Chinese Spying Operations – Games Chinese Spooks Play

From 國家安全部 ‘Guójiā ānquán bù’ to 新華社 ‘Xinhua’, how China’s espionage network operates in shadows.

China has systemically set up one of the quietest but most lethal espionage networks across the world.

As the world continues to debate over the spy balloons allegedly sent by China for espionage in the United States, probably it is missing the big picture. The real threat to global security comes from China’s spy network which is a complex web of many agencies, most of whom have successfully remained in the shadows. This multipart series would unravel the lesser known as well the unknown details about the Chinese espionage network.

The Chinese spy network has successfully remained in the shadows for decades. The Chinese Communist Party had built its spy network much before it came to power in China in 1949 turning a republic into a communist dictatorship. Since then, China has systematically set up one of the quietest but one of the most lethal espionage networks across the world.

The information regarding the Chinese spy network is scant and so scattered that it makes it difficult for even keen China watchers to paint the big and the real picture.

Ministry of State for Security

Ministry of State for Security (MSS) is China’s premier intelligence agency. It is also known as 國家安全部 ‘Guójiā ānquán bù’. MSS is largely responsible for operations outside China. The domestic intelligence and surveillance is looked after by the Ministry of Public Security (MPS). In addition, Chinese defence forces have their own intelligence agencies which conduct operations all over the globe.

Peter Mattis, one of the foremost authorities on Chinese intelligence operations, explains the Chinese military intelligence network (A Guide to Chinese Intelligence Operations, August 18, 2015), “Within the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), intelligence organizations fall under the General Staff Department (the Second and Third Departments, or, respectively, China’s DIA and NSA equivalents); the General Political Department for intelligence and covert influence operations; the PLA Navy, Air Force, and Second Artillery headquarters; and technical reconnaissance bureaus in the military regions. Much of the military intelligence infrastructure is based in China, but defence attachés and clandestine collectors do operate abroad, including from the service intelligence elements.”

New China News Agency (Xinhua)

Founded in 1931 by the Chinese Communist Party, Xinhua is the official news agency of China and a major facilitator for China’s intelligence gathering. According to an investigative report in Greek media outlet Pentapostagma published in April 2021, “Xinhua is primarily the eyes, ears, and voice of China. It is one of the important arms of the Chinese Intelligence agency in gathering information. Its prime objective is to promote positive news/narrative about CCP leadership/Chinese government and to marginalize, demonize, or entirely suppress anti-CCP voices, incisive political commentary and exposes that present the Chinese Government/CCP leadership in a negative light. It owns more than 20 newspapers and a dozen magazines and prints in eight languages: Chinese, English, Spanish, French, Russian, Portuguese, Arabic and Japanese It has established 107 bureaus in foreign countries including eight sub offices or editorial offices in Hong Kong, New York, Mexico, Nairobi, Cairo, Paris, Moscow, and Rio de Janeiro and currently employs more than 10,000 people.”

The report explained the standard operating procedure of gathering intelligence by this Chinese agency which has been operating in India also for several years, “Xinhua covers all news and developments/events in foreign countries which have meaning, or which could be of any significance for China. It then forwards reports/articles to China’s Ministry of State Security which directly handles the information inflow from Xinhua. The reports/articles are uploaded in a secured web system. Those that contain intelligence value are treated as classified and forwarded to CCP leadership for their consumption. Xinhua journalists are trained to be able to identify news/articles that are suitable for the CCP leaders and not for the public.” 

According to this investigative report, “The agency (Xinhua) maintains a huge database of experts across the world and contacts favorable pro-Chinese contacts/assets in foreign countries and forwards their articles/reports to concerned departments back in Beijing.”

United Front Work Department (UFWD)

Set up in 1942, UFWD is the blue-eyed boy of the Communist Party Chinese (CPC). President Xi Jinping has further strengthened it ever since he came to power in 2012 and now it plays a significant role in China’s overall espionage network as well foreign policy framework. According to a research report published in August 2018 by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, “The United Front strategy uses a range of methods to influence overseas Chinese communities, foreign governments, and other actors to take actions or adopt positions supportive of Beijing’s preferred policies.”

‘Several official and quasi-official entities conduct overseas activities guided or funded by the United Front including Chinese government and military organizations, cultural and “friendship” associations, and overseas academic groups such as Chinese Students and Scholars Associations (CSSAs) and Confucius Institutes.  The UFWD also oversees influence operations targeting Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau that aim to suppress independence movements, undermine local identity, and promote support for Beijing’s political system.

In all these cases, United Front work serves to promote Beijing’s preferred global narrative, pressure individuals living in free and open societies to self-censor and avoid discussing issues unfavorable to the CPC and harass or undermine groups critical of Beijing’s policies.’

Ryan Fedasiuk, a research Analyst at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology (CSET) meticulously calculated the budget for UFWD in his essay ‘How China Mobilizes Funding for United Front Work (China Brief Volume: 20 Issue: 16). This indicates the priority given to this agency by the Chinese government and the CCP.

