The Paranoia behind China’s Spy War
The following is an excerpt from Nathan Levine's op-ed in UnHerd. Nathan is the Assistant Director of the Center for China Analysis (CCA) at the Asia Society Policy Institute (ASPI).
The revelation that a parliamentary researcher was arrested in March on suspicion of being a Chinese spy has sent Westminster "reeling" and left the British political establishment in "shock." Or that, at least, is the impression offered by London’s news media, which has covered the scandal with barely contained excitement.
That China’s agents would dare to infiltrate the heart of the British government has been widely portrayed as an unprecedented development. "This is a major escalation by China," one anonymous senior Whitehall source told The Times, which broke the news, adding that: "We have never seen anything like this before." It is hard to know whether such sentiments are genuine or exaggerated for effect. Either way, they seem rather overwrought.
China has been engaged in extensive espionage operations in Britain, and around the world, for decades. As a 2021 report by the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) stated accurately: "China almost certainly maintains the largest state intelligence apparatus in the world." Moreover, as the report also noted, China employs a "whole-of-state" approach to espionage, co-opting a range of state and non-state actors, as well as ordinary citizens at home and abroad, to help carry out this work. Chinese students studying abroad, for example, may sometimes be pressured by the government into reporting information back to Beijing — though far more often about the activities of their fellow ethnic Chinese students than state secrets.
It is true that, in recent years, a rising China has escalated its overseas intelligence operations. Since he came to power in 2012, Xi Jinping has made what he calls "comprehensive national security" the central priority for China’s party-state. He has handed China’s premier foreign intelligence service, the Ministry of State Security (MSS), along with its military equivalents in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), greater authority and more resources both old and new (such as cyber) to more assertively collect intelligence, protect Chinese interests and project Chinese influence worldwide. The result has been the uncovering of a litany of hacks, thefts and scandals. Of these, the Chinese spy balloon that traversed the United States in February may have been the most high-profile, but was among the least successful and consequential (as compared with, say, MSS’s massive 2015 breach of U.S. government security clearance records).
But this is simply what nation-states, and especially the world's major powers, do. Though perhaps distasteful, it should hardly be a shock. In fact, Britain should be particularly familiar with the business, given its history as an epicenter of the Cold War spy game. Those who walk the corridors of power in Westminster and think the present situation is unprecedented had best read up on the Cambridge Five.