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Do China Protests Reveal Beijing Intelligence Gaps?

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This week’s widespread protests across many cities in China seem suddenly connected with each other in a way that has got to be alarming for Beijing’s security agencies. Popular fury, simmering for many months, erupted after a fire in Urumqi, in far northwest China, killed ten people who could not escape their building due to Xi Jinping’s Covid lockdown. In Shanghai, Beijing and possibly  other cities, radical slogans emerged from the crowds, including “Xi Jinping step down, Communist party step down!”  (习近平下台,共产党下台, Xi Jinping xiatai, Gongchandang xiatai).

If there is one thing that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) considers indispensable, it is their monopoly on power, as they showed in their reaction to the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations. Party leaders are paranoid about a simultaneous, massive revolt of China’s citizens that could overwhelm its vast security apparatus. Like the emperors from a millennia ago up to China’s last dynasty, the Qing (Ch’ing), the communists fear losing the “mandate of heaven,” or right to rule, in the eyes of the populace. In this authoritarian state, there are no elections to defuse a challenge to the system’s overall legitimacy.

Beijing protesters rally for victims of a fire and against China’s harsh Covid-19 restrictions (Photo by Noel CELIS / AFP via Manila Daily Tribune)

If, as seems true, the sudden proliferation of chaos from Guangzhou to Zhengzhou to Urumqi is a surprise to the leadership, they may blame the Ministries of State Security and Public Security (MSS and MPS) for not anticipating it—and heads may roll.  It’s also possible that the security agencies saw the protests coming, but were afraid to tell Xi and his cronies the truth: that their Covid strategies were failing. It’s also possible Xi ignored accurate forecasts by the security services.  In any event, the party can never be fallible: failures are always attributed to outside interference or internal traitors.

This would not be the first time that the CCP’s huge spy and police agencies were raked over the coals by party supremos for a lack of analytical foresight. Jiang Zemin, China’s leader in 1999, blamed the agencies for failing to anticipate the famous Falun Gong protest that swelled to 10,000 people in April that year outside the Zhongnanhai leadership compound in Beijing. 

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The MSS and MPS are often portrayed outside China as all-powerful and all-seeing, particularly with the construction of an incredible AI-driven surveillance system that has enabled Xi’s intrusive Covid lockdown strategy. Spurning effective vaccines, the party has instead emphasized mass discipline and isolation measures. 

The surveillance state administered by MPS and MSS, applying their various Internet-enabled operations, has produced previously unimaginable control at home (and espionage successes abroad). Yet there are cracks in the façade: constant existential fear about enemies within; fear of being caught between Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive and a culture that fosters graft; and fear of being found insufficiently loyal to “Xi Jinping Thought” and his status as China’s “core.”

Long March to Police State

As I argue in a newly published work, The Handbook of Asian Intelligence Cultures, the CCP fostered a culture of fear in its security organs from the beginning of the revolution. Mao’s paranoid campaigns to “dig out” enemies within the party in the 1930s and 40s and his campaigns to purge wider society from the 1950s onward are well-studied by those who follow Chinese politics and modern history. 

But within Beijing’s intelligence and security establishment, the atmosphere has been far worse. Persecution in the 1940s and 50s by rear area counterespionage officials against forward-deployed intelligence professionals for recruiting “bad elements” was only the beginning. Mao’s evisceration of the MPS and the predecessor of the MSS during the decade-long Cultural Revolution beginning in 1966 left a lasting leftist influence, indicated by the inexplicable contemporary celebration of the life of Luo Qingchang, head of Chinese intelligence from 1966-1983, who was known for sending his fellow career spies to labor camps and worse.

Interviews with former U.S. intelligence officers who had routine contacts with their Chinese counterparts indicates that the language used by Chinese intelligence services, both civilian and military, reflects Marxist-Leninist “scientific” laws of socio-economic development, and that the services remain bastions of faith in the CCP. These old problems have become worse under the leadership of Xi Jinping. His “thought,” with its many throwbacks to the language of Mao’s time, encourages extreme conformity. This almost certainly has the effect of inhibiting analysis that might contradict Marxist doctrine.  

At present and in the coming decade, MSS and MPS will gain more and more recruits born after 1990 and raised in an atmosphere of heightened nationalism, ideological conformity, and suspicion of all things foreign. The culture of fear inside the security establishment shows no sign of easing. If combined with a continued flood of big data, raw intelligence might become overwhelming, and groupthink, likely already an issue, may metastasize. 

Even the assistance of AI might not overcome prohibitions against potentially heretical analytical discussion. Though AI and Machine Learning (ML) technology might eventually force China’s spy agencies to endorse evidence contradicting Marxist doctrine, so far these technologies seem focused only on perfecting mass tracking of every single citizen’s politics or submission to Covid lockdowns.

Yet despite such ubiquitous surveillance, the massive protests across China may have highlighted the limits of the MSS and the MPS to advise leadership honestly on major events. 

Xi Jinping’s next moves, meanwhile, will be crucial to the future of party leadership. Will Xi scapegoat Chen Wenqing, only recently elevated to oversee intelligence, security, and the legal system for the party’s Central Committee? Does he bring the PLA’s intelligence arm back into non-military spying duties? Or does he make improvements in the system that loosen the blinders of ideology in analysis?

Not likely. Marching forward under the guidance of Xi Jinping thought would be typical for the president and his party cronies. But if no changes are made, apparent failures, such as an inability to forecast—or report upward—this week’s protests, not to mention global developments like U.S. strategies in East Asia, Russia’s intentions in Ukraine,  the ability of China’s domestic industry to keep up with modern technology, and the true nature of unrest at home—could fester. China’s leaders could be left unable to see the forest for the trees. It is a recipe risking catastrophic misjudgments.

Matthew Brazil, a former US government officer in Beijing, is co-author of the authoritative Chinese Communist Intelligence.

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