There is no direct budget for UFWD but there are several government and quasi-government bodies which fund it. That include Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, State Ethnic Affairs Commission, State Administration of Religious Affairs, Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of the State Council and All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce. The current annual budget for UFWD allocated through these bodies stands at not less than $1.4 billion.

“Chinese officials maintain that the United Front system is a benign network of administrative organizations, and that the PRC’s foreign policy is based on “mutual respect and non-interference in each other’s internal affairs” (PRC Embassy in Sweden, August 2019; ABC, June 2020). If this really were the case, regional governments probably would not classify their united front spending as secret 秘密資助 (Mìmì zīzhù) or refuse to disclose the structure of government offices ostensibly reserved for public diplomacy,” says Fedasiuk.

He further adds, “That regional governments in China budget nearly as much for united front work ($1.3 billion annually) as they do for CPC propaganda indicates how highly the Party values the united front as a tool for both domestic and foreign influence’.”

Overseas Chinese Affairs Office (OCAO)

This department /office is a front for keeping tabs on the Chinese communities abroad. It works closely with the Chinese Ministry of Education. According to Mattis, “The Overseas Chinese Affairs Office and the Ministry of Education… keep tabs on Chinese who live outside of China. The former office maintains ties to overseas Chinese communities and sponsors a variety of Chinese professional associations. The Ministry of Education keeps tabs on Chinese students abroad and helps support students’ and scholars’ associations. Both assist in mobilizing Chinese expats and émigrés for visible displays of support when Beijing wants, such as during the 2008 Olympic torch relay.”

According to the official website of ‘Overseas Chinese Office’, its major responsibilities include, “To study and formulate the guidelines, policies and regulations concerning overseas Chinese affairs, as well as to supervise and check their implementation; and to conduct research and study on the development of overseas Chinese affairs both domestically and abroad, to provide the information to the Central Committee of the CPC and the State Council.

Institute of Scientific and Technical Information of China (ISTIC)

Established in 1956, the ISTIC is officially a premier scientific research institute of China. But that is a façade. Its real task is to collect technologies and related information from all over the world in whichever manner it is possible. If one can read between the lines, the official website of ISTIC gives ample indications about the real work it does. The website says, “ISTIC has established long-term and stable business cooperation relations with relevant research institutions in the United States, Canada, Japan and other countries and regions, and has become an important platform for international cooperation and exchange in the field of science and technology information in China.”

George Soros and Chinese spy agency worked together as comrades.

George Soros’ history with the Chinese reveals his hypocrisy as he presents himself as a champion of democracy.

George Soros, the US-based controversial billionaire, and the Chinese premier spy agency Ministry of State Security (MSS) have worked hand in glove in the 1980s where Soros provided substantial funding to MSS through Economic System Reform Institute (ESRI) and China International Culture Exchange Center (CICEC).

It appears that Soros was playing a ‘double game’ by pursuing the Western interests to infiltrate China while also forging a close partnership with Chinese intelligence network and top bosses of the Chinese Communist Party. The apparent reason was an opportunity that he must have seen to benefit from China’s economic growth in the 1980s.

But this partnership fell apart with the change in the Chinese regime after 1989. Several representatives of Soros’ entity ‘China Fund’ were arrested by the Chinese authorities post- Tiananmen square massacre in 1989. The Chinese authorities accused them of working for the US’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

Soros’ China Fund and the Ministry of State Security

Soros started making overtures to China in the 1980s. He first identified and handpicked Liang Heng, a bestselling author in 1984 to set up his shop in China. Heng had become famous after publishing his memoir Son of the Revolution’ that was a personal account of how China was opening to the West and the purges carried out at regular intervals by the Communist Party China (CPC).

Liang connected Soros with important people in the Chinese establishment. The façade kept for this whole initiative was that Soros wanted to help China to carry out reforms.

By that time, he had already set up ‘Open Society Foundations’, a funding arm known for instigating coups, political upheavals, and chaos in various countries through a web of well-funded non-Governmental organizations (NGOs). But given the fact that bets were very high in China, Soros decided to set up a separate entity which would work only in China.

In 1986, Soros set up ‘China Fund’ with a $1 million endowment. Through Liang’s network, the China Fund initially partnered with a Chinese think tank Economic System Reform Institute (ESRI).

In October 1986, Soros opened the China Fund formally in a signing ceremony at Beijing’s Diaoyutai State Guesthouse. This was his first trip to China.

Soros struck gold by roping ESRI as it was close to the premier Zhao Ziyang, who became the Party’s general secretary the next year. Zhao’s personal secretary, Bao Tong, was also known for helping the China Fund-ESRI joint venture whenever they needed to get through the Chinese bureaucracy.

Behind the façade of helping China to shape reformist economic policies, the China Fund started spreading its tentacles very fast. Within a year of its establishment, it set up an artists’ club in Beijing and an academic unit at Nankai University in Tianjin. Within the first two years of arriving in China, Soros’ China Fund gave hefty grants for at least 200 proposals. However, as the Fund started pushing the envelope too far by funding research on sensitive topics like the notorious ‘Cultural Revolution’ that had resulted in torture and deaths of millions of Chinese in 1960s, alarm bells started ringing in Chinese official circles and Zhao Ziyang had to step in despite his support for Soros and China Fund.

