The debate about the nature of the rise of China, what is represents, and whether or not China poses a threat to the United States is a sharply contested issue. Aaron Friedberg writes that, “It is past time for Americans to take seriously the challenge posed by the continuing growth of China’s military power” (Friedberg, 19). Friedberg continues, by explaining that Chinese strategists have been shifting their focus away from fighting potential wars against nuclear powers to forms of limited war in Chinese littoral areas such as Taiwan, but also to potential conflicts with Japan and the United States.
While much has been written about why China has engaged in a policy of military build ups and modernization of their forces, less has been written about how they accomplished this. As Clausewitz famously wrote: “We see, therefore, that war is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse carried on with other means” (Clausewitz). Espionage is also an extension of political intercourse, in this case a policy that aims to support China’s rise to global power, a rise that may one day challenge the United States. Chinese industrial espionage is one method used to reach this goal. By its very nature, espionage is covert or clandestine. It is hidden from public view in most cases. However, it is quite impressive how open China is about espionage, a subject which will be explored in this paper.
Spying holds a unique place in the minds of Chinese political and military planners, the ideas and concepts long ago embedded in Chinese culture by great minds such as Confucius and Sun Tzu. In the West, intelligence agencies serve to inform elected leaders of what is going on in the world so that they can make the best possible policy decisions. In China, “the PRC’s intelligence apparatus is more than just a support department for policymakers. It is inextricably linked to the foreign policy decision making process and internal methods of economic development and political control” (Eftimiades, 14). The vertical integration of intelligence gathering with economics and political control cannot be over emphasized here. Chinese intelligence operations are not a mirror image of American’s approach to intelligence operations.
Chinese espionage is used as an arm of policymakers to target scientific, technological, and military infrastructures in the Western world (Eftimiades, 17), and China is “the most active foreign power engaged in the illegal acquisition of American technology” (Overend, 34). The Chinese government does this using a uniquely Chinese “comprehensive system for spotting foreign technologies, acquiring them by every means imaginable, and converting them into weapons and competitive goods” (Hannas, 2). Some key differences between Chinese and Western espionage must be understood at this point.
First, Chinese espionage relies largely on open source intelligence (OSINT), which it has professionalized and developed to a high degree using library science. On the other hand, Western intelligence agencies, like the CIA, emphasize human intelligence (HUMINT) as a part of their National Clandestine Service. Both China and America conduct OSINT and HUMINT, but China focuses on OSINT, while America focuses on HUMINT. China does not just pursue different programs, projects, initiatives, or policies than American intelligence agencies, but in fact the Chinese operate using a completely different intelligence and information paradigm.
China has always relied heavily on foreign technology. During the era of Mao’s “lean to one side” policy, the Chinese relied heavily on Soviet advisers for technical assistance. This lasted until sometime in the late 1950s or early 1960s, when the Sino-Russo split occurred, with both sides accusing one another of being revisionist in regards to communist ideology. The Soviet Union helped develop Chinese heavy industry, but their most significant contribution was to Chinese nuclear science (Hannas, 8). After the ideological and practical split with the Soviet Union, China had to find other ways of developing new technologies.
The methodology that China uses to accomplish this is called qingbao, which means intelligence/information (Hannas, 18). The pairing and interchangeability of these words in the Chinese approach to both linguistics and intelligence gathering must be emphasized. Miao Qihao, the former director of the Shanghai branch of the Institute of Scientific and Technical Information of China, described the qingbao system as “combined an intelligence function with conventional information activity” (Hannas, 20). Two other Chinese writers on the topic describe qingbao, stating that: “there are similarities between what we refer to as ‘information’ and what the foreign intelligence community refers to as intelligence work” (Huo, 230).
This open source approach to intelligence gathering is conducted by the Institute of Scientific and Technical Information of China, the Beijing Document Service, the China Defense S&T Information center, along with a countless number of other agencies and institutions. These organizations pour through scientific journals, import foreign technology (sometimes through front companies), comb through foreign patents, read research papers, analyze conference transcripts, academic thesis papers, and conduct foreign document or personnel exchanges (Hannas, 20).
Unlike American intelligence operations, which emphasize high tech signals intelligence, interceptions, and electronic surveillance devices, the Chinese qingbao approach is benign and boring by comparison. It places a focus, not on novel methods of intelligence gathering, but rather on obtaining what is already in the public domain, then networking this information within the Chinese bureaucracy, using a sophisticated understanding of library science which connects the information with those in the government who need it. It should also be noted that Chinese who work as open-source intelligence gatherers were asked to become a sort of think-tank, “for the party and government by providing top leaders with information and playing a direct role in the policy-making process” (Hannas, 24).
Open source intelligence gatherers in China are reported to be particularly fond of America’s often poor declassification process, which accidentally lets state secrets out, as well as reports from US Congressional defense and appropriation committees, which informs China on US military thinking, research and development for future weapons systems, and our current scientific research status (Hannas, 29).
