Book Review: Chinese Communist Espionage: An Intelligence Primer


by Peter Mattis and Matthew Brazil

Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2019. Pp. x, 364. Map, notes, biblio., index. $45.00. ISBN: 1682473031

The Spies of Beijing

In this book Peter Mattis and Matthew Brazil give us a detailed introduction to mainland China's domestic and international security and intelligence organizations, and the global web of companies and organizations they control and manipulate.

The heavily footnoted “primer” is several books in one handy cover. It is a history of the Chinese Communist Party origins of 21st-century Chinese intelligence organs. The history entwines with careful, clear analysis of China's shifting intelligence objectives during the Anti-Japanese War (1937-1945), the civil war, the Cold War (including the Korean War and Taiwan) and Deng Xiaoping's economic transformation. A major theme: Whether serving as regime-protection units, domestic secret police spying on Chinese citizens or spies targeting foreign entities, the intelligence services' first loyalty is to the senior CCP leaders.

The book also documents and analyzes China's escalating competition with the U.S.

In 1983, Deng reorganized the intelligence services and formed the Ministry of State Security, or MSS. The MSS handles counterespionage but is also tasked with "opposing hegemonism." That means it gathers foreign intelligence and conducts covert operations.

Mattis and Brazil list 18 MSS bureaus. Here are three that illustrate Beijing's larger objectives: 1st Bureau conducts secret operations by MSS agents not under diplomatic cover; 10th Bureau "manages Chinese student organizations and other entities overseas"; 18th Bureau (U.S. operations bureau) conducts "clandestine" operations against the U.S.

Chapter 4, "Economic Espionage Cases," and Chapter 6, "Espionage During China's Rise," provide background for understanding U.S.-China political relations.

The authors argue computer network exploitation "changed everything" for Chinese intelligence organizations. Chinese cyber spying has been pervasive and successful. The book documents numerous examples but here are two with strategic implications. Beijing's cyber spies penetrated Google's network. In 2015, they penetrated the U.S. Office of Personnel Management and acquired personal information on 20 million government workers, civilians and military personnel.

Mattis and Brazil cite over 100 cases of economic and intellectual property theft stretching back to the 1990s. Many of these operations combine human spies and assets with cyber and other electronic spying.

The book includes biographical profiles of key Chinese communist intelligence leaders and operatives, beginning in the 1920s. The profiles are short, colorful and informative.

Here are three examples.

· Deng Fa (1906-46) ran Mao’s secret police from 1931 to 1935. As a youth he made firecrackers. He became a CCP propagandist and led demonstrations against the British in Hong Kong. He played a major role in the execution of Mao’s political rivals in the Futian purge of 1930. Mattis and Brazil call Deng more of an “enforcer” than an intelligence leader, which I think reinforces their point that the intelligence services' first loyalty is to the senior CCP leaders.

· Wang Xirong (1917-2011) was a courier moving messages and weapons for the CCP Underground and Eighth Route Army intelligence during the Anti-Japanese War. “Her story of survival and courage became the basis for a popular film in 1978.”

· General Ji Shengde (1948) served in 2PLA, Second Department of the Peoples Liberation Army General Staff Department. Until 2015 2PLA was the name for Chinese military intelligence. From 1995 to 1999 the flamboyant Ji oversaw military attaches working overseas. Ji loved “foreign luxury cars.” Mattis and Brazil write – without qualification—that Ji was involved “in funneling Chinese money into the 1996 U.S. elections…” They write that he “reportedly” gave the money to Johnny Chung “to give to the Democratic Party and its candidates.” Ji is now in prison for his role in a 1999 smuggling scandal. He was originally sentence to death but the death sentence was commuted.

Chinese Communist Espionage is recommended reading for those interested in the craft of intelligence, and perhaps even more so for American intelligence mavens and policy makers, not to mention the ordinary citizen.


Note: Chinese Communist Espionage is also available in several e-editions.
Our Reviewer: Austin Bay has a doctorate from Columbia University, and is an Army War College graduate. A novelist and historian, he is a syndicated columnist, and his commentaries have appeared on National Public Radio's “Morning Edition”. He has worked as a special consultant in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. A colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, he is a veteran of the Gulf War of 1990-1991, and although retired, was recalled to active duty in 2004 and served in Iraq with US Army III Corps (Multi-National Corps--Iraq).


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium


Reviewer: Austin Bay   

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