I got to mingle with a lot of interesting people while majoring in political science at Columbia University. As someone who served in American Special Operations units and who studies these types of units all over the globe, I tend to think I’m pretty savvy on the topic. Of course, you don’t know what you don’t know. As it turns out, there is a whole lot I don’t know, especially when it comes to espionage.
For one of my political science classes, a few other students and I formed a study group to prepare for final exams. There were four of us. One student was Chinese-American and the other two were from the Chinese mainland. During our study session, the conversation turned to China and Chinese politics. In my naive innocence, I asked about Falun Gong, which is a form of meditation and exercises not unlike Tai Chi. The People’s Republic of China has outlawed Falun Gong and persecuted people who practice it. Right here in New York City, you can see Falun Gong members protesting outside of the United Nations building on any given day.
Why did the PRC ban Falun Gong? It’s hard to say for certain, but many theories have been advanced that suggest the practice runs contrary to atheist Marxist doctrine. Personally, I think the PRC is simply threatened by any form of civil society, such as institutions and organizations like Falun Gong, that exist outside of the state’s power structure.
Whatever the case, I asked my study group partners, “So what do you think of Falun Gong? Are they a persecuted minority group or are they really up to no good?”
As I finished the question, all eyes turned to me. You could hear the second hand ticking on the wall-mounted clock.
It felt like I had just asked the Pope for advice on soliciting a prostitute or something. It was awkward to say the least. Finally, one of the Chinese students said, “I don’t know, maybe a little of both.” He broke the silence, but the female Chinese student continued to look at me in horror.
The study group moved on and we slogged through our exams. It wasn’t until months later that a friend recommended that I do some reading on Chinese espionage. I read “Chinese Intelligence Operations” and “Chinese Industrial Espionage.” These two books greatly informed a SOFREP article I wrote, titled Chinese Intelligence Methodology. In the course of this research, I got my answer as to why my study group question about Falun Gong went over like a fart in church.
China has intelligence services, such as the Ministry of State Security (MSS), but Chinese intelligence operations are not a mirror image of those conducted by organizations like the CIA, FSB, or MI-6. China is very good at leveraging their strengths against us, namely by utilizing and mobilizing a nation of over one billion people. Unlike in America, there isn’t much to speak of in terms of civil society. Everything belongs to the government, the party, and the military at the end of the day.
The Chinese are masters at collecting open-source intelligence. They slurp it up, and when they can’t, they steal it—filing it through a unique form of library science that funnels the information to relevant state employees who can make use of it. For China, open-source intelligence (OSINT) is strategic intelligence. Forget about non-official cover, flipping intelligence assets, and dead drops for now. By using their entire population to gather intelligence, China is able to get the drop on us through asymmetrical means.
Even the so-called “panda huggers” in the West who embraced China and felt that the PRC would move toward democratization are now accepting that China is, in fact, little more than a revisionist power that seeks to unseat America’s global hegemony so China can take what it sees as its rightful place on the world stage. Such is the thesis of Michael Pillsbury’s new book, “The Hundred-Year Marathon.”
Chinese students sent abroad can be used to gather industrial intelligence information, but one of their primary tasks is to monitor groups of Chinese who the PRC view as subversive. In the West, Chinese people have freedom of speech and assembly, and this is something that the PRC finds unsettling. They have to keep a close watch on them.
This is why my Falun Gong question was met with silence and fear. The two Chinese students knew that whatever they said in that room would be reported back to the PRC eventually. Neither of them had any idea what the other may or may not say to the MSS or other state security services back home. I, of course, was completely unaware of this.
Nothing else ever came of the incident, and I’m don’t think my fellow students were really offended by my question, per se. But that one female Chinese student was interesting. Once and a while, as I walked the corridors of Columbia, I would catch her looking at me. I don’t think it was in a sexual way. I think she was watching me.
Apparently, she had identified me as someone one might want to keep an eye on!
(Featured image courtesy of i.ytimg.com)