Alex Joske says in Spies and Lies: How China’s Greatest Covert Operations Fooled the World, “In the face of complaints from Party elders about the China Fund, Zhao Ziyang ceded its control to new management. It wasn’t a fight he wanted to pick, nor one he could dare to. Zhao agreed to sever ties between the ESRI and the China Fund, bringing in the China International Culture Exchange Center (CICEC), a group under the Ministry of Culture, as its new partner institution.

Things weren’t all bad, or so it seemed. CICEC had the backing of senior Party leaders, including (present Chinese president) Xi Jinping’s father, and served as one of the only official channels for cultural exchanges with the outside world. Its strong ties to officialdom could insulate Zhao and the China Fund.”

Soros travelled to China in February 1988 to sign a revised agreement with Yu Enguang, a Chinese spy master who was a high-ranking official of the MSS. CICEC itself was a front for the MSS. It would be too naïve to accept that Soros didn’t know about this ‘open secret’ though he tried to defend himself later by pleading ignorance about this fact.

Soros got along well with Yu Enguang at a personal level. The latter secured Soros a rare meeting with the top leadership of CCP in Beijing. Soros, reconfirmed his commitment to bankroll joint operations of China Fund and CICEC. The new Chinese co-chair of this project Yu Enguang.

According to Joske, Yu Enguang was the pseudonym of the Chinese spy master Yu Fang. ‘Among his comrades in the MSS, Yu Fang was just as respected as ‘Yu Enguang’ was by the targets he cultivated. At some point in his career, he headed the agency’s important central administrative office, and in the early nineties helped secure the passage of China’s first National Security Law, which expanded and codified MSS powers. The authors of several MSS publications, marked for internal distribution only, thank him for advising on and improving their drafts. He also oversaw MSS production and censorship of histories, TV dramas and movies about spies, which were designed to build public awareness and support for the MSS’s mission.’

Joske adds, “Ironically for a man who helped bring Chinese intelligence history into the public sphere, Yu’s true legacy is an official secret. Official references to his achievements are brief and elliptical. The authoritative People’s Daily eulogized him in 2013, an honor only a handful of intelligence officers receive: ‘In his sixty years of life in the revolution, Comrade Yu Fang was loyal to the Party, scrupulously carried out his duties and selflessly offered himself to the Party’s endeavors, making important contributions to the Party’s state security endeavor.’ The article also noted that he’d been a member of the National People’s Congress, China’s national legislature.”

Thus, Soros was dealing with a top-ranking Chinese intelligence official. Initially, this partnership was going off well. In fact, MSS was using Soros’ money to fund its operations under the garb of cultural exchange programs carried out by CICEC.

Incidentally, the official website of the CICEC, when accessed currently, doesn’t show any link it had in the past with Soros and the China Fund. It talks about its focus on ‘cultural exchange programs, which is a common phrase used frequently by the Chinese intelligence agencies to give legitimacy to their spy operations. The CICEC holds cultural festivals across the world and officially claims to be working to create support for China’s ‘One belt, one road’ initiative. Incidentally, CICEC was set up in 1984, a year after MSS came into existence and it was just a couple of years old when Soros’ China Fund forged a partnership with it. It was well-known to China watchers right since its inception that CICEC was a front for the MSS. It is difficult to apprehend that Soros didn’t know about this!

Post-Tiananmen Square

Everything was going well for Soros’ China Fund till Tiananmen square happened in 1989. Chinese authorities suspected that the China Fund played an active role in fueling demonstrations at Tiananmen square that ended in a massacre of thousands of people by Chinese authorities. Meanwhile the Tiananmen square massacre also led to a purge within the party as CCP’s general secretary Zhao Ziyang was not only replaced but was also put under house arrest.

With the arrest of Zhao as well as his secretary Bao Tong, both of whom backed Soros and his China Fund, the Chinese authorities began their crackdown. Soros immediately shut the shop leaving many of his Chinese associates in the lurch and at the mercy of Chinese authorities.

MSS, in its updates to the top party bosses, days before the Tiananmen massacre happened gave details about the role of China Fund as a CIA front in fueling these demonstrations.

According to The Tiananmen Papers, a huge cache of internal CCP reports related to the massacre, that was leaked later, the MSS told the party bosses, “Our investigations have revealed that Liang Heng, the personal representative of the (China Fund) chairman George Soros, was a suspected US spy. Moreover, four American members of the foundation’s advisory committee had CIA connections.”

“According to the MSS’s narrative, Soros showed his ‘true colors’ by asking Yu to close the fund in May 1989 once he realized that supporters of reform were being purged,” observed Joske.

