Why aren’t spy stories sexy anymore? The revelations last year that Beijing destroyed America’s espionage ring inside China a few years ago, including executing a number of US informants, got a brief flurry of attention and then subsided beneath the waves. News reports of American bureaucrats arrested for passing information to the Chinese have also barely raised eyebrows. Now the ex-CIA agent suspected of being the mole that led to the collapse of America’s spy operations in China has been arrested, though on a lesser charge of simply possessing classified information. How long before Americans turn back to Donald Trump’s tweets or the latest #MeToo charges? And why don’t more people seem to care that China appears so successful at stealing US secrets and turning Americans into spies?
Espionage was at the heart of the Cold War, captivating millions in fact and fiction. The allure of the CIA has never disappeared, despite the agency’s numerous failures, not least foreseeing the collapse of the Soviet Union itself. James Bond, an archetypal Cold War artefact, continues to rake in millions at the box office, books are still being written about Kim Philby, and HBO’s show about a Soviet spy family in Ronald Reagan’s Washington, D.C., The Americans, has been going strong for years. But real spying and spies are no longer a major part of the public consciousness. Instead, they are treated mostly as relics of the past, antiquarian curiosity or fodder for fictional thrills. Spying may resonate more when it’s seen as an extended family affair, not as one element in a more fragmented world, where different civilisations clash. Terrorist camps in the desert may not have the same pull on the imagination as European chancelleries and gentlemen’s clubs.
If spying is the world’s second-oldest profession, though, it still goes on for the same reasons: money, sex, revenge, dissatisfaction, greed. It didn’t disappear after the KGB folded up shop, transforming itself into Putin’s FSB. Finding intelligence on radical groups is now as important as stealing plans for nuclear war. But perhaps the bloodless world of cyberespionage just leaves us cold.
It’s telling, though, that Americans aren’t more outraged about Chinese espionage. This tells us something about the unique nature of the geopolitical competition between China and the United States. No one should be shocked, of course, that China spies on the United States and vice versa. Given that China is the world’s second-most powerful country, it’s inevitable that the two countries should eye each other warily and seek inside information. America also has multiple defence alliances in Asia, often with nations that have their own problems with China, and there is also a heavy US military presence in the Pacific, so it would be shocking if spying didn’t happen.
Yet even so, Chinese spying in America is pervasive, targeting not only the US government but also American businesses and individuals. Perhaps most disturbing is its extraordinary success. Back in the 1990s, a US government commission accused the Chinese of stealing nuclear weapons plans, as well as computing and rocket technology, allowing it to dramatically modernise its nuclear arsenal. A more recent Pentagon study concluded that the Chinese had compromised nearly every active US defence production program, putting at risk the qualitative superiority of the American military. A few years ago, a major report detailed how just one of the cyber units run by the People’s Liberation Army had stolen terabytes of intellectual property from US businesses. Millions of Americans (myself included) recently received a notice from the US government that our personal information stored on government servers had likely been pilfered by the Chinese. This week, it was reported that the US government is considering building a secure 5G network amid concerns about China and cybersecurity.
Now the reports are piling up of Americans spying for China, trading information for cash or favours. Many of them, though not all, are of Chinese ethnicity, sometimes naturalised citizens, often working for the US government or in technologically advanced positions. Why isn’t all this catching the imagination of Americans?
The simplest answer is that Americans don’t yet see China as a major threat. True, compared to a decade ago, there is much more skepticism about the benefits of trade with China (witness Donald Trump), and a general sense that China is catching up with, if not overtaking the US as the world’s great power. But unlike the Soviet Union, today’s China challenge is far more complicated, combining economic opportunity with political competition and security threat. And so far, too many American businesses, scholars, leaders and the like are unwilling to risk the broader (read: economic) relationship with China to counter Beijing’s growing aggressiveness.
During the Cold War, if you spied for the Soviet Union, you were unmistakably a traitor. But have definitions become more nuanced? After all, Beijing and Washington continually talk about the Sino-American relationship being the most important in the world. Thousands of American businesses operate in China. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese students study at US universities. The size of the Chinese-American community dwarfs the number of Russians who ever lived in the United States. The difference with the Soviet Union could not be clearer.
Perhaps, then, spying for China does not seem as much a betrayal as it does just another facet in a complex relationship. Or maybe there’s a feeling that the Chinese are getting so much through cyber espionage that there is no point worrying about individuals. All that is a rationalisation, of course, but it’s important to try and understand how potential spies mentally approach their betrayal, given that we have probably just seen the tip of the iceberg.
Another factor to take into consideration is the successful Chinese propaganda campaign that has been playing out in the United States for years. One reason why America may not yet view China as the growing competitor that it is is because more than 100 Beijing-funded 'Confucius Institutes' have been established on US college campuses (and more than 500 worldwide), promoting a benign picture of China and often pressuring colleges to shy away from events that would criticise Beijing.
Perhaps even more significantly, Chinese interests now own or are major partners of major US entertainment companies, including Legendary Entertainment Group and AMC Theaters, while the Chinese box office provides a huge part of Hollywood’s profits. Negative portrayals of China are almost entirely absent from US movies, a far cry from dark portrayals of Nazis, Communists, or rapacious Japanese businessmen in the past. Indeed, a remake in 2012 of the iconic 1980s film Red Dawn, digitally changed invading Chinese soldiers into North Koreans. Other plots that are never likely to appear in US movies include China’s oppression of Tibet or Xinjiang, its massive prison system, forced abortions and the military threat to Taiwan.
The benign messages sent out on college campuses and by Hollywood certainly may help serve broader espionage purposes. They dovetail perfectly with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s PR-push and bolster the attractiveness of bold Chinese plans like the One Belt-One Road initiative. After all, in the minds of potential spies, if China is a force for good in the world, then helping it out serves a higher purpose – or at least doesn’t cause much harm.
All this may help explain why China’s success with American spies can be expected to grow in coming years. Sino-US trade may indeed be crucial to the economies of both nations, but the costs of turning a blind eye to China’s behaviour can no longer be ignored. Until Americans recognise the very real challenge China poses, Beijing will continue to recruit US spies and pry ever more deeply into America’s secrets. How long before we talk about a 'Yale Five' and how far Chinese intelligence may have penetrated the CIA?
Michael Auslin is a fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author of The End of the Asian Century (Yale).