Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

China Has Been Waging a Decades-Long, All-Out Spy War

| Mar. 28, 2023

While the West was distracted, the Chinese government began an intelligence assault that never stopped.

One week ago, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew was questioned by members of the U.S. Congress, before the world's media, about whether the Chinese government uses the wildly popular video-sharing app to spy on Americans. His testimony came several weeks after the appearance of a Chinese spy balloon floating across the United States. What are we to make of these two stories, which are at their core both about Chinese espionage?

To borrow a phrase from Mission: Impossible: Relax, it's much worse than you think. We are now witnessing some of the effects of a decision made years ago by China to use every means and medium of intelligence-gathering at its disposal against the West. Its strategy can be summarized in three words: collect, collect, collect. Most Westerners do not yet appreciate just how sweeping China's intelligence onslaught directed at their countries is; for decades, their own governments likewise didn't understand because their attention was largely directed elsewhere.

After 9/11, the U.S. intelligence community was overwhelmingly geared toward counterterrorism. U.S. spy chiefs followed priorities for this agenda set by decision-makers in Washington. The U.S. government's strategic focus on combating terrorism took place at the expense of focusing on resurgent states such as China and Russia. As we pass the 20th anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, it is useful to understand how China's intelligence and national security establishment reacted at the time.

The strategy that China's Ministry of State Security (MSS), its principal civilian intelligence service, took toward the United States after 9/11 followed a Chinese saying, ge an guan huo, which roughly translates as "watch the fires burn from the safety of the opposite river bank, which allows you to avoid entering the battle until your enemy is exhausted." The MSS followed this saying to a T. Its long-term aim was to contain the United States, and then supplant it, in Southeast Asia. As the United States was mired in the Middle East, the gains being made by the MSS went by largely undetected or appreciated by U.S. intelligence.

Beginning in 2005, the MSS declared war on the U.S. intelligence community. From that point on, all of the service's best resources and personnel were marshaled against U.S. intelligence—while the United States was pivoting to the global war on terrorism. According to one CIA official with deep expertise on China, with whom I had an exclusive interview on condition of anonymity, internal MSS deliberations from that time were marked with glee as the U.S. government was consumed, if not distracted, by the global war on terrorism....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walton, Calder.“China Has Been Waging a Decades-Long, All-Out Spy War.” Foreign Policy, March 28, 2023.