The Ministry of State Security (MSS) is China’s intelligence and security agency responsible for counter-intelligence, overseas intelligence and political security in non-military affairs headquartered in Beijing. It was formed in 1983 and its operatives also enjoy powers similar to the police to arrest citizens in areas of state security unlike other intelligence agencies. While CIA, Mossad, FBS, ISI, R&AW etc., are well known, the workings of MSS have been largely hidden from the public view. To understand its psyche, it is important to revisit the world order at the time of the formation of MSS first.
The Cold War was on. China had succeeded in preventing an Asia-Pacific NATO by deceiving India citing harmonious co-existence resulting in NAM. In 1962, India and China fought a war and by this time China had already occupied Tibet and went on to occupy Aksai Chin as well. In 1971, the nation of Bangladesh was born out of East Pakistan and China had already identified Pakistan as its strategic ally in the region as an effective counter to India along with Pakistan being important for its “long match south” to the Indian Ocean.
Simultaneously, in the early 1970’s, the historic meeting of President Nixon with Chairman Mao was set up through General Yahya Khan of Pakistan to end the Vietnam War resulting in China slowly breaking away from the Soviet-style economy on the path of liberalisation in a victory for the US. In 1978, China embraced the Four Modernization Program under Deng to catch up with the US levels of development by 2040 with the assistance of the World Bank; India was under the strong influence of the USSR and the Licence Raj while the USSR had invaded Afghanistan which would significantly contribute to its breakup in 1991. The thaw in US-China relations also meant that China was free to build its economy and start the journey of spreading its sphere of influence in Asia-Pacific.
China knew it needed to build its economy and its biggest asset was its population, work ethic and the ideology of the Communist Party that was aimed at uniting and furthering the supremacy of the Han Chinese, the dominant population group. China was aware that it would need to leverage this population and their nationalism including the ethnic Chinese citizens who were settled in other countries of the world by invoking the glory of the Chinese Empire (compel/cajole/threaten) to contribute to the Chinese growth engine while quashing any dissent against the Communist Party domestically and overseas. While China was not flush with money, it was also aware that it would need to catch up to the western developmental models as soon as possible and this meant by hook or by crook. Critical to this entire process would be the MSS!
Post the implementation of the Four Modernization Program under Deng, China embarked on enviable growth making it a $10 trillion plus economy in 2016 that is creating its own order orienting from Beijing with OBOR, AIIB etc. It is the undisputed Asian giant and a potential challenger to the US. The Chinese foreign policy is completely based on deception and the teachings of Sun Tzu which clearly state that there can be only hegemon in the world. The Chinese foreign policy of engage and build is only applicable till China builds itself to a position of strength which will enable it to challenge the current superpower, the US. Once this goal is achieved, China will shed its mask of harmonious development and peace and reveal its imperialist agenda which is far stronger than the US, the UK and Russia combined! Let us now understand MSS’s contribution to China’s fairy tale.
The Birth of MSS
MSS began as a central-level ministry in 1983 with a few provincial departments patterned after the KGB’s political police with its primary goal being the maintenance of the rule of the Communist Party over the Chinese people. It is responsible to the Premier and the State Council and the CCP. The Political Science and Law Commission oversees its activities. Thus it can be assumed that MSS does not work for the welfare of the Chinese people but rather the Communist Party by controlling the people and preventing any dissent that could threaten the Party’s autocratic rule.
The Chinese name for MSS is Guojia Anquan Bu or GAB and consists of bureau’s for domestic and overseas recruitment; spy handling under diplomatic or commercial cover; operations for Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau; internal security and domestic surveillance; using technology for wiretapping, communications and photography; counter intelligence and research; counter-surveillance and counter-defection; scientific and technical intelligence; computer security and foreign liaison and cooperation.
The MSS is one of the world’s most active service in stealing secrets and running spies. Deng wanted MSS to not use embassies for its spying activities but employ businessmen, journalists, professionals etc. instead as these individuals would have a ready-made cover and the licence to ask questions which would not directly link China. Deng was also of the opinion that China under MSS would be able to collect information far more effectively this way without raising too many questions through the façade of institutions.
While these are standard functions of any intelligence agency, MSS also actively works in censoring the internet and creating propaganda to prevent the Chinese citizens from knowing facts that are outside the acceptable norms of the Communist Party. MSS is also deeply involved in the repression of unofficial Christian Churches, the Falun Gong religious group, pro-democracy movements in Tibet and the mainland; the Uighur Separatist Movement and democracy and other reforms in Taiwan and Hong Kong. In short, the MSS’s goal is to create a panoptic One China state serving the Communist Party with the majority Han as its centre showing the party’s modern secular progressive values on the way to reclaiming the glory of Chinese empire.
