Bloomberg News came out of left field on April 20, with the headline “We Should Let China Spy on Us.” The main points are fair: Close to 80 percent of the CIA’s intelligence allegedly comes from open source information, and information from spies in the past has prevented the United States from jumping into full-scale war, such as during the Cold War.
Yet, the article misses some major points. Specifically, it doesn’t seem to grasp the activities of Chinese spy operations through things like the United Front Department and the Chinese Student and Scholar Associations and instead tries to relate these to intelligence gathering—which is a minor focus for these groups.
It also doesn’t grasp the operations of Chinese hackers involved in the surveillance and intelligence operations, which it mentions, and how these interface with Chinese spies who operate on the ground.
The basis of the article assumes that Chinese spies operate in a similar manner to U.S. spies, and focus mainly on intelligence gathering. U.S. spies look to understand how a targeted country or person operates and by grasping how it operates, to understand how, and the process it would go through, to react to key issues. Open source intelligence is very useful for information like this.
But operations like that are not what spies from the United Front Department are focused on. The focus of the United Front is ideological subversion, establishing front organizations, controlling communities of overseas Chinese people, running smuggling and criminal networks, compromising individuals, and creating alleged grassroots support for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Even during the Cold War, most Soviet spies weren’t focused on the James Bond-style spy operations. They were establishing nonprofits to spread disinformation, organizing activist movements to support Soviet causes, sending “experts” to give commentary to news outlets, and compromising key people in the institutions that make the United States function.
Many spies, like those in the United Front Department, are looking to create a united “frontline” for the CCP in a targeted country — not to mention the use of sleeper agents who may be used to carry out acts of chaos or violence in the event of a war. This is fundamentally different from gentle operations like intelligence gathering done through more conventional spy operations.
The same applies to the CCP’s spy operations aimed at intellectual property theft. It’s true that most of the information is likely stolen by hacker agencies. But physical spies, operating on the ground, still play a fundamental—and very damaging—role.
The Chinese hacker group that’s most commonly known is Unit 61398, which was under the Third Department of the war fighting department of the Chinese military, the General Staff Department. The CCP has since restructured its military, but when Unit 61398 was exposed, it was just one of 22 known operational bureaus. This was before the CCP reorganized these operations under its Strategic Support Force.
The Third Department was the signals intelligence branch, while next to it was the Second Department focused on human intelligence operations, and the Fourth Department focused on electronics intelligence operations. Other military branches were focused on other forms of unconventional operations that could include the use of spies, such as the General Political Department which was engaged in political warfare.
Yet, even the CCP’s military hackers worked closely with spies on the ground. According to a 2013 report from the CCP’s People’s Liberation Army research institute, which was outlined by the Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis, the CCP’s military hackers operated in three tiers.
The first tier, it said, was military units “employed for carrying out network attack and defense,” the second tier was civilian organizations and government offices “authorized by the military to carry out network warfare operations,” and the third tier included groups outside the government and military “that can be organized and mobilized for network warfare operations.”
Also included in the operation were front companies. A 2010 report from the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency said that the CCP operated more than 3,200 military front companies in the United States dedicated to theft.