Soros co-chaired the China Fund-CICEC partnership with a top-level Chinese spy master Yu Enguang (also known as Yu Fang). The MSS used the funds provided by Soros’ China Fund to finance many of its operations. Had there not been an internal turmoil in the Chinese Communist Party throwing Soros’ supporters in the Chinese establishment out of power, Soros would have been working closely with an authoritarian Chinese government and continued to play the ‘double game’ ultimately benefiting his business interests from both sides. This history of Soros with the Chinese also exposes his double speak as he claims to be the champion of democracy!

What a Chinese spy agency the Ministry of State Security disrupts the world

MSS was set up in 1983 to bring together multiple agencies which were already functional so that Chinese spy networks could work more cohesively as well as ruthlessly.

國家安全部 ‘Guójiā ānquán bù’ MSS facilities

國家安全部 ‘Guójiā ānquán bù’ MSS facilities in Xiyuan, Haidian District, Beijing. Image courtesy: Wikimedia commons

China’s premier spy agency Ministry for State Security (MSS) has been on the forefront of setting up and running a ruthless global espionage and counter-espionage network.

MSS was set up in 1983 to bring together multiple agencies which were already functional so that Chinese spy networks could work more cohesively as well as ruthlessly.

Officially the proposal to set up this agency was brought by Zhao Ziyang at the first session of the sixth National People’s Congress (NPC) on June 20, 1983. The NPC can be broadly termed as the Parliament of China.

Ziyang proposed the establishment of a state security ministry “to protect the security of the state and strengthen China’s counterespionage work.” The NPC approved it and voted to appoint Ling Yun as the first minister.

The inaugural meeting of the MSS was held on 1 July 1983 to announce the formal establishment of the. The opening speech was delivered by chairman Chen Pixian of the ‘Central Political-Legal Commission’ one of the key bodies of CCP. He categorically said, “Doing state security work well will effectively promote socialist modernization and the cause of realizing the unification of the motherland opposing hegemonism and defending world peace.” The Chinese intent was clear: MSS would be its ace espionage and counter-intelligence agency.

Since President Xi Jinping took over the reins of the Communist Party of China (CCP) and the Chinese establishment in 2012, MSS has been endowed with even greater authority and its sphere of influence has increased significantly. In Xi Jinping’s scheme of things, Chinese espionage agencies, especially MSS, lead from the front to change the existing world order.

Since the remit of China’s intelligence agencies is much broader than those of Western nations, they need more resources, and Xi Jinping has made sure they receive them, say Clive Hamilton and Mareike Ohlberg in Hidden Hand: Exposing How the Chinese Communist Party is Reshaping the World.

Roger Faligot (Chinese Spies: From Chairman Mao to Xi Jinping) has written, there has been a “formidable increase in the authority of the Chinese intelligence apparatus, specifically since 2017”.

The MSS indulges in all kinds of dubious clandestine activities including sabotage, industrial espionage, theft of technology. It has created several fronts in the form of think tanks and trade and cultural bodies to carry out such activities. The prominent among them are China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, China Reform Forum and Chinese Association for the Promotion of Cultural Exchange and Cooperation.

Structure of MSS

Last known, MSS has 18 bureaus spread over at least four compounds in Beijing serving as their headquarters and then they have provincial and other local networks within China as well as a global network. The functions of many of them are not yet known. China Institute of Contemporary International Relations is the public façade of 11th bureau of MSS. Peter Mattis and Matthew Brazil have painstakingly gathered some details about these bureaus in ‘Chinese Communist Espionage: A Primer’ such as:

“     • First Bureau: “secret line” operations by MSS officers not under covers associated with Chinese government organizations.

  • Second Bureau: “open line” operations by MSS officers using diplomatic, journalistic, or other government-related covers.
  • Fourth Bureau: Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau.
  • Fifth Bureau: Report Analysis and Dissemination.
  • Seventh Bureau: Counterespionage Intelligence Bureau, gathers information and develops intelligence on hostile intelligence services inside and outside China.
  • Eighth Bureau: Counterespionage Investigation, runs investigations to detect and apprehend foreign spies in China.
  • Ninth Bureau: Internal Protection and Reconnaissance Bureau, supervises and monitors foreign entities and reactionary organizations in China to prevent espionage.
  • Tenth Bureau: Foreign Security and Reconnaissance Bureau, manages Chinese student organizations and other entities overseas and investigates the activities of reactionary organizations abroad.
  • Eleventh Bureau: China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, performs open-source research, translation, and analysis. Its analysts also meet regularly with foreign delegations and spend time abroad as visiting fellows.
  • Twelfth Bureau: Social Affairs or Social Investigation Bureau, handles MSS contributions to the CCP’s united front work System (also known as United Front Works Department-UFWD, which is another major espionage network of Chinese government and CPC).
  • Thirteenth Bureau: Network Security and Exploitation (also known as the China Information Technology Evaluation Center, manages the research and development of other investigative equipment.
  • Fourteenth Bureau: Technical Reconnaissance Bureau, conducts mail inspection and telecommunications inspection and control.
  • Fifteenth Bureau: Taiwan operations linked to the broader Taiwan Affairs work system. Its public face is the Institute of Taiwan Studies at the China Academy of Social Sciences.
  • Eighteenth Bureau: US Operations Bureau for conducting and managing clandestine intelligence operations against the United States.”

