In recent years, the results of Chinese espionage within the United States have become increasingly apparent within their growing defense industry. Fifth-generation fighter platforms based directly off of stolen plans for America’s F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and the recent revelation that Chinese hackers made off with 600 gigabytes of classified data relating to America’s undersea warfare efforts in June proved conclusively that Chinese spying on the American defense apparatus is alive and well. Despite our acute awareness of Chinese spying efforts within the United States, however, little discussion is devoted to American espionage efforts within China — and for good reason: most, if not all, American intelligence assets in China were executed in 2010 and 2011.

While the exact number of informants that were identified and killed varies from source to source and has not been confirmed by the U.S. government, it is believed that somewhere between 12 and more than 30 CIA assets were discovered, detained, and summarily executed by the Chinese government in the short two year span, crippling America’s intelligence apparatus within the nation for years to come. While this is no revelation, recent disclosures from CIA officers have shined a light on how America lost its intelligence foothold in perhaps its greatest diplomatic opponent of the modern era, and what they have to say is troublesome.

There has never been any doubt that working for the CIA in a nation like China is a risky endeavor. Despite China’s polished foreign policy and outward facing image, the controlling regime exercises a great deal of authority over its people, limiting access and even interactions on the internet and silencing dissenting voices from within the populous through intimidation and even violence. For those operating within China, there must have been a sense that getting caught would mean a death sentence but when all of America’s network of informants began disappearing, it became clear that something had gone terribly wrong.

“You could tell the Chinese weren’t guessing. The Ministry of State Security [which handles both foreign intelligence and domestic security] were always pulling in the right people,” one of the officials said. “When things started going bad, they went bad fast.”