Sometime in December 2019, Dr. Li Wenliang decided he must act. His clinic in the Hubei province capital, Wuhan, had too many patients with viral pneumonia symptoms. In a private online chat, he warned a few other doctors that analysis indicated a “SARS coronavirus.” The SARS epidemic erupted in 2002 and still embarrasses Beijing.
On Jan. 1, the local Public Security Bureau arrested Li and seven other doctors, alleging they spread vile rumors. Major Chinese media outlets reported the arrests. Media shaming did its job: repressing information that embarrassed Chinese Communist Party officials. It also short-circuited the sharing of medical data, but in China, the CCP reigns supreme.
Police released Li Jan. 3 after he admitted to “illegal acts.” He went back to work combatting the epidemic the regime denied. By Jan. 10, Li and his family had contracted the novel coronavirus.
Li is alive and now an internet hero. However, the noxious Chinese domestic surveillance system that ignorantly silenced the doctor remains intact.
Li was a victim of China’s Ministry of Public Security and its Social Credit Rating system. The system accumulates data on individuals using cellphones, video, internet and travel activity, and gossip. Security clerks cull the data for niggling signs of anti-government behavior.
American citizens who care about their health as well as U.S. national security need to know about China’s domestic and international security and intelligence organizations, and the global web of companies and organizations they control and manipulate.
A superb source for this information is “Chinese Communist Espionage: An Intelligence Primer” by Peter Mattis and Matthew Brazil.
This careful, heavily footnoted book does several things. It provides a history of the Chinese Communist Party origins of 21st-century Chinese intelligence organs. The history entwines with analysis of China’s shifting intelligence objectives during the Anti-Japanese War (1937-1945), the civil war, the Cold War (including the Korean War and Taiwan), Deng Xiaoping’s economic transformation and China’s escalating competition with the U.S.
A major theme: Whether serving as regime-protection units, domestic secret police spying on Chinese citizens or spies targeting foreign entities, the intelligence services’ first loyalty is to the senior CCP leaders.
In 1983, Deng reorganized his intelligence services and formed the Ministry of State Security, or MSS. The MSS handles counterespionage but is also tasked with “opposing hegemonism.” That means it gathers foreign intelligence and conducts covert operations.
Mattis and Brazil list 18 MSS bureaus. Here are three illustrating Beijing’s larger objectives: 1st Bureau conducts secret operations by MSS agents not under diplomatic cover; 10th Bureau “manages Chinese student organizations and other entities overseas”; 18th Bureau (U.S. operations bureau) conducts “clandestine” operations against the U.S.
Chapter 4, “Economic Espionage Cases,” and Chapter 6, “Espionage During China’s Rise,” provide background for understanding U.S.-China political relations, particularly the U.S.-China trade war.
The authors report that computer network exploitation “changed everything” for Chinese intelligence. Chinese cyber spying has been pervasive and extraordinarily successful. Beijing’s cyber spies penetrated Google’s network. In 2015, they penetrated the U.S. Office of Personnel Management and acquired personal information on 20 million government workers, civilians and military personnel.
In a column published in May 2019, I wrote, “China’s pervasive and relentless spy operation targeting American scientific, commercial and economic creativity has no historical precedent.” The essay focused on the spring 2019 exposure of Chinese spying at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Mattis and Brazil prove pervasive and relentless-plus, citing more than 100 cases of economic and intellectual property theft stretching back to the 1990s. Many of these operations combine human spies and assets with cyber and other electronic spying.
Read this book for knowledge, not entertainment. With that caveat, I note the book includes biographical profiles of key Chinese communist intelligence personnel, beginning in the 1920s. The profiles are short — but several read like treatments for a spy movie.
Austin Bay is author of three novels and has co-authored four non-fiction books. He writes a syndicated column on international affairs and is a commentator on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, covering foreign affairs.