There is hardly any information about the real work done by the third, sixth, sixteenth and seventeenth bureau of the MSS.

According to an online report by China Digital published in 2015, the MSS had a strength of 100,000 ‘spies’. Around 60,000 of them worked within China while 40,000 of them were working in other countries for China.

Explaining this mammoth size and the massive expansion of MSS, Mattis and Brazil elaborated, “The expansion occurred in four waves. The original departments (or those created within the first year) appeared to be the municipal bureaus or provincial departments of state security for Beijing, Fujian, Guangdong, Guangxi, Heilongjiang, Jiangsu, Liaoning, and Shanghai. A second wave appeared shortly thereafter between 1985 and 1988, including Chongqing, Gansu, Hainan, Henan, Shaanxi, Tianjin, and Zhejiang. The third wave from 1990 to 1995 completed the expansion of the ministry across the country at provincial levels, bringing in Anhui, Hunan, Qinghai, and Sichuan provinces.161 The fourth wave of MSS expansion was vertical. The provincial-level departments either took over local public security bureaus or established subordinate municipal or county bureaus. For many local PSB officers, they were police one day and state security the next. When MSS minister Jia left in 1998 for the MPS, the MSS was a nationwide organization at every level.”

“From the national level to the local levels, the MSS and its subordinate departments and bureaus report to a system of leading small groups, coordinating offices, and commissions to guide security work while lessening the risk of politicization on behalf of CCP leaders. At present, the two most important of these are the Political-Legal Commission and the Central State Security Commission.”

Clive Hamilton and Mareike Ohlberg have mentioned in Hidden Hand: Exposing How the Chinese Communist Party is Reshaping the World, “It was reported in 2005 that the FBI believed the MSS had set up around 3000 front companies to conceal its activities. The MSS has various arms engaged in economic espionage and it has ‘embedded itself deep in major financial and commercial organizations, particularly in Shanghai and Hong Kong’. Not all economic espionage is state directed. Chinese nationals are known to set up firms that take orders from companies in China to obtain and supply specific pieces of intellectual property from their competitors in the West, usually by identifying an employee willing to provide such secrets.”

Bloody Purge within MSS

While MSS has successfully infiltrated many spy agencies of other countries, it also suffered a major setback when in 2010, it was revealed that there are several Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) moles working in China and MSS for the American agency.

This led to a bloody purge within MSS. The CIA assets were exposed because of a botched-up communication system of the US spy agency. It reportedly used the same equipment in China which it was using to communicate with its operatives in the middle east. But the Chinese spy agency was much more efficient than the middle east and the CIA underestimated its tech capability. MSS was able to crack this communication network. According to various reports, anywhere between one dozen to two dozen operatives of the CIA were rounded up and executed over a period of two years by the MSS. The CIA did manage to take out many of its ‘assets’ but it had to suffer a major loss.

According to a report published in the journal Foreign Policy in 2018, “It was considered one of the CIA’s worst failures in decades: Over a two-year period starting in late 2010, Chinese authorities systematically dismantled the agency’s network of agents across the country, executing dozens of suspected US spies.”

Recruitment and working pattern.

One of the key methods deployed by MSS is to use the Chinese diaspora to create assets in other countries. Its first bureau plays a significant role in this regard. A survey done by the US-based Centre for Strategic Studies gives an indication about MSS’ approach towards espionage. This survey listed 160 publicly reported instances of Chinese espionage directed at the United States since 2000. According to the survey report:

  • 42% of actors were Chinese military or government employees.
  • 32% were private Chinese citizens.
  • 26% were non-Chinese actors (usually U.S. persons recruited by Chinese officials)
  • 34% of incidents sought to acquire military technology.
  • 51% of incidents sought to acquire commercial technologies.
  • 16% of incidents sought to acquire information on U.S. civilian agencies or politicians.
  • 41% of incidents involved cyber espionage, usually by State-affiliated actors.

According to Hamilton and Ohlberg, “Ego, sex, ideology, patriotism, and especially money is all exploited by China’s intelligence services to recruit spies. In 2017 an FBI employee, Kun Shan Chun (Joey Chun), was convicted of supplying information about the bureau’s organization and operations to Chinese agents, in exchange for free international travel and visits to prostitutes. Among those who spy for China, ideology is a factor mainly for people of Chinese heritage (unlike during the Cold War, when Westerners spied for the USSR for ideological reasons). Beijing also deploys the threat of punishment of family members in China if a target refuses to cooperate.

UFWD: ‘Magic weapon’ in China’s espionage arsenal

The UFWD’s work is inspired by the Leninist theory of uniting with lesser enemies to defeat greater ones

Chinese President Xi Jinping

One of the key constituents of the global Chinese Spy Network is the United Front Work Department (UFWD). It is entrusted with coordination and operational aspects of ‘united front’ activities. The Chinese initially defined ‘united front’ more as a concept. Later it set up UFWD to carry out these activities as the nodal agency.


