The Black Box of China’s Chinese Intelligence Services

| Alasdair Gordon
Alasdair Gordon
Former Senior National Security Officer, Australian Government

China’s intelligence and security services play a pivotal role in shaping how China’s leadership views the outside world – but we in that outside world don’t know much about how they provide guidance and direction to diplomats and security officials, or how they help form government policy.

When news breaks of the latest Chinese cyberhack or other espionage activities, analysts mostly focus on each incident as either a singular counterintelligence issue, or a reflection of current U.S.-China relations. This misses the point that each of these acts are part of a much larger and little understood strategy carried out by the Chinese Intelligence Services (CIS).

This gap in our knowledge of CIS activities may have mattered relatively little during China’s inward-looking years. But today, CIS leaders are significant players on the world stage, and understanding how and what they learn about the world, and how they formulate their policy choices, is more important than ever.

Much about CIS remains opaque. We know too little about how the intelligence services digest and assess the multi-terabytes of data they collect electronically, both domestically and from overseas. Nor do we know how that intelligence is provided to decision-makers, and how well the various agencies, both civilian and military, coordinate and cooperate.

We do know that both internal and external security and intelligence services have received significant enhancements in resources over the past 10 to 15 years. Publically available figures indicate that expenditure on internal security systems have even outpaced China’s dramatic military modernization.

A decade or so ago, China’s security state appeared to be eroding as modern communications technology swept across the country. Today, however, domestic intelligence agencies have adapted to the internet, social media and mobile communications. They are capable of blocking unwanted messaging originating overseas and domestically, ensuring the Party’s message is delivered appropriately, and following electronic dust left behind as people move through China’s highly informationalized society.

Consequently, their ability to help shape the state’s message is stronger now than it has been in a generation. And Chinese President Xi Jinping’s determination to silence dissenting voices will ensure continued resources for internal services.

At the same time, there are indications that over the past 10 or so years, Beijing has placed more emphasis on the Ministry for State Security (MSS), and other services with external responsibilities, to develop stronger foreign intelligence capabilities. Not only has MSS received a significant increase in its budget, it appears to have moved rapidly away from its more traditional, and often inefficient modus operandi.

It is also important to understand the role of military intelligence in any competition for shares of the state budget and for influence within the central leadership. Chinese military modernization, however, and the military’s need for more intelligence support has likely required 2PLA to focus more on military requirements rather than satisfying national policymakers.

Despite all of this, China’s leadership isn’t getting the sustained results it hoped for, due to internal limitations like bureaucratic inertia, and the influence of the internal security elements of the Chinese intelligence and security apparatus.

The civilian agencies have substantial portions, probably the majority of their personnel, in provincial departments or local bureaus, which report to the provincial and local party committees, in addition to their home ministries. This encourages the agencies’ local units to focus on provincial, rather than national concerns.

And, despite obvious moves to professionalize its intelligence and security services, China’s civil and military security and intelligence organizations continue to focus on internal security, even those with an external remit. Such internally oriented services tend to re-inforce the leadership’s worst fears about adversaries, the United States in particular.

If U.S. and allied policymakers hope to shape the way China exercises its growing influence in the world, they will require clearer understanding of how Chinese intelligence interprets U.S. statements and commentary.

Will information the U.S. officials share with their counterparts in the intelligence world reach China’s senior civilian and military decision-makers? Even if it reaches them, how it is interpreted will depend on the biases and underlying assumptions about the United States that each of the services have. These are subjects we know too little about. The risk of U.S. statements and actions being misinterpreted will be high without answers to these questions.

The Author is Alasdair Gordon

Alasdair Gordon served for 32 years in national security with the Australian Government. He has had extensive experience in South East and North Asia, and in the South Pacific. He has also held senior positions in national security in Canberra. He is currently CEO of Shearwater LLC, based in Washington DC.

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4 Replies to “The Black Box of China’s Chinese Intelligence Services”
  1. With all due respect, what gives the U.S. & its allied policymakers the right to tell others how to run its affairs? So far, it seems only at the barrel of the gun, is such applied, with not the best outcome for those countries. The U.S. could be in for a very rude awakening that it might not be able to recover from.

  2. China has always been an enigma to Western observers. No surprise that we know relatively little about the Chinese Security Services (CSS) foreign focus (besides US), non-S&T collection activities, analytical capacity, and dissemination protocols for national level intelligence for its leaders. With the recent “roll-up” of many important Chinese agents by the internal security apparatus, the West continues to be significantly handicapped as we grapple with many unknowns. Where is Marco Polo when you need him?

  3. Opacity of the CIS may be clarified via end products such as Chinese media. While this may be viewed simplistic and do not answer technicalities, Chinese media broadcasts inside China and toward Chinese diaspora reflect the end product of CCP strategy regardless of percentage based on CIS input and represents China policy in a repackaged, ‘consumerized’ version regurgitated outward. The CCP’s soft and hard power projection rely heavily on successful weaponization of nationalism thus CIS interpretation of Western statements/commentary will reflect this desire of CCP leadership – regardless of true Western intent or fact. Any information gathered by CIS/MSS to the contrary will most likely fall on deaf ears. CCP reach to consumers whether mainland, in Australia, or elsewhere is critical to CCP survival thus overt daily CCP funded media will showcase topics strategic to CCP which in turn, provide insight on CIS targeting and its reinterpretation of findings.

  4. All that US has to do is how to effectively restrict Chinas reach within its borders spread its messages of freedom & democracy. Biggest stumbling block to achieve this is greed of the MNC’s. US can initiate strong action now against China economically as well as in International diplomacy to make it more effective.