuring that spy agencies can deliver the correct information at the right time to decision-makers. The unit should also provide this architecture can help deliver findings to foreign partners when needed. The United States should collaborate with allies as it develops various digital tools. The U.S.-Chinese rivalry crosses the globe, so Washington must work collaboratively to win.

The Human Factor

Even with rapid access to the best open-source information and advanced technologies, the intelligence community can only make reliable assessments of Chinese intentions with the input of the best strategic minds and close students of China. And at present, Washington needs more of them. The number of Americans studying China or Chinese has been declining since 2013, and the number of Americans living there is also decreasing. Beijing has become increasingly hostile to foreigners, so there are fewer job opportunities for Americans in China than at the end of the last decade—or even for Americans to visit.

Addressing this “knowledge crisis,” as navy intelligence chief Mike Studeman put it in February, will prove challenging. In addition to a dearth of business opportunities, there is no longer any civic institution in China—like the erstwhile University Services Centre in Hong Kong—where U.S. graduate students, professors, government officials, and journalists can mingle with their Chinese counterparts. But the intelligence community can make up for this loss by hiring people who lived and worked in China in the past. U.S. agencies will be hesitant to do so; on several occasions, the CIA has discovered that applicants who lived in China were recruited as operatives by Beijing. But suppose a handful of potential moles has paralyzed the intelligence community’s ability to hire people with experience and knowledge critical to its efforts. In that case, its leaders must modernize the vetting processes.

Intelligence agencies should also consider creating an initiative akin to the military’s Foreign Area Officer program—which trains military officers as country specialists with language proficiency and knowledge about the state’s politics, culture, and society—so that they can cultivate more internal expertise. Such a program would allow employees to join intelligence organizations through standard processes and then later apply to a development program that will turn them into China specialists, including spending time in-country attached to official diplomatic missions in China (or in Taiwan) and studying Mandarin.

Adding to the intelligence community’s China expertise will improve the U.S. government’s ability to understand the CCP’s intentions, better collect intelligence, and take effective policy action. For example, the United States has underestimated Beijing’s ambitions for years; it was not until 2019 that the Pentagon started saying that the CCP had global aspirations rather than just expanding interests and regional goals. And it took analysts such as the National Intelligence University’s Daniel Tobin, who lived in China and profoundly studied the CCP’s documents, to show the government otherwise and to illustrate that the party has a long and consistent desire to be internationally dominant.

Having this expert enables the United States and allied officials to anticipate Beijing’s moves better. It helps Washington direct the intelligence community’s collectors toward the proper operations, such as unraveling the CCP’s influence networks that enable Chinese power internationally, rather than more technical ones—like understanding the specific intent behind the surveillance balloons. More expertise, enabled by better tools and information, also will let U.S. intelligence better support particular actions. For example, the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act broadly prohibits companies from importing goods forcibly made by members of China’s oppressed Uyghur minority. But enforcement depends on knowing which Chinese companies participate in the government’s labor programs. This requires analysts proficient enough in Chinese to follow evolving terminology, corporate databases, and how companies and local governments try to hide the telltale signs of involvement.

Up To The Task

The U.S. intelligence community’s struggles with China are undoubtedly severe. But they are not unprecedented. During the Cold War, the United States faced a giant rival governed by a highly secretive communist party. Of course, there are many differences between the Soviet state and today’s China. But then, as now, Washington’s primary challenger had a broad global footprint that required U.S. operatives to gather intel from around the world. And then, as now, the two sides worked hard to hunt down moles and plug intelligence vulnerabilities their adversaries exploited.

But just like in the twentieth century, the United States can find fresh ways to understand and predict its rival’s behavior. In the Cold War, Washington used new technology—notably, satellites—to gain information on the Soviet Union. Today, it can use AI to process a growing influx of open-source data. During the twentieth century, the United States could rotate analysts through official missions behind the Iron Curtain or on the Soviet periphery to gain expertise. It can do the same again in Beijing.

If it takes all these steps, Washington can better handle China. Indeed, the benefits of some of these innovations have already been shown. Open-source researchers have provided insights into sensitive Chinese activities, such as CCP espionage and political interference abroad. They have helped the United States understand how China organizes and has reformed its electronic signal intelligence, allowing Washington to glean information about Chinese military activity near the Taiwan Strait. If the intelligence community can obtain more open-source intel and embrace AI-enabled tools to examine the data, its analysts would be able to learn—and share—even more. If the community can recruit China experts, it will better anticipate Beijing’s actions and focus analysts’ activities and resources. Beijing’s decision-making may remain opaque, but Washington will still be able to understand China’s behavior.

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