The UFWD’s work is inspired by the Leninist theory of uniting with lesser enemies to defeat greater ones. Since its founding, this has been a key element of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) strategy to consolidate its hold on power, both domestically and internationally.

The UFWD’s first deployment was to join and subvert the then ruling Nationalist government, the Kuomintang, in the early 1920s. A 2018 research report by US-China Economic and Security Review Commission explained it further, “The CCP then formed an alliance of convenience with the Kuomintang to discourage it from trying to wipe out the fledgling CCP while uniting their efforts against Japan.”

According to Gerry Groot, senior lecturer at the University of Adelaide and renowned expert on the United Front, this campaign evolved into a systematic effort to recruit “fellow travelers,” mostly “famous intellectuals, writers, teachers, students, publishers, and businesspeople who were not necessarily Communists.”

Modus Operandi

The modus operandi of the UFWD is one of the least discussed issues in the public domain when it comes to Chinese covert operations. It is not surprising as UFWD operates through a complex web of organizations which act as a front for united front work.

There are thousands of organizations which work for UFWD under the garb of cultural, educational, commercial, and philanthropic organizations. Alex Joske explains the philosophy behind UFWD in his groundbreaking expose of Chinese intelligence operations Spies and Lies, “Party leaders since Mao Zedong have referred to the united front as one of their three ‘magic weapons’. Together with armed struggle and efforts to strengthen Party organization, the two other magic weapons, the CCP credits the united front work with major contributions to its victory in 1949, China’s modernization and subsequent economic development.”

The key task of UFWD is to build a global network of influencers and ‘operators’ who manipulate the global narrative by hook or crook.  The UFWD specifically brings into its spy net intellectuals, local community leaders, religious and ethnic figures, journalists, academia, and business magnates.

According to Joske, recent cases from around the world have shown, the (Chinese Communist) Party seeks to insert itself into segments of diaspora communities and then mobilize them as political influence. Co-optees can be used to suppress dissidents, make political donations, mentor political candidates and staffers, and otherwise apply pressure in support of Beijing’s interests.

In a 2020 research paper on UFWD, ASPI said, “There’s no clear distinction between domestic and overseas united front work: all bureaus of the UFWD and all areas of united front work involve overseas activities. This is because the key distinction underlying the United Front is not between domestic and overseas groups, but between the CCP and everyone else. For example, the UFWD’s Xinjiang Bureau plays a central role in policy on Xinjiang but is also involved in worldwide efforts to whitewash the CCP’s internment of an estimated 1.5 million people in Xinjiang, primarily ethnic Uyghur Muslims, as an anti-terrorism and vocational training effort.”


The UFWD follows the directions given by an important CCP body known as the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). The latter is led by a member of the CCP’s Politburo Standing Committee.

According to the latest information available, UFWD has a presence across all provinces in China, in all its embassies abroad, in foreign universities and in various international trade organizations as well as in civil society also. According to the ASPI report, “Internally, the department has 10 leaders, at least six of whom hold ministerial rank or higher. It has 12 bureaus, half of which were created after 2015. Bureaucratic changes in 2018 that brought overseas Chinese affairs under the UFWD’s ‘unified management’ also injected dozens if not hundreds of officials with substantial overseas experience into the department. Jinan University, Huaqiao University and the Central Institute of Socialism in Beijing are all subordinate to the UFWD and carry out research and training to support its efforts. Additionally, the UFWD runs dedicated training facilities, such as the Jixian Mountain Estate, which is a complex in the outskirts of Beijing used for training China Overseas Friendship Association cadres.”

Organizations such as the China Overseas Friendship Association, are part of the ‘united front system’. At least two such organizations held special consultative status as non-governmental organizations in the UN Economic and Social Council. According to an ASPI report, “In 2014, an official from one of them, the China Association for Preservation and Development of Tibetan Culture, was barred from a UN human rights hearing after he intimidated a woman testifying about her father, political prisoner Wang Bingzhang.”

The 12 bureaus of UFWD

UFWD’s 12 bureaus deal with separate tasks. Here is how the work has been distributed to them:

First Bureau: Minor Parties Work Bureau (Oversees China’s eight democratic parties)
Second Bureau: Deals with Ethnic Affairs
Third Bureau: Deals with Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan
Fourth Bureau: Deals with business persons and private companies
Fifth Bureau: Non-Affiliated and Minor Party Intellectuals related work
Sixth Bureau: Targets urban professionals such as employees of foreign companies
Seventh Bureau: Handles Tibet related issues
Eighth Bureau: Handles issues related to Xinjiang province
Ninth Bureau: Overseas Chinese affairs (regional responsibilities)
Tenth Bureau: Overseas Chinese Affairs (Media, Cultural and educational activities)
Eleventh Bureau and Twelfth Bureau: Issues related to religion

Xi Jinping and UFWD

Though UFWD has always been used by the CCP as a key element of its spy network, Xi Jinping pushed it to a new high after he took over as Chinese President in 2012. In 2015, Xi declared in an important central united front work meeting, “The United Front … is an important magic weapon for strengthening the party’s ruling position … and an important magic weapon for realizing the China Dream of the Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation.”

