Alex Joske on China's Influence Operations Abroad
Most national security analysts in the United States will tell you that China presents a unique challenge to the U.S.-based order. What U.S. officials refer to as the “scope and scale” of the threat from Beijing outstrips that posed by other Western adversaries, even Russia, these officials say.
Yet the structure of China's intelligence apparatus remains relatively opaque. During the Cold War, the U.S. and its allies developed a granular understanding of the KGB, the Soviet Union’s main civilian intelligence agency, and the GRU, its military counterpart. It’s not that the CIA or the wider U.S. intelligence community had perfect insight into its main rival — far from it. But U.S. officials did have a clear sense of how the KGB functioned.
Not so with China, which remained cut off from the outside world for decades, and whose security services evolved in an isolated ideological hothouse. As China shed its isolationism and emerged as a world power, its intelligence operatives also fanned out across the globe.
But Western intelligence analysts were still looking through a glass, darkly, when it came to Beijing’s espionage abroad. That’s a gap that Alex Joske’s important new book, Spies and Lies: How China's Greatest Covert Operations Fooled the World, tries to fill. Joske, a former analyst with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, traces the evolution of the Ministry of State Security (MSS), China’s premier civilian intelligence agency, focusing on the MSS’s ubiquitous — and largely unknown— role in directing and executing Beijing’s influence operations abroad.
Joske’s work challenges the consensus that these influence schemes are largely run through other arms of the Chinese government. He shows the hidden hand of the MSS in such operations for decades.
I recently spoke with Joske. Here's a transcript of our conversation, condensed and edited for clarity.
Alex Joske: I lived in China for six years as a kid and a teenager and picked up Chinese through that and studied at university. And then when I was a university student I started working as a reporter with the student newspaper and ended up writing about the Chinese Students and Scholars Association at my university and how it was linked to the Chinese Embassy and the Chinese government, and how it was trying to censor discussions and organize rallies for Chinese leaders. That was sort of my starting point. From there I just got more interested in the topic and have been working on it ever since.
But my real interest has always been influence operations in this space specifically – so, trying to understand how China exerts political influence around the world. And the area I initially focused on was United Front (UF) and really the activities of the United Front Work Department (UFWD) specifically, which are fascinating on their own. Then I started to feel like there was something missing that we hadn't really accounted for.
The role of professional intelligence agencies in influence work, and your reporting on Christine Fang for example, is a great example of how important the MSS is in the space of influence operations. So it was a kind of natural transition from looking at United Front work to looking at MSS influence work.
Zach Dorfman: To step back for a second, I think that one of the difficulties in talking about Chinese intelligence or influence operations is understanding the Stalinist origins of the system and what UF work is. Can you just explain what the UF is, what that system is, and why it matters?
AJ: The Chinese Communist Party was initially set up by the Soviet Union's COMINTERN and operated closely under its direction initially. And around a year after its establishment, the Chinese Communist Party was directed to basically implement a United Front policy. And at the time what this was about was sort of building alliances between the Chinese Communist Party and other so-called pro-democracy groups, political organizations within China. So the concept that they borrowed from the Soviet Union and Lenin specifically was this idea that even though you are the vanguard party, you have to basically build alliances of convenience with other sympathetic and broadly aligned political organizations so that you can eventually seize power and dominate them.
The Chinese Communist Party really took this idea of the United Front, and United Front work, and made it its own. It has developed its own traditions and it really credits United Front work as an important part of its victory against the Kuomintang in the Chinese Civil War, where it managed to flip enemy generals, encouraged defections, manipulated politics, inside the KMT to stifle its effort to suppress and push back against forces from the Chinese Communist Party. This tradition continues to this very day, where you have the United Front Work Department, which is really responsible for a lot of these efforts to manage and build the party's relationship with people outside of the Chinese Communist Party.
