Chinese Communist Espionage: An Intelligence Primer

  • Published

Chinese Communist Espionage: An Intelligence Primer by Peter Mattis and Matthew Brazil. Naval Institute Press, 2019, 376 pp. 

Chinese Communist Espionage: An Intelligence Primer lifts the veil of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) intelligence apparatus. Richly sourced from Chinese language texts, Peter Mattis and Matthew Brazil detail an unprecedented number of historical intelligence figures and foundational myths. Just as understanding Adm Hyman G. Rickover’s role as the father of the US Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program gives key insights into contemporary US Navy submarine culture, an intimate understanding of leaders like Zhou Enlai provides insights into the contemporary CCP intelligence culture.

Chinese Communist Espionage is informative and functional for the US intelligence professional. Mattis and Brazil inform readers on the roles played by CCP intelligence operatives during events more commonly studied by US security professionals like World War II, the Nixon administration’s opening of relations with China, China’s entrance into the World Trade Organization, and other major world events. Exposing the role of past shadow actors outlines potential covert strategies today. Functionally, the book indexes relevant CCP activities. For example, Chinese Communist Espionage includes biographical sketches of many CCP intelligence figures and traces the ideological genealogies of contemporary leaders. Tracing master-apprentice relationships provides insights on perspectives and whether an intelligence professional’s pedigree will facilitate or hinder ascension. The book separately catalogues prosecuted cases of espionage. The CCP has systematically conducted multilayer penetration in all sectors of US industry. Cases range from stealing agricultural seeds to F-22 jet engine designs. Aside from the scope and scale of the exfiltration, several other trends exist: many operatives are naturalized US citizens, agents frequently leverage third-party countries to bypass US export control laws, and most convicted cases result in relatively short jail sentences.

The CCP intelligence community invests significant efforts in promulgating its own heroic organizational myth while simultaneously manicuring the myths of nemeses like US intelligence agencies. The CCP propaganda arm leverages legacies of foreign intervention in the Opium Wars and modern examples like the 2001 US-Chinese E-P3 incident to develop an archetypical enemy that must be defeated. Universally believed propaganda proves useful during national emergencies, such as recent efforts by CCP officials to blame the US military for creating the coronavirus. While the international community recognizes such blatant and baseless propaganda as false, it has a receptive audience among Chinese domestic media outlets.


Despite the extreme preference for using intelligence operations for strategic gain, the CCP intelligence community has a mixed record due to its internal conflict over “Red vs Expert.” The CCP’s proclivity for using intelligence operations as a strategic lever is classic Sun Tzu, but analysis reveals intelligence cadre must balance ideological purity with effective spycraft. Historically, good spies often found themselves purged after cultivating relationships with assets or speaking the truth too plainly. This culture perpetuates analytical blind spots, and episodic purges frequently remove whole cohorts of experienced professionals.

Despite regular upheaval within the intelligence ranks, intelligence officers have enjoyed disproportionate promotion rates in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Intelligence officers’ ability to contribute to domestic political manipulation makes senior intelligence posts a revolving door between military and internal security intelligence organizations. However, the dividing focus between party and military intelligence priorities results in reduced proficiency in military intelligence core competencies. PLA intelligence officers promoted based on domestic political manipulation often lack the expected measure of expertise in conventional military operations.

Understanding Chinese Society

Chinese society accepts internal spying and authoritarian rule at far greater levels than imaginable in Western culture. The stark contrast between Chinese communism and US individualism is important to understand as the US observes China’s overt surveillance apparatus, heavy internet regulation, and social credit system. Given the acceptance of these cultural norms, the US must acknowledge the limited potential for influence campaigns to make a meaningful impact on the CCP control of the populace. Just like the US learned from decades of conflict in predominately Muslim countries, exposure of US culture and ideals may not reprogram China’s long cultural memory.

Emergence of the Modern Spy State

The CCP’s ability to combine sophisticated technical collection with effective human intelligence operations highlight the efficacy of Sino-intelligence activities today. Since the 1990s, the Chinese government has funded many public-private research initiatives that sowed the seeds of Chinese computer network exploit capabilities and domestically produced infrastructure equipment that led to the “Great Firewall.” Much has been written about the Sino-Russian marriage of convenience and the pairing of Russian military prowess with Chinese money. Mattis and Brazil detail historical Sino-Russian relations, which provides context for analyzing the Sino-Russian partnership within China’s modern spy state.

Critical Vulnerability

Intelligence reforms by Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping catapulted the technical collection capability to a near-peer status with the US, but the culture of CCP intelligence services remains starkly political. The “Red versus Expert” dilemma results in difficulty filling “inner-line” billets, which exposes agents to enemy detection and subsequent suspicion from CCP internal police after close contact with the enemy. As a result, the ranks of the CCP intelligence community are full of ideologues, and intelligence products seek alignment with political ideology vice the pursuit of objective truth. This situation starkly contrasts with Western whistleblower protections that prevent political actors from funneling intelligence resources for domestic political gain.

Exploiting the Critical Vulnerability

Luo Ruiqing said, “Enemy intelligence work is like a knife, if used well it can kill the enemy, if used badly it might also injure oneself” (p. 98). China’s flagrant use of intelligence and espionage agents offers an opportunity for the US. Decades of economic benefits from the US-China relationship muffled the warnings of Chinese espionage by the US security apparatus, business market, and working-class factions. However, in the post-cornavirus world, where all national economies face economic contraction, the US should recognize the opportunity to redefine redlines for Chinese intelligence and espionage activities. Without revealing sources or methods, US political and business leaders should expose China’s aggressive intelligence and espionage campaigns. Explicit recognition of Chinese economic dependencies upon US security and industrial provision will provide the needed strategic levers for negotiation.

LCDR James M. Landreth, USN



"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."