More than 40,000 new personnel were recruited for different wings of UFWD within a few years of Xi taking over the reins of CCP. Xi’s specific focus on UFWD shouldn’t surprise those who know his background. Xi Jinping’s father Xi Zhongxun was known for carrying out UFWD missions in Tibet. One of his key assignments was to influence the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama. As a Politburo member he supervised the UFWD work in the 1980s. Xi rose in the party by climbing through CCP ranks in Fujian province which is known to be a hotbed of united front activities targeting Taiwan. In 1995, he wrote a paper on united front work in the Chinese diaspora. He advocated several new ideas in this paper regarding UFWD which he started implementing in 2012 and expedited it further after the 2015 conference of united front work.

The result is evident. Countries like Australia, US, Canada have exposed how Chinese have been using their spying arms like UFWD to create a deep Chinese state in their countries especially in their political and policy making sphere.

What Jamie Watt, a contributing Columnist to The Toronto Star, wrote in his column on 23 February 2023, would aptly explain the lethalness of Chinese ‘magic weapons’ such as UFWD. Commenting on how incriminating evidence has come out regarding Chinese interference in Canadian elections benefitting Justin Trudeau’s party, Watt wrote: “Just this past week, the Globe and Mail reported news from CSIS that Canadian politicians, government officials, business executives and Chinese Canadians all have been prime targets of Chinese government espionage. This espionage has deployed blackmail, bribery, and sexual seduction. The range and nature of the tactics used are usually reserved for spy novels, but national security experts now deem China’s espionage infrastructure to go far deeper than even the Soviet’s efforts at the height of the Cold War.”

Watt sounds an alarm bell about Canada which explains how Chinese espionage works through organs like UFWD, “It is time that we understand our politicians have proven incapable of addressing Chinese state influence. Chinese aren’t just at our gates, they own them. And they’re standing idly by flipping us the bird.”

A US State Department report on China’s Coercive Activities Abroad specifically highlights the role of UFWD as it says, “The CCP’s United Front Work Department (UFWD) is responsible for coordinating domestic and foreign influence operations, through propaganda and manipulation of susceptible audiences and individuals. The CCP’s United Front permeates every aspect of its extensive engagements with the international community. It targets the highest levels of Western democracies; creates a permanent class of China lobbyists whose primary job is to sell access to high level Chinese leaders to corporate America. The United Front has also penetrated deeply into state, local and municipal governments through a myriad of front organizations such as the CCP’s sister-cities programs, trade commissions, and friendship associations.”

This report also reiterates that China considers UFWD to be its ‘magic weapon’ used by China to dominate the world and manipulate the global narrative.

Chinese Military intelligence: How a mammoth war machine plays spy games across the globe.

India remains one of the primary targets of the Chinese espionage network. And Chinese military has a significant role to play in this game of cloak and dagger.

One of the key elements of the Chinese espionage network is the military intelligence that it has been able to keep under wraps. What we are witnessing is a new avatar of Chinese Military intelligence under President Xi Jinping who as a head of the Central Military Commission directly controls the Chinese military.

He started restructuring the Chinese military in 2015-16 and that also included revamping of the Chinese military intelligence network. Peter Mattis explained the importance and implications of this exercise of Chinese espionage network in China reorients strategic military intelligence (Janes, 2017), “On 26 November 2015, Chinese president Xi Jinping announced the first significant revision of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) since its reorganization during the 1950s, when the PLA transformed from an army fighting a civil war to one capable of protecting a nation-state. The reforms removed the Soviet-inspired system of general departments, established a new division of labour, and realigned the PLA organizationally to better fulfil the Military Strategic Guidelines that state the goal of winning informationized local wars.”

“Many elements of the PLA’s modernization effort in the past 25 years have had strictly military implications, but this round of reforms reaches far beyond the Chinese military to reshape how the leadership receives information. To reinforce the Central Military Commission’s (CMC’s) control over operational forces and provide better battlefield intelligence support, the PLA created the Strategic Support Force (PLASSF). The new force consolidated much of the PLA’s technical collection capabilities to direct them towards supporting military operations.”

Chinese Military Intelligence Arm: Joint Staff Department

The Chinese military intelligence arm has been innocuously named as Joint Staff Department (JSD). Earlier it was known as 2PLA or second department of the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) General Staff Department. The JSD came into existence around seven years ago.

According to Clive Hamilton and Mareike Ohlberg (Hidden Hand: Exposing How the Chinese Communist Party is Reshaping the World), “The Intelligence Bureau of the CMC Joint Staff Department is not only responsible for military intelligence but also has a history of extensive activity in civilian domains. It draws on military attachés and signals intelligence to gather intelligence. The Joint Staff Department has its own think tanks — the China Institute for International Strategic Studies, which focuses on research, and the China Foundation for International and Strategic Studies, which engages in academic and policy exchanges. Its Institute of International Relations (now part of the National University of Defense Technology) trains military attachés and secret agents.”

