China-US relations: Xi and his inner circle foil American spy efforts, say intelligence insiders
- US officials caught off guard by Beijing’s rapid moves, including to consolidate power in Hong Kong, limit probes into Covid-19 origins and ramp up hacking
- CIA officers in China are challenged by a growing surveillance state where cities are populated by tracking cameras and facial recognition software
The current and former officials emphasise that America’s spy agencies have long struggled to provide the insights policymakers demand on China. The hurdles facing the US intelligence community are both deep-seated – Beijing did significant damage to American spy networks in China before Xi’s presidency – and basic, including a continuing shortage of Mandarin speakers.
“Our human intelligence has been lagging for decades,” former national security adviser John Bolton said in an interview, when asked about China. “I never feel I have enough intelligence. I’m always willing to hear more. I’m never satisfied. No decision maker should be.”
Some of the people interviewed by Bloomberg said that such announcements were more symbolic than substantive and needed to be backed up by greater spending and staffing to have credibility.
CIA officials declined to comment.
Criticism of the intelligence community’s insights on China weigh most heavily on the CIA, which has primary responsibility for recruiting spies and saw its network severely damaged more than a decade ago by Beijing’s counter-intelligence efforts.
The creation of the CIA mission centre was denounced as a “typical symptom of the cold war mentality” by Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian. The US “should view China’s development and China-US relations in an objective and rational light and stop doing things detrimental to mutual trust and cooperation”, he added.
CIA looks beyond hardware
Xi’s sweeping efforts to change China’s domestic politics and consolidate his control also have taken a toll on American intelligence. The shift from a system of “collective” leadership under former presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao towards one dominated by Xi means the CIA has had to go from focusing on the inner circles of seven or even nine top leaders to, effectively, just one.
Even before Xi, China’s political system was highly secretive and organised using a “stove-piped” system where information flows up to top leaders but rarely is disseminated widely inside the system. Chinese academia, the media and civil society organisations are all closely controlled by the government, further compounding the challenge of reporting on the country.
Consumers of intelligence often failed to recognise the severity of these challenges, former US officials explained, and might have unrealistic expectations for what conclusions could be drawn from any raw intelligence collected in the field.
Why China’s a ‘hard target’
Despite China’s history as a “hard target” for the CIA to penetrate, the agency exists precisely to overcome such challenges, whether it is deciphering the leadership of al-Qaeda or Kim Jong-un’s regime in North Korea.
What’s more, the agency was capable of providing significant insights into the upper reaches of the Chinese political system as recently as a decade ago, one former intelligence official said. Its ability to penetrate the Chinese leadership has ebbed and flowed over time, but the agency’s current ability to do so is more limited, the person said.
Another former official said that if he were sitting in the White House Situation Room today, his priority requests of the intelligence community would centre on projections for China’s build-up of its navy, cyber and artificial intelligence capabilities; Xi’s plans for Taiwan; and better intelligence on Beijing’s strategy for the South China Sea. This person said the Trump White House also lacked good intelligence on China’s strategy towards Vietnam, India and North Korea.
The frustrations of administration officials echo public assessments from Congress.
A partially redacted House Intelligence Committee report from September 2020 concluded that US spy agencies were failing to meet the multifaceted challenges posed by China and were too focused on traditional targets such as terrorism or conventional military threats.
“Absent a significant realignment of resources, the US government and intelligence community will fail to achieve the outcomes required to enable continued US competition with China on the global stage for decades to come, and to protect the US health and security,” according to the report.
The report also cited America’s foreign policy focus on the Middle East and the “war on terror” as reasons the intelligence community came to treat “traditional intelligence missions as secondary to counterterrorism”.
Conflict over Taiwan
A leading concern now is the question of whether Xi would invade Taiwan, or possibly seek to take smaller islands controlled by Taiwan, a move that would be seen as a significant test of Western resolve.
“Xi has sent contradictory signals on Taiwan,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia programme at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “It is difficult to disaggregate which signals Xi intends for the party elite, the general domestic audience, Taiwan audiences or the United States.”
For now, the intelligence community’s analysis relies more on inductive reasoning about whether an invasion would align with Xi’s stated objectives than on raw intelligence on the Chinese leader’s views, according to the people.
Former officials explained that recovering from China’s dismantling of the CIA’s network in China involves a multi-year process that includes the recruitment and onboarding of new assets, followed by systematically increasing the asset’s access to sensitive information. That is probably still under way, the people said.
In an interview with National Public Radio in July, Burns said the agency was looking into how to deal with “ubiquitous technical surveillance” and other “very advanced capabilities on the part of the Chinese intelligence service”.
Problem-solving outside China
Burns also has hinted at one potential fix for the agency’s problems.
The CIA chief told NPR that the agency was considering whether to deploy China specialists in locations outside China, following the approach used to counter Soviet influence in the Cold War. One of the former officials said the effort was being undertaken partly in the hope that overseas destinations prove a more fertile recruitment environment than the closely surveilled streets of Beijing.
But that strategy is more of a long-term fix. In the short term, officials are having to brace for more of the rapid moves that have distinguished Xi’s leadership in recent years, without knowing what they may be.
Bolton, who served under former president Donald Trump, said that meant officials would have to play the hand they were holding now, making the best use of what they had, even if that information had gaps that were widening over time.
“There comes a point when you have to make a decision,” he said. “You’re not going to have complete intel. Live with it.”