It's a difficult concept to understand because there's no clear parallel in Western governments. It's closely related to intelligence work, but it's not quite intelligence work. But that also doesn't mean it's not a problem. As I try to show, it’s well integrated with intelligence operations and it really has been from pretty much the beginning.
ZD: Can you give a couple examples of these United Front organizations? One that I can think of in San Francisco and the Bay Area, which has a whole variety of them is — and this isn't obviously just San Francisco, this is worldwide — are “peaceful reunification” organizations.
What's fascinating to me about United Front work, and is almost shocking, is that I even hesitate to say that it's hiding in plain sight because it's not even hiding. It's just in plain sight. They're just like, no, that's what we are: We are a Chinese government-linked organization that is devoted to, in their terms, obviously fostering better relations between China and Taiwan with the idea of an eventual Anschluss. But it's one of those things that I think people don't understand and would be shocked that it's just been allowed to fester for as long as it has.
AJ: I think you're right that overseas, it's peaceful reunification councils that are some of the most easily identifiable and important United Front organizations. Their stated goal is to essentially ease the path for a PRC takeover of Taiwan. And a lot of them work very closely with the United Front Work Department. You'll see them traveling to Beijing for conferences hosted by the United Front Work Department, where they're educated on relevant policies and build connections with actual Chinese Communist party officials. And then back in their home countries, they'll often engage in a lot of political mobilization and activism. They’ll be building up community networks trying to position themselves as genuine community organizations that represent Chinese people. And they've done that quite successfully in the past, in Australia for example.
But I think they’re really interesting organizations, in a way, because they are often at that interface between overt and covert work in the sense that you'll have an organization that, at face value, even if it has weird alignment with Chinese Communist party goals, looks like a genuine community organization.
Then below the surface, you'll find actual tasking from Chinese Communist Party officials. You'll find involvement in some cases with organized crime networks. You'll find involvement in corruption and also actual covert operations intelligence work. These organizations can often give a legal sort veneer and appearance of normalcy to something that actually involves some more covert activity.
ZD: Can you describe the prior – I think, in your argument, mistaken — consensus around the work of the Ministry of State Security, which is China's premier civilian intelligence agency, and these UF entities? This is a striking part of your book, and I think an unusual and somewhat revolutionary view of their relationship and individual functions.
AJ: A lot of people don't really get the distinction in the sense that so much of what looked like CCP-backed political influence efforts could be publicly linked to people who were connected to the United Front Work Department.
And that, I think, has led to a lot of this [political influence work] being actually attributed to the United Front Work Department in a kind of command-and-control structure, essentially. But the argument I make is that what's actually happening is you have these United Front networks that are involved in a whole range of activities, and then you have professional intelligence agencies coming in behind the scenes and actually directing some of these political influence operations and other covert activities.
In a sense, I argue that we've been mistaking that kind of the cover for the actual puppet master in these activities. And I think [the MSS's hidden role] implies a whole new degree of sophistication, professionalism to these activities where it's not just some weird entity called the United Front Work Department that builds relationships with people. It's actually a professional intelligence agency like the MSS that runs espionage operations, has one of the largest cyber activities in the world. Right now it's probably the world's largest foreign intelligence agency around the world.
ZD: Can you talk a little bit about the particular bureau within the MSS that handles these operations? It's fascinating, but I think opaque. Can you talk about the MSS’s 12th Bureau, and how it came to evolve and how it functions within the MSS and the larger kind of influence apparatus in China?
AJ: The structure of the Chinese intel community is still pretty mysterious in some ways. The way it coordinates, the way different parts integrate, I think people actually working professionally on this inside intelligence agencies probably still have a lot of questions about these fundamental aspects of China's intelligence community.
But I've focused my research on what's known as the 12th Bureau, or internally as the Social Investigation Bureau or the Social Liaison Bureau of the Ministry of State Security. And this is the part of the ministry that seemed to really excel at integrating with United Front work, at exploiting existing United Front networks for covert and clandestine work. It's still very mysterious to me.