Structure of Chinese Military Intelligence Apparatus

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) controls the PLA through its Central Military Commission. President Xi Jinping has been the chairman of the CMC ever since he came to power in 2012.

According to a US Congressional Research Report published in June 2021, China’s current military modernization push began in 1978 and accelerated in the 1990s. Xi Jinping, the General Secretary and “core leader” of the CCP, Chairman of the CCP’s Central Military Commission, and State President, has continued to make military modernization a priority and has linked military modernization to his signature issue: the “China Dream” of a modern, strong, and prosperous country.

‘In 2017, Xi formalized three broad goals for the PLA: (1) to achieve mechanization of the armed forces and to make significant progress toward what the United States would call a “networked” force by 2020; (2) to “basically complete” China’s military modernization process by 2035; and (3) to have a “world-class” military by 2049, the centenary of the establishment of the PRC. Xi has initiated the most ambitious reform and reorganization of the PLA since the 1950s, to transform the military into a capable joint force as well as to further consolidate control of the PLA in the hands of Xi and the CCP.’

Institute for Critical Infrastructure Technology (ICIT), a Washington-based think tank has worked extensively on detailing the structure of Chinese military intelligence through their senior fellow James Drew and Researcher Scott Spaniel. According to Scott and Spaniel, “The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Joint Staff Department (JSD) replaced the General Staff Department on January 11, 2016, as part of Xi Jinping’s military reforms. It manages most military and covert operations. The JSD, as a division of the PLA, is dedicated to warfare. The duties of the PLA JSD include PLA Operations Command, Recruitment, Mobilization, Formation, Training, and Administration.”

Second and Third Department

The JSD has three departments which work in coordination to conduct various intelligence operations. These departments deal respectively with electronic intelligence, human intelligence, and signal intelligence. The section within the PLA’s Joint Staff Department that deals with conventional human intelligence (HUMINT) is known as ‘Second Department’.

James Scott and Drew Spaniel estimated in their 2016 book, China’s Espionage Dynasty, that this department had around 30,000–50,000 agents around the world. Their primary task is to collect useful, relevant, and confidential information and send it back to China.

‘A common misconception is that agents of the Chinese government are “sloppy”; however, agents of the second department who serve as high level spies or handlers are rarely caught. Rather, low-level assets, often belonging to the overt structure, are more often detected by foreign intelligence agencies.’

The Third Department which is entrusted with the task of signals intelligence (SIGNIT). According to Drew and Spaniel, “The Third Department is the largest intelligence agency in the Chinese government, consisting of an estimated 250,000- 300,000 linguists, technical staff, and cyber soldiers. There are at least four known Research Institutes (56, 57, 58, and 61) under the Third Department. Within the 61 Research Institute are approximately 20 bureaus that launch cyberattacks. The Third Department intercepts phone calls, launches cyberattacks, and monitors communications. Much of its efforts involve hacking devices and exfiltrating targeted data. The Third Department may launch obvious cyberattacks, such as DDoS or ransomware attacks, against target systems to mask the activity of Second Department operatives.”

Fourth Department

The Fourth Department is responsible for electronic intelligence (ELINT) operations. Its prime focus is on intercepting satellite and radar data. The operatives of Fourth Department are experts in altering, jamming, or spoofing of signals.

“It is believed that the Fourth Department research direct methods of disabling enemy communication networks. State-Sponsored APTs (i.e., Chinese state sponsored advanced persistent threats) can be identified based on their choice of targets, their proclivity for cyberespionage, and the language settings on the keyboards used to develop the malware, and their connections to other campaigns. Some groups, such as APT 1 (Unit 61398), APT 2 (Unit 61486) and APT 30 (Unit 78020) can be linked to specific units within the Third Department. Other APTs remain less defined.”

PLA Unit 61398

In May 2014, five officers of the PLA who belonged to its unit ‘61398’ commonly known for cyber espionage and cyberattacks were indicted by a US court. Several cyber security firms have reported about the clandestine operations of this unit which is one of the key parts of the Chinese Military Intelligence apparatus. This unit primarily targets countries with flourishing democracies as they are a perfect antidote to the Chinese authoritarian system. Hence along with several other countries, India has also been one of their targets. Several cyberattacks on the Indian establishment are believed to have been carried out by this unit. It is reportedly headquartered in Datong Avenue of Pudong district in Shanghai. There has been a consistent spurt in its activities.


The Chinese military intelligence is committed to pursue the so-called vision of Xi Jinping and peddle a pro-China global narrative. China Institute of International Studies (CIIS), a front form the Chinese military intelligence network, carried a detailed comment on India. Authored by Lan Jianxue, Director of the Department for Asia-Pacific Studies at CIIS, this is what Chinese military intelligence conveyed, “Noticeably, the connotation of the so-called Asian Century, as understood by the United States, is not quite the same as that understood by the Chinese. The expression “Asian Century” was coined by former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in 1988. Deng pointed out that no genuine Asian Century can come until China, India and other neighboring countries are developed.

It is clear the United States remains one of the primary targets of the Chinese espionage network. And the Chinese military has a significant role to play in this game of cloak and dagger.

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