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How China’s Spies Fooled an America That Wanted to be Fooled

In American popular culture, foreign spying remains deeply associated with the Cold War and America’s principal antagonist, the Soviet Union. Countless novels, television shows, and films cast Russian spies as dangerous (yet often romantic) threats to America. But as the U.S. and China edge closer to a new Cold War, it seems clear that China has replaced the Soviet Union (and its successor, Russia) as America’s primary intelligence threat, even if one is hard-pressed to identify even one decent novel involving Chinese spies. While reports of Chinese spy-related arrests in the U.S. have grown dramatically during the past decade, the academic and policy literature lack a serious book-length study of China’s intelligence operations in the United States. 

Alex Joske’s “Spies and Lies: How China’s Greatest Covert Operations Fooled the World” promises to fill this gap. Indeed, Joske’s work offers a rare, nonacademic study of China’s little-known intelligence agency, the Ministry for State Security (MSS). But while Joske does report on China’s spies, his thesis is quite different than one might expect. Rather than untangle the ways in which the MSS seeks to gather U.S. government or corporate secrets, Joske argues that the MSS’s greatest intelligence strength is its massively successful influence operation against U.S. political and business elites. In Joske’s telling, any U.S. military secrets gleaned by the MSS in recent decades pale in comparison to its amazingly successful efforts to deceive the highest levels of the U.S. policymaking world about China’s foreign policy goals and priorities. These deceptions, in Joske’s telling, kept the U.S. government from responding earlier to China’s threat to U.S. interests. 

Joske, an enormously talented analyst with the influential Australian Strategic Policy Institute think tank, backs up his argument by drawing on largely ignored open-source intelligence on the MSS. While there is good reason to admire his impressive research and analysis of obscure Chinese sources, Joske overstates the force and impact of the operations he uncovers. While China’s spies may have been trying to lull U.S. academics, business elites, and policymakers into quiescence, Joske fails to give those U.S. decision-makers sufficient agency. U.S. players sought engagement with China for their own interests and purposes and would have likely done so whether or not the MSS was lying to them. 

Joske begins his tale with a fascinating and emblematic account of George Soros’s efforts to engage China in the 1980s through the establishment of a China Fund to support and foster an emerging Chinese civil society. Soros has become well known for his similar efforts in his native Hungary and later all over then-communist Eastern Europe. But unlike the “Open Society” initiatives that played a meaningful role in pre- and post-communist Eastern Europe, Soros’s China Fund was undermined, and later completely co-opted, by a sophisticated intelligence operation led by China’s MSS. 

It is not surprising that the Chinese government would have sought to shut down Soros’s efforts, especially in the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. But the China Fund was not shut down. It was co-opted by being forced to “partner” with a local Chinese entity that was, as Joske reveals, actually a front group led by a senior MSS agent. That Chinese entity was able to use its association with Soros to gain international and domestic legitimacy. 

What is interesting about the Soros saga, which is repeated in Joske’s retelling of other episodes involving foreign politicians, academics, and businessmen, is that the MSS plan is not to just surveil. The MSS playbook involves creating supposedly independent Chinese civil society groups, scholars, or government officials that foreign elites think they can use to learn about China and influence its policies. 

Joske notes how MSS operations include traditional spying, such as convincing the FBI to treat one of its operatives as a trusted FBI counterintelligence asset for decades, and influence peddling of the Clinton White House through campaign donations laundered by Chinese Americans. But the more interesting MSS operations are the influence operations against U.S. intellectual and business elites. 

For example, Joske offers evidence that the MSS has spent decades penetrating the U.S.-China Policy Foundation (USCPF) to build relationships with America’s leading China experts. Top U.S. academics of China, who bounced back and forth between academia, think tanks, and the National Security Council, were affiliated with or board members of the USCPF. Thus, Joske details how key undercover MSS agents were unknowingly introduced into U.S. policymaking and academic elites by USCPF. Similar stories about MSS agents secretly being mixed into academic exchanges with top U.S. universities and U.S. business organizations are fascinating contributions by Joske to understanding the tactics of the MSS. 

Joske is on solid ground in revealing the MSS’s deep penetration of almost every form of high-level interaction between U.S. elites and China during the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s. The question, however, is whether those influence operations really had a measurable impact on U.S. policy. I agree with Joske that the U.S. government, supported by the network of MSS-influenced academic and business elites, maintained a policy of engagement longer than it should have. But I simply don’t have his confidence that the policy would have changed earlier (or never have been adopted) absent the MSS’s efforts.

In his most provocative claim, Joske argues that the early 2000s narrative that China’s leaders sought a “peaceful rise” in a manner that did not challenge the U.S. was an elaborate MSS scheme to lull U.S. decision-makers into treating China with kid gloves. Joske offers impressive details about the origins of the phrase “peaceful rise” in the work of MSS asset Zheng Bijian. Through his work in the China Reform Forum, a Chinese think tank that U.S. elites treated as an influential window into Chinese government thinking, Zheng popularized the concept and convinced U.S. elites that this was the actual policy of the Chinese government. The peaceful rise concept made it easier for the U.S. government to continue to treat China as a partner and focus on other threats in the Middle East and elsewhere. 

There is much to Joske’s point that the U.S. government took the peaceful rise narrative too seriously. But the U.S. government’s willingness to swallow the narrative was not contradicted by other metrics of Chinese behavior. In the early 2000s, when the concept was introduced, China was not actively prosecuting its claims to the South China Sea, it eventually reached a rapprochement with the government on Taiwan, and it had not even started regular intrusions into Japanese-controlled waters around islands disputed with Japan. The plausibility of the peaceful rise narrative was complemented by Chinese policies (or nonpolicies). U.S. policymakers, facing a global terrorist threat after September 11 and dealing with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, could be forgiven for accepting the peaceful rise narrative at face value. It fit with their policy preferences and was backed by at least some evidence. U.S. policymakers may have been “influenced” to think China’s intentions were more benign than they actually were. But the preferences of U.S. policymakers would likely have driven the U.S. government to this conclusion even without MSS involvement. 

Joske does a great service by revealing and recounting the history of MSS operations against U.S. elites by mining open-source materials ignored by most analysts and journalists. He rightly directs readers’ attention to the MSS as a serious player and its success in penetrating the highest circles of U.S. elite decision-making on China. The lesson of his book is that claims about Chinese intentions need to be sophisticated, nuanced, and evidence based. Conversations by China experts (I’m looking at you, Henry Kissinger!) with their “friends” in China can no longer (if they ever did) serve as a reliable indicator of Chinese government intentions. U.S. China analysis needs to get better, and it already has. 

At the same time, U.S. policies cannot shut off all connections with Chinese civil society in an effort to cut out MSS front groups. The U.S. needs as much information and exchange with China as possible. As long as U.S. decision-makers go into these meetings and conferences with their eyes wide open, the U.S. policy process will still ultimately benefit. The U.S. discourse around China will also ultimately be better, even if Joske’s book reminds us that we all need to add a substantial “MSS discount” to the reliability of most Chinese interlocutors. 

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