I'm not sure exactly when it was set up, but probably sometime in the eighties. But from the beginning it's had a clear focus on some quite creative forms of cover, and a kind of elite way of operating. You seem to get some of the best and most professional and most politically backed MSS officers turning up in the 12th Bureau, running some of the ministry’s more sensitive operations.
That's why they've kind of excelled at political influence specifically: Because they've been able to plug into both the Chinese political system and foreign political systems through academic cover, cultural cover, business cover, media cover, and really place this bureau as an interface between a lot of China's engagement with the outside world.
ZD: In the book, you give a fascinating, almost nested argument about the MSS’s organizational history and why it was involved in influence operations the way it was. Some of this traces back to the fact that the MSS, in your retelling, was basically kicked out of embassy work, official cover work by Chinese leadership decades ago. We don't often get that kind of institutional history of an intelligence agency.
The MSS is a relatively young intelligence agency. Can you talk a little bit about that, and why its very distinct evolution has led it to doing the kinds of influence operations it does today, and in the way that it does them?
AJ: For such an old communist party, the MSS is a pretty new addition to its bureaucratic lineup. It was established in 1983. Part of what made it unique in Chinese intelligence history is the way that it integrated foreign intelligence and domestic counterintelligence work. It combined police powers, law enforcement work, with foreign intelligence and subsumed some of its predecessors that were involved in those activities.
Even though it was kind of set up with a pretty broad remit — certainly broader than its predecessors — it was actually established under a kind of political cloud. The MSS never really seemed to have the same kind of backing from Deng Xiaoping that military intelligence had. For a long time, that led people to, I think, dismiss the MSS and pay a lot more interest, put a lot more stake in, military intelligence operations, which seemed more sophisticated.
The MSS, on these political grounds, was largely denied access to diplomatic cover. So it had to basically rely on working within China, and finding less official forms of sending operatives overseas.
But I've argued that for the kinds of operations that the 12th Bureau has really excelled at — long-term cover and political influence work — they don't actually need diplomatic cover. They've actually specialized, in a way, in chaperoning people around China. So operating within China, but with an eye to building China's influence externally.
Another thing that actually didn't make it into the book, because I found out after I submitted the manuscript, was that Chou En-lai, the former premier of China who really set up and presided over China's intelligence apparatus until his death in 1976, he actually credited his two intelligence agencies, the Ministry of Public Security and the Central Investigation Department, both predecessors to the MSS, with two great feats. And those feats were winning him an emperor and winning him a president.
The emperor that he's talking about is Puyi, the last emperor of China, who was reformed by the Ministry of Public Security’s sort of reeducation efforts. And then the president was a former president of Taiwan who defected to China in the 1960s. So I think it's really striking example, because the two great achievements he's attributing to his intelligence agencies are not what we'd normally think of as intelligence operations or espionage — they’re essentially influence operations.
ZD: Those are great examples of the deeply rooted nature of influence operations and MSS work. One that I think is pretty surprising — less surprising now I suppose, because there's been a bit of a real shift in the China conversation in a lot of American political discourse — but nonetheless, the idea that the discussion around “peaceful rise” — the idea that China would emerge as a world power without seeking to overturn the current global order, and would indeed strengthen it — was, itself, an influence operation led by the MSS, or designed by people that were closely aligned with the MSS.
Can you talk a little bit about that? That was such an accepted predicate of US-China relations for almost two decades. It's almost uncanny to see you write about, argue for, and substantiate, the idea that this kind of fundamental, this cornerstone, of US-China relations was predicated on an influence operation.
AJ: I think peaceful rise, some people doubted it, some people accepted it to different degrees. Regardless, it became a concept that framed discussions around China and helped give a brand to a lot of the different ideas and hopes people had for China's rise.
I found that it had its origins in the MSS 12th Bureau. This wasn't some theory that came out of China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It came out of a front organization that was established and staffed by undercover offices of the MSS 12th Bureau who specialized in U.S. operations. And, specifically, in political influence operations.
