The Chinese Communist Party heavily focuses on race in its espionage recruitment. That’s so that when issues arise with prosecuting Chinese spies, the “race card” can be played, triggering sensitivity about discrimination, according to a former senior U.S. Navy intelligence officer.
The CCP uses two primary branches to accomplish racial recruitment of spies: the United Front Department and the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office.
The United Front expands the CCP’s systems of control into Chinese communities, often through fraternal organizations known as “tongs.” The Overseas Chinese Affairs Office then manages these systems overseas as if they were Chinese provinces, and also regards second- and third-generation Chinese immigrants as Chinese citizens—again putting its racial recruitment system into practice.
Taken as a whole, these systems give the CCP power over foreign countries, comparable to what the Soviet Union maintained through its diaspora of support during the Cold War. At the time, the Russians were trying to push the communist revolution, and were able to do this largely because they had college professors, politicians, movie stars, and many others promoting the Soviet-led system.
After the Soviet Union collapsed, however, it lost much of this network of grassroots support, and along with it, the most powerful tool for pushing its interests in foreign countries.
Today, the CCP maintains a network of similar support that arguably outweighs even what the Soviets accomplished. It is using this network to achieve goals that are similar in many ways.
To better understand how the CCP and Russia recruit spies, and the ways these operations play out, we spoke with former senior U.S. Navy intelligence officer John Jordan.
Leveraging Race for Espionage
John Jordan: Well, obviously, the racial dimension is enormous. It’s very difficult to tell if somebody is a Russian or not; you have a lot of Americans of Russian ancestry in this country.
There’s a saying in the spy world that agents or spies are recruited by the rule of MICE: money, ideology, conscience, or ego. Often, with regard to China, there’s always, to some degree, a loyalty to the county of their parents. It’s difficult to vet through that. There’s a significant Chinese population in San Francisco. There’s also a political dimension to this, too. The CCP wish to have influence or have an understanding of the American political system and how policy is made. We had a lady by the name of Rose Pak who died in San Francisco some years ago—it was always alleged she was one of the big kingmakers in politics for a long time.
Joshua Philipp: This was known on the surface, that she was helping politicians get elected.
Mr. Jordan: She was one of the queen bees of San Francisco politics. It was always alleged but never proven that she was an operative of the CCP. So there’s a political dimension to this, too, its gaining political intelligence, understanding how American policy is made to try to read the tea leaves so that the Chinese government can counter effectively. Also, to understand and perhaps to gain influence over American policymakers, if the allegations against Pak were, in fact, valid, I think that may have been one of her taskings.
Subverting an Open Society
Mr. Jordan: China has an advantage over us. A structural advantage is that America is an open society. The politically correct culture is placing American security at risk. We are an open society; we are a multiracial society. It is difficult offensively for American intelligence services; we have to do it differently. We aren’t just able to insert ourselves into foreign companies, [or] agencies of foreign government as easily, because there are laws that constrain the behavior of American intelligence agencies, as well as law enforcement. Everybody knows what the laws are, you don’t have to watch ‘Law and Order’ five times to figure this out.
Moreover, when we are overseas, we have to penetrate with one of their people, and it’s more difficult for us to check and vet and make sure that person isn’t a dangle, or a double agent, or being planted to specifically give us this information. Because we don’t have millions and millions [of overseas citizens], we aren’t a racially distinct country, with a large overseas population.
Mr. Philipp: I’ve been told by some Chinese expats, as well, that the CCP has been taking advantage of the open system of the United States.
Mr. Jordan: As an open society, it’s one of the natures of a democracy. This is not solely of the United States but of western Europe and those of generally democratic leadership, that we tend not to have a propaganda arm. We tend not to have a ministry of information as closed societies do. Because closed societies have to control the narrative, they have to control information. If you really believe that history is on the side of freedom and democracy, and I tend to believe it is—you don’t need those tools. Closed communist societies have failed time and time again. So I think that’s more in the long run, that’s more a measure of a weakness of a society than its strength.
Mr. Philipp: One of the biggest problems I’ve seen when it comes to China… they have topics you cannot talk about if you want to stay in China. So, when it comes to media, journalists won’t talk about sensitive topics. They won’t touch on a lot of these sensitive topics, and they also have to play up the Chinese narrative. We have to be balanced absolutely, even if what you’re being told from the Chinese side is a lie. Same thing with the academic community. If you go to China and you start talking about human rights, democracy, Hong Kong, persecution of Falun Gong, persecution of Tibetans, they’re going to blacklist you. And, suddenly, whatever you studied your whole life is suddenly useless, unless you want to go back to the United States and write books.
The Communist Masquerade
Mr. Jordan: If there’s one unreported story, [it] is that China isn’t [monolithic]. Americans tend to see it as monolithic. They don’t see a lot of the complexities and demographic challenges and economic backwardness of huge parts of China. China isn’t necessarily as stable of a society as perceived in the West. China has some real challenges. Does anybody really believe their economic growth numbers? The Soviet Gosplan, their ministry of economic planning, lied to the bureau at the time. I find it hard to believe that, in China, the same thing isn’t happening. Even their military controls their own industrial empire—enormous wastes of resources and enormous inefficiencies in China, as well.
But China is complex, it has enormous strengths and certain advantages in its competition with the United States. It’s got internal structural weaknesses, as well. Their military is all conscript, they have a hard time doing simple things in their military that we take for granted in ours, such as problems with their aircraft carrier and so forth. A lot of the foundational tech is not there. And free-market economics haven’t fully taken root in China yet, so they’re not able to take full advantage of some of the tech they do have, because of the heavy-handed nature of the state in managing the economy.
Mr. Philipp: This is a problem I’ve been told before, too. When you see the pictures of China, you’re seeing the pictures that they want you to see. The media that they bring to China are all in the nicest parts, they’re not showing you the other parts. It’s the communist system. The people with money are CCP members.
Mr. Jordan: It’s like “Animal Farm”: Some animals are more equal than others.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.