Little Red Podcast

Stranger than Spy Fiction4 min read

China’s Espionage Industrial Complex – Louisa Lim

In another existence, Adam Brookes was recruited as a Chinese spy. The initial approach happened on a Sunday afternoon, as he was desultorily checking the newswires for stories at the BBC Beijing bureau where he worked as a correspondent. Knocking at the door was an elderly Chinese man bearing a briefcase. Inside it were classified neibu, or internal documents, which he pressed upon Brookes. “I was a little leery of this,” Brookes said, “So I took a look at them, and handed them back.”

As the days passed, the British journalist was pursued by his new contact, who was constantly upping the stakes with ever more prized material. “By the end of it he was also offering me these crazy military secrets,” Brookes says. “He was offering me missile secrets and satellite secrets, and re-entry technology, and all this stuff associated with the Chinese missile program. By this stage, I was starting to freak out a little bit. I told him to leave me alone and never contact me again. Of course, it was probably some sort of provocation.”

That was the origin story for Brookes’ literary alter ego, Philip Mangan, a washed-up middle-aged journalist whose adventures freelancing for the British spy agency, MI6, form the acclaimed three-part spy trilogy of Night Heron, Spy Games and The Spy’s Daughter. But Brookes warns that the world of Chinese espionage has changed radically since those days. “Once upon a time it was a very small world in a very sort of discrete bubble,” he says. “That world has expanded massively in recent years. Espionage has gone mainstream. And the distinctions between contemporary espionage influence operations and ordinary civic life have blurred.”

“Be subtle! Use your spies for every kind of business”: this 2500 year-old stratagem from Sun Zi’s Art of War still serves to inform Beijing’s modern day approach towards intelligence activities. Today China’s espionage industrial complex appears to be taking spying mainstream by blurring the boundaries between spying, interference and influence projection. Indeed, the spectrum of tactics utilised by Beijing ranges from moles and sleeper agents, through to the unorthodox use of social networking tools, such as Linked In, as a recruitment tool. Beijing is known to have hacked plans for the F35 joint strike fighter, and the P8 Poseidon electronic surveillance aircraft, as well as actively pursuing commercial secrets overseas in fields such as supercomputing, nanotechnology and even hybrid grains. The sprawling arms of China’s espionage industrial complex appear to be reaching wider and deeper than ever before, aided by cyberwarfare, artificial intelligence and our reliance on electronic devices that can easily be flipped into tools of surveillance.

“The head of [Australia’s national security agency] ASIO Duncan Lewis, has said there are now more spies active in Australia than there were during the Cold War,” says Chris Uhlmann, a respected political journalist now serving as Channel 9’s Political Editor. Imagining China’s intelligence operations inside Australia was the inspiration for his spy thrillers, The Mandarin Code and the Marmalade Files, penned with Steve Lewis.

The recent television adaptation of these two novels, Secret City, which is currently airing on Netflix, depicts Australia’s traditionally sleepy suburban capital, Canberra, as a slick, teeming hotbed of intelligence activity with Chinese sleeper agents lurking round every corner. Though the books – like Brookes – are fictional, they are inspired, Uhlmann says, by developments on the ground, “Recently I was told that our agencies had tracked 120 groups, not individuals, but groups of foreign intelligence service officials crossing our borders in the last 12 months and most of them came from China. Now I haven’t been able to confirm whether that’s true or not. But the scale of it – if you believe all the public statements – would appear to be vast.”

In June, Australia hurriedly passed new legislation aimed at curbing foreign interference and spying. But the covert – and diffuse – nature of China’s operations makes them hard to target, with the line between espionage and influence projection. As Brookes puts it, “They may be points on a continuum. At some point espionage begins to bleed into covert operations bleeds into interference bleeds into sharp power bleeds into influence operations.”

Canberra’s retaliatory methods include bugging coffee shops frequented by foreign diplomats with listening devices, Uhlmann discloses. But these old-school methods – and even the recent legislation targeting foreign agents – may not be enough to deal with the multiplicity of threats. “It is not old fashioned espionage,” he says. “It’s not soft power. People have called it sharp power.” And Uhlmann fears that in the battle for influence, Beijing may already have the upper hand, “My big concern about what’s happening in this country is that essentially already our business class and our academic class have been recruited by money to parrot the lines of Beijing.”

As for the future of spy fiction, Brookes says that events on the ground – particularly in the US – are outpacing fiction, discombobulating even those whose mission is imagining the unimaginable. As Brookes puts it,When so much is happening that seems utterly incredible, I’m not quite sure how I could build plausible narrative.” ∎


This essay is a companion piece to a recent episode of the Little Red Podcast, hosted by Graeme Smith amd Louisa Lim.