By Eric Vandenbroeck and co-workers

Since coming to power in March 2013, Xi has not hidden his grand design for China’s national rejuvenation: to make it the greatest power in the world. He is a true believer, born into communism and molding himself in the image of Mao, the Great Helmsman. He used a platform of ‘anti-corruption’ to strengthen his regional, then central, and now supreme hold on power. Now in an unprecedented third term in office, after the Twentieth Party Congress in October 2022, Xi’s goal is for China to displace the United States as the world’s greatest power both in Asia and the world. The year 2049, the centenary of communist rule in China, seems an obvious deadline for Xi. To become the number one power, China must catch up with the West and overturn the US-led rules-based international order.

Xi’s strategy is to protect his own rule and ‘unite’ China – which means absorbing Hong Kong and Taiwan, by force if necessary. In his public strategic plan, ‘Made in China 2025,’ Xi identified ten key technology areas that he wants China to excel in, including robotics, green energy production and vehicles, aerospace, and biopharma. Xi has said that in those areas of core technology, where it would be otherwise impossible for China to catch up with the West, the country must ‘research asymmetrical steps to catch up and overtake’ Western powers. Xi has thus made no secret of giving his authorization to steal technological secrets. In the decade after 2010, the FBI witnessed a 1,300 percent increase in China-related economic espionage cases. Some of that may be explained by increased FBI collection, and discovering more espionage going on anyway, but that cannot explain it all. China’s cyber-hacking operations, targeting every sector of Western society, are greater than every other major nation combined, according to the FBI.

In July 2022, MI5’s director general, Ken McCallum, gave an unprecedented joint public briefing with FBI director Chris Wray at MI5’s London headquarters, Thames House. Wray put it bluntly to the audience of assembled business leaders: ‘The Chinese government is set on stealing your technology, whatever it is that makes your industry tick, and using it to undercut your business and dominate your market.’ In October 2022, President Biden effectively declared economic war on China by imposing restrictions on high-end chips. Biden’s strategy is to sabotage China’s race to dominate artificial intelligence (AI). As the commentator Edward Luce pointed out, when the history of this period comes to be written, it will likely be seen as the moment when the US-China rivalry came out of the closet. How did we get here?

Before 9/11, the US intelligence community was sounding the alarm about the national security threat posed by Chinese espionage. At the turn of the century, China’s intelligence services were conducting sustained efforts to steal American S&T, like nuclear secrets, as national security papers held at President Bill Clinton’s library reveal. Then 9/11 happened. Thereafter, Western intelligence agencies overwhelmingly focused their resources on kinetic counterterrorist operations – while downgrading collection on resurgent states like China and Russia. According to a report published in 2020 by Britain’s parliamentary intelligence oversight committee, in 2006–7 some 92 percent of all of MI5’s work effort was devoted to counterterrorism, with the remainder thinly spread across all other areas, including hostile state activities.

According to MI6’s former deputy chief Nigel Inkster, who retired in 2006: ‘In my three-decade career with Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, China was never seen as a major threat.’ In the United States, the downgrading of hostile states like China after 9/11, at the expense of counterterrorism, was less acute than in Britain, but there was a ‘downward glide,’ according to one NSA official interviewed for this book on the condition of anonymity. The US intelligence community had more resources than the British and more capacity, so shifts were less acute. But even the US intelligence community did not give China the attention it deserved after 9/11. According to Sue Gordon, a career CIA officer and later one of the most senior American intelligence officials, the US intelligence community failed to respond to what was going on in China after 9/11. That period ushered in the digital revolution, which, Gordon noted, permanently changed the nature of intelligence and national security.

The Chinese government grasped the opportunities provided by the digital revolution and operationalized them. The US did not. It was still overwhelmingly focused on terrorism and was trying to address new threats with leftover resources. According to Michael Hayden, DCI from 2006 to 2009 (and previously director of NSA): ‘Every day [at CIA] I woke up thinking I had to do something about China, but there was never enough time.’ The priority given to counterterrorism within US intelligence continued until as late as 2017.

