All countries regardless of the extent of warmth in their relationships unfailingly engage in espionage, but communist regimes are especially sensitive to attempts at infiltration. Their domestic intelligence and security apparatus and personnel are, accordingly, specially privileged. Beijing’s leadership has also been especially suspicious of the United States. Old unresolved disputes and territorial claims have ensured that the spy trade remains particularly active in Asia.
As China’s 18th Party Congress got underway in Beijing, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) cleared the decks for the trial of ousted former politburo member and ‘princeling’ Bo Xilai. The decision this August of the 17th CCP central committee plenum, which dismissed Bo Xilai from party membership, hinted at the strength of the forces ranged against him. His trial will probably commence soon after the congress concludes.
The decision simultaneously focuses the spotlight on Bo Xilai’s former aide and police chief, Wang Lijun, whose rash act of seeking asylum in the US Consulate in Chengdu triggered the downfall of his former mentor and set in motion a chain of events that continue to cause turbulence in Chinese politics. Events indicate that Wang Lijun, who had the rank of an assistant minister, acted at the behest of powerful figures in Beijing. This view was strengthened when he was awarded a relatively lenient 15-year jail sentence, despite being accused of espionage and staying in a foreign diplomatic mission for over 30 hours while negotiating his defection to a foreign power, in contrast to the severe punishments meted out to foreign nationals of Chinese descent deemed guilty of far lesser violations such as possessing old ‘confidential’ documents. With parole, actual time served by Wang Lijun will be much less.
The proximity of British national Neil Heywood to a member of China’s elite politburo would also certainly have attracted the attention of China’s security services, more so as rumours of his association with British intelligence were in circulation in Beijing. Considering Beijing’s sensitivity to espionage attempts by foreign powers targeting the CCP nomenklatura, the discretion of the Chinese authorities in this matter is intriguing.
More telling is that Wang Lijun’s failed defection attempt came in the wake of Beijing uncovering the most serious case of espionage in almost 20 years in the upper echelons of its Ministry of State Security (MoSS), or foreign intelligence arm. The last comparable case occurred in 1985, when a Chinese Intelligence official and ‘princeling’, Yu Qiangsheng, defected to the US. He disclosed to US authorities that a CIA analyst was spying for China. The incident cast a shadow over his family and brother’s career for a long while. His brother, Yu Zhengsheng, is presently party secretary of Shanghai and aspiring for a slot in the CCP’s apex politburo standing committee.
It was between January and March, that an aide to MoSS vice minister Lu Zhongwei was arrested for passing high-value information to the CIA. The identity of the aide recruited by the CIA is not yet known though he has been described as fluent in English. As reports estimated that damage had been considerable and economic, political and strategic intelligence had been sold in return for hundreds of thousands of dollars, Lu Zhongwei was suspended. While Beijing has tried to keep the matter under wraps, Wang Lijun’s action would have undoubtedly added to the leadership’s embarrassment and concern at the lax internal security protocols. In a detailed article on better handling of ‘social management’, the state-owned Chinese weekly Liaowang on November 6, warned that ‘foreign forces are trying to infiltrate China’.
In August, Chinese President Hu Jintao had warned that “we must clearly see that international hostile forces are intensifying the strategic plot of westernising and dividing China, and ideological and cultural fields are the focal areas of their long term infiltration”.
PLA Major General Jin Yinan, director of the Strategic Teaching and Research Department at the National Defence University, articulated serious concern at the espionage efforts of foreign countries during an internal government briefing in August. He revealed that senior party cadre, diplomats and military officers had been apprehended spying for other countries. They included Kang Rixin, general manager of China National Nuclear. He was awarded a life sentence late last year for taking bribes and other unspecified corruption charges. Jin Yinan disclosed that Kang Rixin, who was a member of the 17th central committee and the Central Discipline Inspection Commission, had been selling national secrets about China’s nuclear power industry to foreign countries. The case shocked the party and prompted Hu Jintao to launch an investigation of top party and government officials. After Kang was arrested in 2009, rumours on the Internet claimed that he had leaked ‘business secrets’ to international nuclear power companies, during the public tender process for two nuclear projects worth 1.8 billion yuan.
Former Chinese ambassador to South Korea, Li Bin, was accused of espionage and arrested in 2007, but was sentenced to seven years in prison on unspecified economic charges. Jin Yinan said, “We could only talk about his involvement in economic problems in public, because the case was way too humiliating and damaging to make public”.
He mentioned several other high-profile espionage cases. Cai Xiaohong, a former senior official with Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong, was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2004, for supplying state secrets to British Intelligence. Senior Colonel Xu Junping, who worked in the defence ministry’s foreign affairs bureau, defected to the US in 2000. According to Jin Yinan, “Xu was believed to have been familiar with the personality of top mainland leaders and their habits in making decisions”. Lu Jianhua, a researcher in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, was awarded a 20-year jail term on espionage charges after an ‘in-camera’ trial. He allegedly worked for five foreign governments, including US, Japan and Taiwan. Jin Yinan concluded with the warning that the reforms had led to a ‘moral’ decline and the government had to guard against further espionage cases.
The Bo Xilai case highlights the laxity that has crept into China’s domestic security apparatus and the disregard that members of the CCP nomenklatura have for party discipline and regulations concerning contact with foreigners. These espionage cases reveal that western intelligence agencies are more active inside China since the introduction of economic reforms.
Jayadeva Ranade is a former additional secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat,Government of India