The People’s Republic of China is quite skilled in the business of espionage, but not the type of espionage that their Western counterparts engage in. The PRC’s strengths lie in open-source intelligence gathering (OSINT) and cyber espionage, which they use to create a “comprehensive system for spotting foreign technologies, acquiring them by every means imaginable, and converting them into weapons and competitive goods” (Hannas, 2). China’s chief intelligence agency, the Ministry of State Security (MSS), and its various satellites are not a mirror image of the CIA, Mossad, the FSB, or MI-6, but utilize uniquely Chinese methods of acquiring and stealing information.
In the communist Chinese school system, children learn by rote and are taught they need to be harmonized with the larger collective system that is China. As one could imagine, this type of educational system helps centralize power within the communist party, but also stifles innovation and creativity. This has the net effect of potentially stifling the Chinese economy, as a people who remain stagnant will ultimately perish. The Chinese government knows this, which is why they are so intent on stealing innovations from others, including the United States.
Say what you will about Erik Prince, but in many ways, he is a visionary. A former Navy SEAL, Prince founded Blackwater, a private military company that provided security services to the United States government. Starting off as a center to train law enforcement officers in Moyock, North Carolina, the company’s objectives changed quickly after 9/11, when the U.S. government began scrambling for various security solutions. To this end, Blackwater offered executive-protection services to the State Department and Central Intelligence Agency.
Prince and his company became well known to the American public in the wake of two tragedies. First was when four Blackwater contractors were burned and hung from a bridge in Fallujah. The second, when another group of contractors shot and killed 16 civilians in Baghdad. Less known are some of the covert and clandestine services that Eric Prince provided to JSOC and the CIA. Hiring former CIA officers and JSOC operators, Blackwater helped run logistics and intelligence for American covert operations around the world. By hiring third-party proxies in foreign countries, they also engaged in more kinetic operations.
This is why Prince’s recent relationship with China’s Ministry of State Security is so concerning, and should be concerning to any American who cares about national security. A recent report in The Intercept states that the Department of Justice is currently investigating “allegations that Prince received assistance from Chinese intelligence to set up an account for his Libya operations through the Bank of China.” While operating under the pretext of offering logistical and aviation support to countries like Libya and China, Prince was actually offering paramilitary services, as detailed in internal documents published by The Intercept. One of the the authors of the report recently said the following on Democracy Now:
The concern would be for Erik Prince to be getting in bed with—and certainly, he is an appealing figure for the Chinese government, right? He has a lot of expertise. He has an idea of how to—and the ability to go into—in small groups, to go into countries where China may have, for instance, natural resource interests in Africa. Certainly, you know, their investment in the infrastructure in Africa has been massive, as a way to sustain their economy and their growth. And what he is providing them is the ability to protect their investments in places.
Although China excels at cyber-warfare and open-source intelligence, what they are less skilled in is Western-style human-intelligence operations that involve tradecraft. They also do not have much experience with special operations or paramilitary operations; certainly they are not even close to being in the same league as American special operations forces. However, China knows how to leverage their strengths in order to pad around their weaknesses.
Just as they use industrial espionage as a workaround to compensate for their population’s lack of innovation, they know that by co-opting someone like Erik Prince, they can gain access to all sorts of covert-operations methodologies and techniques that have remained a mystery to them. These techniques might include how to establish commercial cover, how to run a network of spies, how to set up clandestine logistics networks, and even how to stand up the architecture for assassination programs.
Actions such as this by China are not an abnormality; in fact, they are a feature of the Chinese state. Acquiring foreign technologies and stripping them of Western cultural characteristics to suit the PRC’s needs is a tradition going back decades. This form of learning is known at ti-yang: “China’s style of learning to maintain societal essence and adopt Western learning for practical use” (Hannas, 4). Establishing business relationships with the PRC and flirting with the MSS, Erik Prince has quickly lined himself up as a useful idiot in the stratagems employed by the communist party. This is all the more perplexing as Eric Prince claims to be a super-patriot who loves America.
American companies today set up shop in China looking to cash in, not knowing or not caring that they are handing over key technologies to the Chinese that will allow them to overtake the American economy and one day perhaps establish China as the world’s superpower, replacing the United States. Examples abound of the Chinese stealing American military secrets and repurposing them—from Black Hawk helicopters to ICBMs to night vision optics.
It now appears China’s newest proxy soldier is Erik Prince, the former SEAL, the private military company CEO, and once CIA cut-out. When the Chinese government absorbs Prince’s knowledge, they will then strip the Western characteristics from it (including Prince himself) to create a uniquely Chinese approach to covert operations, using specific techniques gleaned from Prince about intelligence and paramilitary operations.
If the claims of Prince laundering money through Chinese banks with the assistance of the MSS prove to be true, Prince can look forward to being gifted a Chinese passport and a permanent stay in Hong Kong, as he will never be setting foot in the United States again unless he strikes a considerable plea bargain with the Department of Justice. More likely, he will end up living as a de facto defector like Edward Snowden.
Ten years from now, when China announces an operational hunter/killer program with armed drones and quasi-military third-party contractors on the ground, and when rumors begin popping up about an extensive commercial intelligence network inside America’s sphere of influence, we will know who to thank: our fellow American, Erik Prince.
Hannas, William, et al. Chinese Industrial Espionage. Routledge, 2013.