In 2005, the principal civilian Chinese intelligence services, the Ministry of State Security (MSS), declared war on the US intelligence community. From that point, according to CIA insiders interviewed, all the MSS’s best personnel and resources were marshaled in the US, with the long-term strategic aim of supplanting America in Southeast Asia. As the US was distracted if not consumed by the War on Terror, the MSS’s gains were largely undetected or appreciated by US spy chiefs. China’s strategy followed a saying, GeAnGuanHuo (), ‘Watch the fires burn from the safety of the opposite river bank which allows you to avoid entering the battle until your enemy is exhausted.’

Those failures were exposed between 2010 and 2012, when Chinese intelligence broke up a CIA spy network, reportedly leading to the detection, imprisonment, or death of around thirty agents. Insiders describe this case as the tip of an iceberg of still-classified US intelligence failures in China in recent years. Their causes remain unclear. They may have arisen from the Chinese technical collection of CIA covert communications (COCOM). More chillingly for Langley, according to some insiders, they may have come from a Chinese mole inside US intelligence. The spy in question may have been a former CIA case officer in China, Jerry Lee, now convicted of espionage.

 f Xi makes a move on Taiwan, we shall find out whether the US intelligence community has penetrated his regime in the same way it did Putin’s. China’s economic rise this century has been meteoric. At the turn of the century, its GDP was around $1.2 trillion. It is now $17.7 trillion.  Between 2011 and 2013, China used more cement than the United States consumed in the entire twentieth century. The country’s high-speed trains leave Amtrak, in the dust. The widespread belief in the West, at least at the time of the 2008 Beijing Olympics – that China’s economic development and integration with the world economy would lead to greater political freedom and make it a responsible stakeholder in global affairs – has proven to be mistaken. Chinese espionage against Western countries has accelerated since Xi took power.

Of the 160 reported cases of Chinese spies in the United States from 2000 to 2020, over half are since Xi took the helm. Those are, of course, just the cases detected by US authorities. China’s industrial explosion this century was propelled by foreign intelligence collection. This has taken the form of traditional human espionage combined with cyber exploitations. These offensive efforts have allowed the Chinese government to reverse-engineer manufacturing and save time and resources on research and development. According to US intelligence (ODNI) estimates, Beijing’s spying has saved China $320 billion in R&D costs. China’s massive Belt and Road Initiative, a political and economic program to advance their interests in other regions of the world through large investments in infrastructure, has been accompanied by a barrage of espionage, subversion, sabotage, and disinformation.

All are designed to further China’s grand strategy to make itself into a superpower rivaling America. Xi’s ‘China Dream,’ his ‘Made in China 2025’ platform and the ‘Thousand Talents’ program are amped-up Soviet-like economic plans. They are designed to make China independent of Western technology, invert the existing world order, make the West dependent on Chinese technology, and establish China in its rightful place as the middle kingdom, all while containing the United States and its ‘imperialism.’ As usual with counterespionage, we only know about spies who are caught. Take the case of a Chinese national, Xu Yanjun, who in November 2021 was successfully prosecuted in the US for stealing technology in Europe and the United States. Beginning in at least 2013, Xu presented himself as a businessman interested in joint ventures with US and European companies specializing in aviation. His patient recruitment strategy eventually worked with GE Aviation, which developed an advanced composite aircraft engine. In March 2017, he recruited an agent in the company, a GE engineer, who gave him sensitive IT data. Xu threw money, and a trip to China, at his recruit.

