Intelligence: More Grains of Sand


November10, 2006: Another group of Chinese spies have been indicted in the United States. This time it's five members of the same family. Some were caught trying to leave the United States, for China, carrying incriminating documents. China was apparently seeking technical details on new U.S. Navy warships, and military electronic equipment in general. Chi Mak and Tai Mak, both American citizens, are facing the most serious charges.

The China is using an espionage system called, "a thousand grains of sand." It is nothing new. Other nations have used similar systems for centuries. What is unusual is the scale of the Chinese effort. The Chinese intelligence bureaucracy inside China is huge, with nearly 100,000 people working just to keep track of the many Chinese overseas, and what they could, or should, to trying to grab for the motherland.

Chinese intelligence officials try to have a talk with Chinese students and business people before they leave the country to study or do business, and after they come back as well. The people going to the West are asked to bring back anything that might "help the motherland." Most of these people were not asked to actually act as spies, but simply to share, with Chinese government officials (who are not always identified as intelligence personnel) whatever information they obtained.

Of course, it soon became open knowledge in China, and in Western intelligence agencies, what was going on. Quiet diplomatic efforts, over the years, to get the Chinese to back off were politely ignored. Another problem is that China has never been energetic at enforcing intellectual property laws. If a Chinese student came back with valuable technical information (obtained in a classroom, in a job, or simply while socializing), the data was often passed on to Chinese companies, or military organizations, that could use it. Since there were few individual Chinese bringing back a lot of data, or material (CDs full of technical data, or actual components or devices), it was difficult for the foreign counterintelligence agencies to catch Chinese "spies". There were thousands of them, and most were simply going back to China with secrets in their heads. How do you stop that?

Some of the more ambitious of these spies, like the Mak family, have been caught red handed with actual objects. But most of the swarm moved back to China unhindered. Naturally, the Chinese push their system as far as they can. Why not? There was little risk. The Chinese offered large cash rewards for Chinese who could get particularly valuable stuff back to China. Chinese intelligence looked on these "purchases" as strictly commercial transactions. If the Chinese "spies" got caught, they were on their own. The Chinese involved knew the rules. If they were successful, they won favor with the government, or even made a pile of money, and the Chinese government was agreeable to whatever business deals these "patriotic" Chinese tried to put together back in China. This kind of clout is important in China, where a "friend in the government" is more valuable than in the West. But more and more of these ambitious Chinese agents are getting caught because it is becoming known, to the Western business and academic community, what is going on. There are over ten million Americans and Europeans of Chinese ancestry. Many are recent immigrants, or simply students or people working in Canada temporarily for Chinese companies. They all have family back in China, and are thus vulnerable to getting recruited, usually unwillingly, as one of the "thousand grains of sand."


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