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Observation: Will China Ever Become a Spy Power?

Observation is a magazine published by the US based China Information Center. On August 6, 2009, the magazine carried the article “Will China Rise to Be a Spy Power?” The following is a translation of the article. [1]

Will China Ever Become a Spy Power?

More than two years ago, Chinese hackers broke into German government computers, infecting them with spyware, and, at one point, paralyzing their electronic systems. This attracted international attention, and the East was newly viewed as a threat. In fact, experts say, the telecommunication systems of the United States Congress have to withstand millions of attacks each day. Modern information warfare had long been fought around the world, silently, but intensely. However, as long as the public is unaware of it, no one will know just how cutthroat it really is. The practice of stealing industrial intelligence and business information has been going on for a long time among industrialized countries. In recent years, as China has started engaging in the international community and entering into global competition, rumors have begun to spread that Chinese spies are everywhere. In fact, many Chinese living in the United States now work in the government, in national defense, and in economic enterprises and trade, and do academic research. In recent years, news about these people stealing information for their home country of China has made headlines, causing much worry and anger in the U.S. At the same time, German media have recently reported a number of cases of Chinese espionage. The rise of this new power is understandably being viewed with consternation.

Two years ago, the theme of one issue of Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine was “Yellow Spies.” The story ridiculed Chinese spies with sarcasm and prejudice as well as racism. It caused a huge wave of irritation among China’s “angry young,” even though many of them couldn’t fully understand the content of the issue. They relayed distorted information, causing quite a phenomenon at the time. The free press in the West loves reporting bad news, and not only on issues related to China. They are also fascinated with exposing the dark side of their own societies, afraid that if they lag behind in digging out bad news, their readers will abandon them. China’s “angry young” are so used to listening only to the Chinese official media, which exaggerate the Chinese government as wonderful, brilliant, and precise, that if they ever run across any criticism from the outside, their nationalistic emotions irrationally take over.

The most common type of espionage carried out by Chinese in the West is to collect information on commercial and industrial high-tech technologies. Chinese hackers attacking their targets in Germany via the Internet is very popular in Germany. The areas they focused on were scientific and technological enterprises, such as automotive manufacturing, new energy research and development, chemistry, communications, optics, electrical engineering, materials research, and military equipment.

Chinese espionage activities in Germany are so widespread that they have become a threat to Germany’s infrastructure, especially in areas such as the country’s power grid. Mr. Walter Opfermann, an espionage protection expert in the office for counterintelligence in the German Federal Constitution Protection Bureau, pointed out in July that Chinese hackers are trying hard to hide their identities by installing Trojans in e-mail attachments or simply launching attacks via other large-scale network systems, and that their tactics are increasingly sophisticated. China’s "National Trojan program" has a dual function: theft and destruction. China’s National Security Bureau utilizes advanced technology provided by U.S. electronics companies such as Cisco Systems (CISCO). These high-tech systems enable the National Security Bureau to attack individuals or organizations that they have targeted by transmitting viruses. As soon as the PCU is turned on, the entire computer system is paralyzed. One of the reasons that the Chinese spies steal high-tech information could be that the Chinese want the results of Western research free of charge, eliminating the need for investing in research and development at home. But this approach has simply made the means of competition more malicious.

German experts know that, in recent years, China’s spies are not only stealing economic information, but also monitoring those people they consider “disturbances.”  Of course, they do not operate as openly in Germany as they do in China. Germans know that Chinese spies in Germany are monitoring Uyghurs, Falun Gong followers, Tibetan independence movement adherents, and Taiwan independence movement supporters, as well as pro-democracy activists. South Munich is the Uyghur’s home base outside of China. Since the 1970s, the US government-backed Radio Free Europe has broadcast in the Uyghur language. In the 1990s, the exiled Uyghur people set up organizations in South Munich and attracted a large number of Uyghur refugees. In 2004, the “World Uyghur Congress” established its headquarters in Munich. Rebiya Kadeer became the world leader of Uyghurs in exile, even though she was in Washington, D.C. at the time. Unlike the Chinese pro-democracy organizations, within which divisions and disunity always exist, Uyghurs and Tibetans are very respectful of their spiritual leaders, and it is rare to hear of internal struggles. Even though the Chinese regime discredits the World Uyghur Congress as being a terrorist organization, because Kadeer is popularly respected in the US Congress, the World Uyghur Congress was able to hold its Opening Assembly in front of the US Capitol Building in May. This was a further affront to Beijing.

Chinese diplomats in Germany often gather information under the shadow of diplomatic immunity. The German government recently prevented a consul named Ji Wumin from entering Germany, because, during the past few years when he worked as a Chinese diplomat in Germany, the German federal intelligence agency discovered that he had carried out espionage. Mr. Ji Wumin was specifically interested in collecting information on Uyghurs. He returned to his home country in 2007. Probably because Beijing was pleased with his accomplishments, he was again sent to Munich. But this time, the German government refused to allow him to enter.

Because hackers from China have often invaded Germany’s sensitive intelligence systems, its Federal Constitution Protection Bureau has now established a special team to deal with such attacks. Germany is now vigilant when it comes to China, just as it was with regard to Russia in the past. According to estimates by its Federal Constitution Protection Bureau, there are 20 to 50 Chinese intelligence personnel in Germany, and their job is to collect intelligence for China. It seems that, with the growth of the economy, as well as with the escalation of conflicts among different ethnic groups, China no doubt will develop into an “intelligence power.” Compared to the U.S., Russia, and other big powers, China is different in that its National Security agency always does business behind closed doors, seizing and fighting against its own citizens. Its evil ways have not yet reached foreign countries, but if one day China’s CIA and KGB do extend the country’s tentacles of influence overseas, it will mark a new era in extraterritorial abductions and intimidation.

[1] Observation, August 6, 2009, by Liao Tianqi