Xu was of course not a businessman but a Chinese intelligence officer (again, part of the Ministry of State Security). In 2018, Xu started to task his recruit for GE technical secrets. By this time, however, the GE employee had alerted the FBI. Xu was arrested in April 2018 in Belgium, where he traveled to meet his agent. If it had been successful, Xu’s espionage would have allowed the MSS to steal valuable GE Aviation secrets, and the Chinese government to leapfrog over a decade of hard work and billions of dollars spent in research and development. The case shows the fusion of human and cyber intelligence – ‘hyber.’ There are countless other cases of Chinese ‘businessmen’ seeking joint ventures with Western companies, using the prospect of cooperation to obtain intellectual property – maybe an underlying source code – but then withdrawing from an agreement once it is obtained. Western companies are left like empty shells, having given up their IP. They often have to declare bankruptcy, with resulting job losses, in the face of Chinese firms selling products based on their own IP on the market. To add insult to injury, sometimes Chinese companies sell Western IP back to the communities from which they stole it. The former head of counterintelligence at the CIA, Mark Kelton, has put the current Chinese espionage storm in perspective: a scale such that the United States government has not seen since Soviet intelligence in the 1930s. Kelton’s remarks deserve widespread attention.

Among the government and private sector secrets that have been appropriated by China in the twenty-first century are US missile and military aircraft designs (F-35 and F-22), Silicon Valley software and hardware secrets, pharmaceutical patents, and research from US universities and other institutions. A cursory glance at the J-20, a Chinese fifth-generation fighter, reveals its similarity to the F-22. That is not surprising, given that a Chinese national was prosecuted for stealing its plans from Lockheed Martin. (This follows in the tradition of the Tupolev Tu-4, a Soviet bomber, which was a clone of the famous glass-fronted Boeing B-29 Superfortress.) It remains to be seen whether Western governments have secretly learned the lessons of the Cold War from the FAREWELL case described earlier: to sabotage US supply chain secrets being targeted and stolen by a hostile state.

There are rumors that the NSA sabotaged software made by Cisco Systems that ended up in China. To carry out their intelligence offensive, China’s spy chiefs are deploying some of the apparatus and methods of their Soviet predecessors. Legal intelligence officers are stationed in Western countries under diplomatic cover. Chinese deep-cover illegals, without diplomatic cover, pose as students at US universities, businesspeople, or tourists. They recruit agents in the West with access to political and economic secrets. China’s spy chiefs keep diaspora communities in Western countries under surveillance, appeal to their ‘patriotic’ duty, and, when that fails, use family members who remain in China to bribe and blackmail their relatives into collecting intelligence and influencing targets. China’s intelligence services also use a constellation of front groups in Western countries, such as the five hundred or so Confucius Institutes across the world, to engage in illicit activities.

As the scholar Alex Joske has shown, although they are not ostensibly under the control of the Chinese Communist Party, they are directed by the CCP’s United Front Work Department (UFWD) in Beijing. The UFWD, described by Mao as one of the party’s ‘Magic Weapons,’ is the equivalent of the Comintern. The country’s influence campaigns have reached US and British universities, think tanks, media organizations, and politicians, all to recruit future leaders and promote platforms favorable to China. There are good reasons for China’s use of tradecrafts similar to that of the Soviets. China’s intelligence services – the Ministry of State Security, the Ministry of Public Security, and PLA military intelligence – have their origins in the Soviet period.

The CCP famously scrutinizes Soviet history, especially the Soviet Union’s collapse. In 2006 it produced an eight-volume DVD set, Consider Danger in Times of Peace: Historical Lessons from the Fall of the CPSU (Communist Party of the Soviet Union). The CCP would undoubtedly look askance at the suggestion that it needed to learn about intelligence from the Soviets or Russia. China has its own ancient history of espionage, deception, and subversion on which to draw. We do not know the extent to which China’s spy chiefs have educated themselves through their friends in Moscow, past and present, and/or are themselves innovating. So far as we know publicly, the West does not yet have the Chinese equivalent of Western spies in the KGB, such as Oleg Gordievsky or Vasili Mitrokhin, who can reveal Beijing’s innermost intelligence secrets.

