Spies and Lies: How China’s Greatest Covert Operations Fooled the World

From a Wall Street Journal review by Dan Blumenthal of the book by Alex Joske titled “Spies and Lies: How China’s Greatest Covert Operations Fooled the World”:

“Who are our enemies? Who are our friends? This is the revolution’s foremost question,” wrote a young Mao Zedong in 1925. The Chinese Communist Party, of which Mao was then a rising leader, needed to manipulate friends and destroy enemies as it worked to overthrow the Republic of China. The insurgent party was forced to partner with its main rival, the Chinese nationalist party, to fight Imperial Japan. It did so even as it subverted the nationalists from within. According to party history, the CCP eventually prevailed in this deadly contest for power by employing what Mao called his “three magic weapons”: maintaining a strong party, winning armed struggles, and engaging in “united front” operations to infiltrate and co-opt its rivals.

Today Xi Jinping, the CCP general-secretary, is employing the same trio of magic weapons in his bid for geopolitical dominance. He has accelerated the modernization of the party’s armed wing, the People’s Liberation Army; strengthened the party’s role in China’s political and economic life; and reinvigorated the united-front system to manipulate friends and keep enemies close. This last pillar of Chinese strategy, political warfare, is by its nature covert, opaque and hard for outsiders to understand. In “Spies and Lies: How China’s Covert Operations Fooled the World,” the Australian China expert Alex Joske elucidates, more completely than ever before, the workings of the Ministry of State Security (MSS), China’s premier intelligence organization, which, since its founding in 1983, has combined traditional intelligence collection with political-influence campaigns. Mr. Joske’s incisive history and analysis provides a much-needed look inside Beijing’s complex, often ruthlessly effective efforts to shape and soften Western responses to its rapid global ascendance.

Washington is now facing a reckoning over its decades of complacency about China. How did Beijing manage to convince so many powerful American politicians, pundits and academics that its rise would be peaceful? In the late 20th century, the United States had legitimate reasons to view its China engagement strategy with optimism as Beijing experimented with private businesses and abandoned its Maoist excesses. But by the early aughts China was dramatically building up its military, pillaging U.S. technology, hollowing out America’s industrial base, forcefully expanding its maritime territory and cracking down on domestic dissenters. Yet Washington persisted in its argument that China would gradually liberalize and ultimately become a responsible geopolitical partner.

To be sure, Beijing’s deliberate attempt to fool the U.S. power elite was not the sole cause of our misguided China policy. U.S. companies were turning profits in China and pushed U.S. politicians to keep engagement alive. Moreover, after 9/11 the U.S. ranked countering nuclear-weapons proliferation and fighting terrorists as its highest priorities. China was considered a potentially useful partner.

But the idea that China would be an exception to the destructive path of rising powers received a huge assist from Beijing’s political-warfare operatives. Mr. Joske documents the MSS’s patient and extensive efforts to soothe American concerns about China. Even the term “peaceful rise,” which became popular in U.S. policymaking circles, was coined (in 2003) by an MSS-affiliated policy organization, the China Reform Forum. Its leader, Zheng Bijian, was invited into the halls of American power, wrote for the prestigious policy journal Foreign Affairs, met with high-level officials and charmed opinion makers. He was even favorably mentioned in the George W. Bush administration’s most important China-policy speech. Meanwhile, the MSS-affiliated “think tank,” the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, hosted countless American policy experts (including this reviewer) for “scholarly exchanges” that for Beijing were exercises in disseminating propaganda and collecting intelligence. The MSS understood that Washington think tanks are conduits to power.

China’s political warriors preyed on Americans’ thirst for knowledge about China’s secretive political system. The price for access to party leaders was the parroting of Chinese propaganda themes, and influential Americans were instrumental in keeping alive a policy that strengthened China. Mao would have been proud as the MSS charmed friends and marginalized enemies.

Washington lost sight of who really called the shots in China: not the charming diplomats, not the impressive entrepreneurs, but the CCP. The party never abandoned its strategic inheritance as a ruthless insurgency that overthrew a U.S. ally. The CCP believes that it is in a continuous state of “struggle” against enemies foreign and domestic and that its survival depends upon the psychological manipulation of its “friends.” China’s tacit “offer to the West,” Mr. Joske writes in one of his frankest passages, remains the following: “Ensure that we aren’t provoked into challenging you. For now, we are still growing, but our achievements will soon match and surpass yours. Abandon Taiwan, forget universal human rights, cede your sovereignty, give us control of strategic industries and technologies and you might be allowed a place in the coming century—if we’re feeling nice.”

Ironically, having awoken to the CCP’s threats, Washington is now susceptible to another kind of manipulation: taking too much counsel of its fears. Witness the Pelosi affair. When word got out last summer that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi planned to visit Taiwan, Beijing’s political warriors mobilized, telling U.S. opinion-makers that the speaker would be in danger and that the visit would cause a “crisis.” While Mrs. Pelosi ignored this psychological operation, the MSS surely enjoyed a collective grin as the Biden administration and the chattering classes parroted Chinese propaganda.

Mr. Joske compellingly shows how the CCP has insinuated its narratives into American political discourse. Xi Jinping has elevated the status of the MSS as he prepares China for what he calls “the great struggle” against the U.S. Mr. Joske’s book is thus a perfectly timed guide to undermining a historically critical tool of China’s malign strategy.

Dan Blumenthal is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of “The China Nightmare: The Grand Ambitions of a Decaying State.”

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