Part of why I really focused on the peaceful rise story and the MSS’s role in it is I feel like there's been a tendency to underappreciate the strategic significance of intelligence operations, to kind of see them as things that can push the direction of a battle but aren't really shaping the world's direction.
A lot of other people who study intelligence have the same frustration with how these things are viewed. But here you have something where these agencies aren't just trying to steal a piece of information, actually trying to really fundamentally shape and manipulate how people understand China, the actual basis for policy-making on China. I think it was incredibly effective, and it also had this effect of positioning the MSS officers who were involved publicly undercover in the theory of China's peaceful rise as kind of reformists and liberals within the Chinese Communist Party. So it gave them a lot more currency and access to foreign capitals, to foreign scholars. They weren't just putting out this theory of China's peaceful rise, they were going to embassies, the U.S. Embassy, and talking about it, saying the same to the Australian Embassy. They were bringing over scholars from the United States educating them on this idea, giving them access to officials and reformists inside China. And they were really successfully at building up this world that actually backed up the theory of China's peaceful rise.
ZD: Is there any other example from your book that you'd like to share about a U.S. operation, an influence operation, that was being ultimately overseen and driven by the MSS, but appeared to either be run out of the UF, or where even the UF connections weren't present? Was there anything, in particular, that was eyebrow-raising for you in any specific cases?
AJ: It really surprised me, realizing that there was more than just Katrina Leung. Leung, who I think with the understanding we have now, we would look at as a United Front figure, became an asset of the FBI while actually I think ultimately reporting to the 12th Bureau of the MSS. But it turns out that the 12th Bureau was also reaching out to dozens of people in that sort of community, in those United Front circles in America, and that many of those same people were also FBI assets. So it's kind of remarkable that the MSS, which I think genuinely didn't have particularly advanced tradecraft, in fact quite rudimentary tradecraft at that point, managed to basically run successful double agent operations against the FBI across California.
People have dismissed Chinese intelligence agencies because they weren't using really sophisticated tradecraft. But if you look at what they actually managed to achieve — sure it might have made it harder for them to, for example, penetrate the CIA. But building up those sorts of community networks, building political influence, acquiring technology, building United Front networks, running double agents, recruiting billionaire proxies — none of that was actually impeded by this lack of sophisticated tradecraft. To some extent [China's intelligence successes] might have even been aided by [their often-rudimentary methods], because it encouraged this kind of dismissive attitude towards the MSS. It encouraged people not to prioritize the MSS and look more closely at what was actually going on. And now, in response to heightened competition with the U.S., the MSS actually does have pretty good tradecraft. Combining that with all the successes they've had without good tradecraft is a pretty scary picture.
ZD: If there's one takeaway from your book that you would want a reader to understand, what would it be?
AJ: I have three.
One is just that I think open-source research has really been neglected, and hasn't been used to its full potential. The book pretty much entirely relies on open-source research to identify some of these MSS officers, front organizations, and operations. And I just don't think it's been fully appreciated by governments.
The second: Governments really need to prioritize countering political interference from the MSS inside the intelligence community, making it a collection priority, not just in the United States but also in third countries.
That gets to my third key point, which is that even though the MSS has had a lot of success in Australia and the United States, it's going have a hard time shifting U.S. policy towards China. The political climate is really changing, and it's the same in Australia.
At the same time, we shouldn't be sort of patting ourselves on the back because we might largely have things under control in our countries. But there are strategically important regions and nations in the Pacific, in Southeast Asia, where China has a pretty broad license and pretty broad foundation and history of running covert influence operations. To achieve our strategic interests in those places we have to counter those activities. And I don't think that's well understood now. We barely understand the history and the practices of these operations in our own countries. That's only happened in the past couple of years, I think. And we also have to apply that understanding to third countries that really matter to our foreign policy and our strategic interests.
Get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org or securely at email@example.com.