But is China’s qingbao approach actually effective? Institute of Scientific and Technical Information of China director, He Defang, wrote that by processing documents in English, French, German, Japanese, and Russian, they were able to resolve “many key problems in their R&D” and reduce the amount of time they would have needed to build magnetic levitation trains on their own. Defang confirmed that because of his agency, “China’s researchers reduced their costs by 40-50% and their time by 60-70%” (Defang, 12). Speculation holds that, like the mag-lev train, China’s J-20 stealth fighter jet was developed using the same methodology, that is to say that it was built by exploiting US military secrets.
Due to space constraints, this is a very basic overview of Chinese intelligence operations that focuses on one aspect of China’s intelligence capabilities, open source. Clandestine or traditional intelligence activities, technology transfer organizations, and the use of Chinese students studying abroad to keep track of Chinese dissident groups and gather information about the West are all set aside here to focus on the main thrust of Chinese intelligence, which is the qingbao system.
China’s open source method of intelligence gathering is a way for China to reduce both costs and risk to China as it modernizes and escalates its military build up. Production times are shortened, less experimentation is needed by scientists when others have already done the R&D for them, and so they are able to jump generations ahead of where China would be without foreign technical support of the type they once enjoyed with the Soviets. With this source gone, they are now exploiting the relative openness of the West in order to gain a technological edge.
While the CIA and other American intelligence organizations conduct open source analysis, there simply is nothing analogous to the holistic approach to intelligence and information known as qingbao in the West. There are several differences between Western open source and Chinese open source intelligence gathering. First, the scale of China’s open source intelligence gathering is massive, including thousands of personnel and hundreds of agencies scattered across the PRC’s bureaucracy. Second, the diversity of information processed through these agencies is impressive. They scan, track, and analyze everything from, “technical literature to analyzing patents, reverse engineering product samples, and capturing conversations at scientific meetings. Nothing is overlooked” (Hannas, 44).
Furthermore, China assigns their most talented and professional individuals to conduct open source. “Whereas western services typically regard open source as the poor cousin to ‘real’ (clandestine or technical) intelligence, China staffs its OSINT organizations with top-line career personnel, backed by an industrial organization with its own trade journals” (Hannas, 44). This is a uniquely Chinese construct which leverages Chinese cultural particularities and views towards espionage, combined with China’s massive capacity to process this information due the government having a population of over a billion people to draw from.
China has, and is, embarking on a policy of rapid development, modernization, and an expansion of its sphere of influence within the Pacific theater, particularly in regards to the South China Sea, Taiwan, and is pushing up against neighboring states in South East Asia, such as the Philippines (Himmelmen). In order to facilitate China’s transition to a regional, if not global, hegemon, China engages in a variety of intelligence activities in order to match the level of Western development and perhaps overtaking it sometime in this century.
Any attempt to make an estimation of Chinese intelligence activities is bound to be incomplete. Although China is much more open about its intelligence operations than other countries, there are certain to be plenty of other operations which remain covert or clandestine. China may have launched other espionage operations which have gone unnoticed, were attributed to other actors, or were detected but remain within classified investigations carried out by the FBI and CIA, which are not for public dissemination. For these reasons, this exploration of China’s industrial espionage activities is incomplete at best.
When it comes to studying any nation’s espionage activities, there are many unanswered questions. In regards to China, there is a lot that we don’t know about Chinese long-term planning. Do they really want to challenge the current global order, and do they see themselves as becoming a global super power like the United States? If so, then we can expect their espionage activities to support this view and to help propel China to this position. If not, then our estimation of the goals of qingbao operations and other espionage activities not taken by China may be radically incorrect.
Perceptions of Chinese intent aside, it appears perfectly clear that the PRC has made a major investment in espionage, and in the qingbao system in particular. For this reason alone, it is worthwhile to study and attempt to understand how intelligence operations are used as an arm and as an instrument of Chinese foreign policy.
Clausewitz, Carl Von. On War: Book One. Princeton University Press.
Defang, He. As for Indigenous Innovation, Information Should Go Ahead of Rest. China Information Review, 2006.
Eftimiades, Nicholas. Chinese Intelligence Operations. 1994.
Friedberg, Aaron and Ross, Robert. Here Be Dragons. The National Interest, 2009.
Hannas, William, et al. Chinese Industrial Espionage. Routledge, 2013.
Huo and Wang. Sources and Methods of Obtaining National Defense Science and Technology Intelligence. Kexue Jishu Wenxuan Publishing Co., 1991.
Himmelmen, Jeff. A Game of Shark and Minnow. New York Times Magazine, 2013. Web. 23 February 2014.
Overend, William. China Seen Using Close U.S. Ties for Espionage. Los Angeles Times, 20 November 1988.
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