Spying beyond the façade
13 Nov 2013|

Chinese opera mask

The almost-eternal profession of covert intelligence collection and analysis (a.k.a. spying) has been much in the news of late, with the US National Security Agency and Australia’s own Signals Directorate sharing headlines across the region and indeed the globe. But it’s not just Australia and the United States that have had their covert activities brought to public attention. China’s covert operatives (in this case HUMINT rather than SIGINT) have also been the subject of some unsought attention through the publication of a recent detailed study (PDF) of the General Political Department (GPD) of the PRC’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) by the Project 2049 Institute in Virginia.

Authors Mark Stokes and Russell Hsiao used primarily open-source material to detail the history and current activities of the political wing of the PRC military. ‘Political warfare’ has been an intrinsic part of Chinese military strategy under both the Guomindang and the Communist Party of China. It was long domestically oriented, but of late, with the growing global engagement of China, the activities of the GPD’s Liaison Department (LD) have become increasingly international. Stokes and Hsiao see political warfare as ‘active measures to promote the rise of China within a new international order and defend against perceived threats to state security,’ with these functions augmenting traditional state diplomacy and formal military-to-military relations.

The LD can certainly be considered to be an integral element of the Chinese intelligence community. But its functions are broader as it develops links with global elites and aims at influencing the policies and behaviour of countries, institutions and groups beyond China. It engages in a broad range of activities including propaganda, liaison, influence peddling, information gathering and perception management. And LD members are sometimes posted to Chinese embassies. In brief, its tasks involve much greater calculated manipulation than does usual soft power.

To pursue its tasks, the LD has created a range of front organisations, the most prominent of which for international activities is the China Association for International Friendly Contact (CAIFC). The CAIFC, defines itself on its website as ‘a social organisation devoted to fostering international and regional people-to-people friendly exchanges,’ which completely obscures its connections with the People’s Liberation Army and the Central Military Commission. It organises visits and activities to which elite members of international society are invited. For example, the First China Philanthropy Forum in November 2012 was attended by Bill Gates, Tony Blair, and Western Australian Governor Malcolm McCusker, along with ‘40 other consultants and directors of the CAIFC’. John Howard also attended, and was feted by Cheng Siwei (成思危), chairman of the China Foundation for International Strategic Studies, an organisation which is likewise intimately tied to the PLA.  Just this month the CAIFC reportedly invited Aung San Suu Kyi to visit China, an invitation which has been denied by the Chinese Foreign Ministry, suggesting perhaps some difference between the PLA and the foreign ministry.

The current CAIFC President is former PRC foreign minister Li Zhaoxing, who melds the CAIFC activities with more formal foreign affairs organisations such as the recently-established China Public Diplomacy Association, which he also heads. Together with Kevin Rudd, Li opened the inaugural Australia–China Forum in Canberra in November 2011. One of the long-term CAIFC vice presidents is Deng Rong, daughter of Deng Xiaoping, but it’s the other vice presidents who have now become the centres of attention.

In their CAIFC roles, the PLA’s major operatives within the organisation necessarily adopt alternate identities. The Stokes and Hsiao study illuminates the types of identities behind which the activities of the Liaison Department are pursued. Key operatives include Xing Yunming (邢运明), the executive vice president of the CAIFC, noted on their website as a bureaucrat who had served in Nanjing and the Ministry of Civil Affairs. But the study reveals that Major General Xing has also been the Director of the Liaison Department of the General Political Department of the PLA since 2007. Xing hosted Tony Blair on his visit to China in June this year. In 2012, Andrew Forrest of the Fortescue Metals Group, Christopher Barnard of the Macquarie Group and Owen Hegarty of OZ Minerals were also photographed with Xing, while Forrest met again with Deng Rong earlier this year. John Garnaut has highlighted the efforts by CAIFC to target Australian business leaders.

Also of interest is Li Xiaohua (李晓华), listed on the CAIFC website alongside Deng Rong as a vice president of the association, and described as an economist who has worked with the Guangdong Economic and Trade Commission and the State Planning Commission. We now find that Mr Li is also a Major General in the PLA and a deputy director of the GPD Liaison Department. MAJGEN Li also regularly meets and fetes senior visitors from around the region in his CAIFC capacity.

Another CAIFC VP is Chen Zuming (陈祖明), a Russian language specialist who previously served in the Shandong foreign trade department. He’s known in the PLA as MAJGEN Chen Zuming, and led the Liaison Department prior to Xing Yunming. He appears to concentrate on links with Russian and Eastern European countries. Lastly, Xin Qi (辛旗), yet another VP, is an academic who has been involved in cultural and publishing endeavours. PRC military websites however record him as MAJGEN Xin Qi, a deputy director of the Liaison Department.

This intense engagement by senior members of the PLA in CAIFC activities clearly shows the degree to which  it is a covert arm of the PLA, engaged in intelligence and propaganda work.

While this exposé of a PLA front organisation isn’t going to garner the acres of headlines nor induce the reactions which we saw with the NSA and ASD revelations, it does provide a little insight into the workings of a nation with which Australia is increasingly engaged. In the murky world of covert operations, a little insight is the most that we can hope for.

Geoff Wade researches China–Southeast Asia relations. He developed the China–ASEAN and China–India Projects at the Centre of Asian Studies, University of Hong Kong and subsequently worked with the Southeast Asia–China Cluster of the Asia Research Institute, Singapore. Image courtesy of Flickr user Ashley Wang.