Intelligence Chinese style (part 1)

Too often we hear about the “Chinese threat” which generally makes Chinese army and polity seem like a monolithic structure: to the (uninformed) outsiders, the journalists covering the issue, and too often to the cyber security experts China is a well-organised single entity - a hivemind if there ever was one in the human history. That this kind of thinking beggars belief on even slightly closer examination just goes to show how well the sceptre of “Chinese Threat” was been sold to the general populace. (Famous last words of any democracy: “it could never happen now, here, to us.”)

So it was great to find a single paper, rather that a collection of various books, papers, essays, etc. that summarises the Chinese intelligence services and the internal structure, chaotic as it may be, to the western outsiders (like me).

First, a simple background on why we see so much industrial espionage coming from China (note: this is typical way that countries use to catch up with others, far more advanced than them. Every country in the world has done it at some stage of its development. Saying otherwise is an exercise in self-delusion at best.)

The reform and opening-up programme initiated by Deng Xiaoping saw the beginnings of China’s frantic race to make up for decades of Maoist obscurantism, during which ideological conformity – ‘redness’ – had been prized over any form of technical expertise.

The big opening of China to the world also started a >major, broad-spectrum overt and covert collection effort aimed at bridging the gap between China and the developed world.

Chinese intelligence structures

Ministry of State Security

MSS’s primary role, both at home and abroad, is to counter the ‘Three Evil Forces’:

  1. separatism;
  2. terrorism;
  3. religious extremism.

Sounds pretty normal, doesn’t it? It’s what intelligence and counter-intelligence services and various “domestic security agencies” the world over have as their stated goals. Just remember that these agencies are defined as much by who they fight as what they fight.

The MSS is organised into a number of bureaux: > First Bureau is responsible for the bulk of overseas collection using a wide range of non-official cover officers (NOCs) and casual sources such as students, academics and businessmen engaged in short-term over-seas travel; > the Second Bureau is responsible for overseas collection via legal residencies – a relative innovation, since the MSS had originally been banned by Deng Xiaoping from occupying cover posts in diplomatic missions – and officers using quasi-official cover as journalists for newspapers such as Guangming Daily.

And then there are bureaux for > collection against domestic targets, counter-intelligence and counter-espionage, technical collection and surveillance and intelligence analysis.

Sounds like a fertile ground for typical bureaucratic infighting, foot-dragging, and general derring-do (because every blog post should have at least one old-fashioned term), doesn’t it? But wait, it gets better.

People’s Liberation Army

Because a single ministry couldn’t possibly (mis-)manage everything there’s the People’s Liberation Army’s Second and Third Departments. They’re both tasked with foreign intelligence collection, have significant capabilities for it, and are not afraid to use them. The way they go about it, though, are dissimilar yet overlapping. Fourth Department is the one most interesting, and the one that is most publicised; a fact that should be taken with a fistful of salt. Its remit is information and electronic warfare and computer network attacks.

Second Department of PLA General Staff 2/PLA

These are your standard TV and movie spies-as-diplomatic-staff fodder. Yes, they are capable, yes their work is not as glamorous as the movies portray it to be. 2/PLA is >primarily visible through its global network of defence attachés, who are all cadre 2/PLA officers selected largely on the basis of their analytical capabilities and language skills.

Their work is rather mundane, reading and analysing newspapers, ‘the word on the street’, financial reports combined with market rumours, etc: > This global network has focused primarily on collecting and analysing open-source information and does not appear to engage in covert collection operations out of legal residencies.

Of course they also handle more important assets, >who have been responsible for some significant successes, particularly in the area of covert collection of high-grade US and other Western weapons systems.

Third Department of PLA General Staff 3/PLA

3/PLA is the SIGINT agency. Their reach in standard SIGINT is fairly limited compared to UKUSA signatories (Five Eyes) and was typically inward-looking. That has changed with the advent of the Internet, where 3/PLA re-imaged (heh) itself as the cyber exploitation and cyber espionage department.

Fourth Department of PLA General Staff 4/PLA

Despite wealth of open source information available about this department, very little is reliably known about it. It is China’s designated information and electronic warfare and computer network attacks. The information warfare bit explains why little information about this department is reliable.

Part 2: Data collection Part 3: China: The monolith myth Part 4: Cyber espionage