A Better Understanding of Chinese Covert Operations

BOOK REVIEW: Spies and Lies: How China’s Greatest Covert Operations Fooled the World

By Alex Joske / Hardie Grant Books

Reviewed by Dr. Michael J. Jensen

The ReviewerDr. Michael J. Jensen received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of California, Irvine. He is currently Associate Professor and co-convenor of the National Security Hub at the University of Canberra where he teaches on national security and research methods. Dr. Jensen’s publications include edited books with Cambridge University Press and Palgrave.

REVIEW — The Mueller and subsequent Senate investigations have familiarized Americans with some of the techniques of Russian influence operations. How do influence operations run by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) differ? In broad terms, the PRC tends to work on influential agents rather than populations and through a variety of cutouts.

Alex Joske’s book, Spies and Lies brings to life these PRC operations which have gone little noticed and remain poorly understood by both the public and even government officials.

Drawing upon a wide range of open source data and interviews with intelligence officers, Joske shines a light on the role the PRC’s Ministry of State Security (MSS) has played in promoting the ‘peaceful rise of China’ narrative in centers of decision making in the US and Australia. In presenting this argument, the author counters the myth that PRC intelligence operations rely on amateurs.

Joske also argues that the PRC has conducted a decades-long influence operation to convince Western countries that the PRC is seeking a ‘peaceful’ rise to great power status and that the operation targeted influential figures in or near centers of decision making in the United States.

Joske describes how MSS officers met with American government officials as well as representatives of think tanks and academics, given the accessibility of future leaders and policy influencers in the American system. This access is not reciprocal as academics and other researchers relying on access to the PRC could find that access taken away if authorities deemed their work overly critical. Even American-born academics feel pressure to self-censor. 

The ‘peaceful rise’ narrative sought to grant the PRC access to technology and capital to help it develop and modernize. What constituted a ‘peaceful rise’ was often vague; however, the peaceful rise story also carried an implied threat if Western countries impeded its aspirations. 

What makes this operation unique is both its operational expanse and duration. Efforts to convince the West of the PRC’s ‘peaceful rise’ appears to have a whole of government structure. What made this possible is the presence of high-level MSS officers working undercover across varieties of businesses and other front organizations involved in the campaign. This facilitated organizational coordination across the operation.

For Joske, the operation started in the 1980s, before the Tiananmen Square massacre with the co-optation of efforts by George Soros to facilitate liberalization and democracy in the PRC and continued into the Trump administration.

Joske includes over 60 pages of endnotes documenting the original sources of material on MSS operations and front organizations. He draws on a wide range of news reports and documents in both English and Chinese, highlighting details that often went unnoticed in the former and making the latter accessible to English speaking audiences.

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There are two main takeaways in Spies and Lies.

First, Joske challenges widespread beliefs that PRC intelligence operations are often amateur and operate with great volume rather than skill. Neither does the PRC tend to rely only on ethnic Chinese collectors and influence agents, nor does it rely primarily on nonprofessionals.

Trained undercover intelligence officers targeted incumbent and potential future authorities and opinion leaders to promote their message. The focus on leaders is likely indicative of an understanding in PRC intelligence circles that denies the public has an autonomous capacity to shape opinion formation and public policy.  

Second, Joske argues that the PRC ‘peaceful rise’ narrative was a ruse, believed by naive government officials, business leaders, and members of other organizations. Although the US intelligence community was aware of the MSS role in promoting this narrative, American and Australian academics, business leaders, and even diplomats would meet with undercover MSS officers.

Although there are some cases of spectacular errors in judgment and potentially criminal cases documented in the book, it is less clear that the evidence supports the assessment that all of these people were naive. On the one hand, it may be the case that diplomats used the opportunity to collect intelligence as well.

Joske uses the Wikileaks Diplomatic Cables as a source for some of these claims. Also in those files was a directive from former President Bill Clinton for diplomats to collect information on the people they met. Additionally, there is little evidence that, for all of the effort, this outreach produced any concrete policy outcomes favorable to the PRC while disadvantageous to the US or Australia.  

Going forward, there will be additional questions about the direction of PRC influence operations. ‘Wolf warrior’ diplomacy has replaced a previous focus on positive stories about the PRC’s rise; however, the focus of the Belt and Road Initiative on decision makers shows continuity in the PRC’s influence targets.

Spies and Lies is a great resource for anyone seeking to gain insights into PRC influence operations. The author’s account of these operations provides readers great insight into MSS tradecraft and the book serves as a good preface to understand the backlash today as we move into an era of strategic competition.

Spies and Lies earns a solid rating of 3 out of 4 trench coats.



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