The MSS’s focus was initially skewed in favour of state security. However, as China’s growth engine kicked off, it needed to ramp up its overseas operations to hasten the process and this is when it became its overseas operations also started gaining momentum. The MSS is highly involved in economic warfare for the People’s Republic. MSS sends spies to infiltrate the US intelligence along with collecting and stealing technology along with recruiting Eastern European and Central Asian nationals who visit China often by leveraging their common former communist influence. China’s strong trade partnerships with countries across the world also make it easy for MSS to use lobby groups, Chinese migrants in Western countries, students, tourists, professionals and businessmen to help in collecting information that can be used for this purpose.
MSS operates its university, the Institute of International Relations, in Beijing for training its spies who are then further introduced to the spying tradecraft at the Institute of Cadre Management in Suzhou. Like all other agencies, MSS also routinely uses honey traps for recruiting spies. The MSS unlike conventional spy agencies does not have an infinite number of people on its payroll but rather embraces the grains of sand strategy in collecting information. It does not necessarily pay its citizens or the overseas ethnic-Chinese to spy on its behalf but encourages them to collect information by simply asking questions of all kinds. MSS does not invest resources in only collecting top secret or classified information but simply put any information that can be sourced which could yield the Communist Party an advantage in making China great by assisting in policy formulation. All this information that is collected is then filtered and analysed at the MSS Thinktanks and converted into useful operational intelligence.
The MSS uses diplomats and defence attaches in embassies as spies which is the norm the world over. Apart from this, as stated above the MSS also uses journalists of state-owned media operations as spies who are the equivalents of state employees and can also be employed at the embassies abroad. Like other agencies, MSS has also been planting operatives in the intelligence networks of rival countries. Several MI6 operatives have been honey trapped by MSS spies as well. This is an old tactic of the MSS from the time of Communist Party’s battle with the Kuomintang.
Apart from this, MSS cultivates several thinktanks, the most notable one being the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations that employ several researchers who are in fact spies who actively liaise with retired foreign officials and NGO’s of the target countries to gain information through conferences, academic delegations and Track II dialogues. Similar to the Ford Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation etc.; these thinktanks are also great ways to create covers for spies whose job is to simply ask questions and gather information.
Unlike other intelligence agencies, MSS typically recruits students before their overseas university entrance exams and trains them in languages and other skills to collect any information. The MSS agents who are usually Han Chinese do not necessarily employ other agents under them but harness and manage umpteen Chinese and overseas ethnic Chinese businessmen, professionals, students etc. as part of their network for information collection, and propaganda in the target countries especially against dissident organisations that could harm China’s interests.
The MSS also uses local government offices to recruit and coerce businessmen and professionals from specific countries when they are caught/made to caught carrying out illegal activities. The MSS also employs commercial spies who are businessmen with government credentials who help the agency to identify and recruit foreigners with access to valuable information. Various forums and associations that promote Chinese trade ties are extremely useful in this aspect. The MSS also works with ethnic Chinese and overseas Chinese professionals to collect important proprietary information, client lists and pricing details to give China the advantage in bidding contracts. MSS also uses Chinese firms to purchase companies to gain access to important technology and uses Chinese front companies for these purchases. Even Chinese products especially those by its telecom giants ZTE and Huawei have been banned in the US, Australia, India etc. by its military and other government contracts after it was found that they were sending data remotely to China. The MSS also often makes the pursuit of foreign technology a necessity for permission to travel abroad for the Chinese citizens.
The MSS often offers contacts or assistance in setting up a business or research in China instead of money. For the ethnic Chinese who are settled overseas or the Chinese citizens, MSS uses nationalism, patriotism and ideology as an appeal to work for the country with rewards that could be monetary or access while for the non-Chinese, MSS offers friendship and other partnerships in the guise of “modernising China”. There have been umpteen cases where the recruit has been completely unaware that he was working for the MSS. MSS regularly plants agents among the first-generation Chinese immigrants in various countries. Moreover, MSS often cultivates short-term agents for specific purposes as well. MSS uses everyone right from students who are specially selected for overseas education to students on exchange programs to tourists to collect information for it.
When we think of the substantial Chinese trade ties, the massive population, Chinese journalists, the Chinese flair for restaurants, China towns in prominent cities of the world, Chinese firms both state-owned and private working overseas, Chinese professionals; what we have is a massive information collection network on a scale that has never been seen before and this is without considering the substantial cyber-espionage capabilities of the MSS! For years now, businessmen, diplomats, and other professionals have been warned against carrying any electronic devices to China for the fear of MSS targeting them and copying their content.
Thus the majority of intelligence gathering is not directly carried out by MSS giving it invisibility but rather by Chinese institutes, thinktanks and media outlets that are on the surface separate from MSS. Xinhua has historically been a prominent cover for MSS agents as well as a collector of information that may not be published but could be of significance to the higher ranked officials. While the above may represent a highly unstructured method of collecting information that would naturally be impossible for any agent to handle, these networks are all connected to each other through embassies, cultural centres, thinktanks and Confucius Institutes that work directly under the Communist Party. The other advantage of this seemingly unconnected network is also an important aspect of Chinese deception as it allows for plausible deniability while creating a web of espionage, propaganda, information collectors and agents to maintain the ideology of the Communist Party.
