The Diplomat’s Peter Mattis argues that misconceptions about the nature of China’s intelligence-gathering threaten to undermine other countries’ attempts to combat it. He cites the recently revealed arrest by Russia of Tong Shengyong, who allegedly sought information on a missile system Beijing had purchased from Moscow years earlier.
Most analysts believe the Chinese intelligence threat is largely amorphous, a vast human network vacuuming up many bits of information. China’s seemingly unique approach to intelligence is known by various names, including ‘human wave,’ ‘mosaic,’ or the ‘thousand grains of sand’ approaches to intelligence. Ultimately, it’s a view of Chinese operations fundamentally at odds with normal understandings of intelligence.
There a three major assumptions about this approach. First and most importantly, is that Chinese intelligence officers don’t rely on the traditional tradecraft of clandestine collection, such as paying or blackmailing for secrets. Second, that their secret services rely on the efforts of ethnic Chinese émigrés and citizenry abroad rather than the willingness of foreign citizens to betray the trust afforded them.And third, that the Chinese intelligence services play a secondary role relative to large, informal networks of amateurs, vacuuming up information irrespective of Beijing’s economic, military, and political priorities.
But is this really an accurate picture?