Confucius Institutes are another prime example of the great Chinese deception. These institutes promote the Chinese language and culture and facilitate cultural exchanges. In reality they are simply a front for Chinese propaganda to enhance its soft power and introduce/coerce people to the Chinese way of thought. Unlike other national cultural exchange institutions, Confucius Institutes are very much aligned to the CPC and work solely towards managing Western academic opinions towards China in the interests of the party. Moreover, they don’t operate from their own premises and use the existing educational architecture of the target countries. They are directed by the Office of Chinese Language Council International which answers to the Ministry of Education of and primarily to the United Front Work Department of the CPC. The purpose of the United Front Work Development is not social development but subversion, co-option and control and this should make the purpose of Confucius Institutes extremely easy to understand!
Moreover, in sync with the great Chinese deception of harmonious developments, it is noteworthy to point out that Chairman Mao did not agree with Confucius’s teachings and a social order based on love for one’s kind and respect for worship as this was contrary to the secular and atheist ideology of the Communist Party. However, China and MSS were fully aware that institutes under any traditional Chinese figurehead would invite scrutiny and would perhaps be welcome. Confucius’s teachings of peaceful social order and harmony were instead a perfect cover to mask China’s imperialism and would present the Chinese way of life in a much more acceptable manner and reflect China’s ancient wisdom.
Confucius Institutes employ teachers that have been sent from China who have been vetted for ideological purity under the guidelines laid out by the Ministry of Education and the United Front Work Department. These state that the teachers should be between the ages of 22-60 with no participation in Falun Gong, Tibetan Movements, Taiwan Movements, Democracy or any other reform movements and be physically and mentally fit to carry out indoctrination to their young impressionable subjects about why China needs to crack down on these movements and any other agendas that threaten the Communist Party’s rule. They may even go insofar to suggest why the western models of democracy and human rights are bad for the welfare of society, effectively not only brainwashing their young subjects but also laying the foundation for future propaganda.
Many times, it has been found that the educational institutes which partner with Confucius Institutes are expected to sign a contract endorsing the One China policy. There is an active expansion of Confucius Institutes in Latin America which the US considers its backyard. Apart from this Confucius Institutes also operate in cooperation with a Chinese partner university where this relationship can be taken to a next level. These institutes, apart from being useful to monitor the activities of Chinese students are also useful for recruitment of potential MSS agents. From the above, it becomes extremely clear that these institutes focus less on teaching the Chinese language to interested students and focus more on adapting people to the Chinese way of life, thought and ambitions making them useful diplomatic proxies in the future. Confucius said “When music and courtesy are better understood and appreciated, there will be no war”. Confucius Institutes are thus long term assets used by the Chinese intelligence to achieve the Communist Party’s foreign policy goals.
The Way Ahead
As things stand currently, China’s claims of harmonious development and peaceful rise are slowly being ground to dust. China’s aggression and lack of respect to the UNCLOS ruling for the South China Sea is just the beginning of this and the gloves are slowly coming off. China has been trying to build an order orienting from Beijing calling the current one orienting from Washington DC as unfair but in reality it seeks to do the same at a much more exponential level.
China has enjoyed enviable growth in the last two decades but the law of diminishing returns seems to be catching up now. China’s stock market crash and its reduced FDI, and commodities surplus is another indication of the same. While China’s Yuan has gained entry in SDR, giving it the much needed capital inflow; a lot will depend on how much the Communist Party is willing to accommodate the domestic unrest that is slowly building as growth reduces and social spending falls.
Adding to this is the budding Cold War in Asia-Pacific between the US and China. As the China grows, the US will ensure it employs its Deep State to curtain the dragon and this will mean giving a fresh lease of life to the Tibetan, Taiwanese and perhaps Falun Gong movements. Even the current Baloch Independence Movement which is gaining momentum in the West will severely impact China in its long march south to the Indian Ocean. This is where the role of MSS will become even more important. President Xi is already heavily cracking down on media and dissenters and this will only increase; fuelling the domestic unrest.
While China deals with domestic unrest, MSS will also attempt an ideological war similar to the Liberation Theology created by the KGB as it challenges the hegemony of the US. The aggressive expansion of the Confucius Institutes in Latin America should also be seen in this light. Communism will be used as a tool by MSS but not for social equality as stated by the ideology but to serve the interests of the Communist Party. The vast Chinese population will be mobilized effectively to serve the state using nationalism and patriotism. This vast machinery that is backed by the population of a billion plus citizens will make the MSS a very potent agency in the times to come. It will also create a police state as China attempts revisionism more openly forcing citizens to spy for the state and on each other. It may not be too far-fetched to state that at this rate; in the not so distant future, every Chinese person, citizen or otherwise could be a potential spy.