Chinese intelligence is also naturally seeking to penetrate Western agencies themselves. The MSS has recruited agents to infiltrate the CIA like the KGB recruited the Cambridge Spies eight decades ago. The case of Jerry Chun Shing Lee, a CIA officer who became a Chinese agent after he left the agency, shows that Chinese intelligence has certainly got close. For all we know, China’s provocative actions in the South China Sea may be calibrated on intelligence from deep inside Washington, just as Stalin’s provocations were in postwar Europe. 

In 2019 alone, three former US intelligence officials (from the CIA and the Defence Intelligence Agency) were prosecuted for revealing secrets to the Chinese. Chinese intelligence is also known to have recruited former French intelligence officers. Has Chinese intelligence gone further and recruited current officers?

Chinese intelligence has a database of potential kompromat for recruiting American spies of which the KGB could only have dreamed. Beginning in November 2013, it seems, Chinese hackers breached the databases of the US Office of Personnel Management (OPM). They contain the most sensitive information about holders of US security clearances – personal information that those who go through background checks want to keep secret, sometimes even from their own families: personal finances, substance abuse, extramarital affairs, psychiatric care, sexual behaviour, even notes to polygraph tests.

It is estimated that the OPM data stolen by Chinese hackers pertains to millions of Americans. It includes twenty-two million security clearance files and five million fingerprints. All this data is now in Beijing. Former FBI director James Comey has stated that his security clearance form has likely been stolen, providing Chinese hackers with the addresses of every place he has lived since he was eight, and a list of everywhere he has travelled to outside of the United States. Chinese hackers followed the OPM breach by conducting, in 2017, one of the largest data breaches in history: the theft of confidential data on approximately 150 million Americans from the consumer credit reporting agency Equifax. If you are an American, it is now more likely than not that China has stolen your data. In 2021, the Chinese government conducted a massive hack of Microsoft Exchange email server software. It compromised the networks of thirty thousand American companies. According to the FBI in 2022, China stole more personal and corporate data from Americans than hackers from every other country combined.

The marketplace for foreign intelligence recruitment is now LinkedIn. In some instances, former US government employees and contractors make it all too easy for Chinese operatives. Some proudly display on LinkedIn that they have security clearances, effectively putting a For Sale sign on their profiles. They are comparatively easy targets for Chinese false-flag operations, wherein officers pose as innocuous ‘risk consultants’ offering lucrative contracts. With relatively small government salaries, piling mortgage debts, and eye-watering college tuition bills, for some, it will not be hard to sell out the American dream for Chinese cash. Divided loyalties, not ideology, are the key motivation for Americans known to have become spies since the end of the Cold War.

Fair enough for China, we might say. They are doing what anyone else would – perhaps just better. But that is to discount a fundamental asymmetry. The US government does not collect economic and industrial intelligence to give its companies a competitive advantage. By contrast, the Chinese government has integrated ‘national security’ – a slippery term – and commerce. Through legislation passed in 2014, all Chinese citizens and companies are required, when requested, to collaborate in collecting intelligence. In effect, this has produced a whole-of-society espionage effort. The Chinese technology giant Huawei, the largest manufacturer by revenue of telecom equipment in the world, constitutes a latent platform for bulk Chinese intelligence collection.

In China, because of a series of national security laws passed since 2015, there is no such thing as a truly independent business. The country’s intelligence services are hidden partners in commercial enterprises with the outside world. The story of Crypto AG discussed in Chapter Nine, reveals how Western governments colluded with a private encryption company to collect bulk data. It is fanciful to think that China is not undertaking similar activities. Huawei’s hardware, integrated into homes and offices worldwide, in appliances that are part of the Internet of Things, provides China with unprecedented opportunities for bulk collection through billions of interconnected and interdependent global data points. TikTok constitutes an advanced Chinese government collection tool, masquerading as a social media platform. It provides Beijing with a tsunami of global information, behind the endless dance videos posted on it. It also allows China the opportunity to shape and suppress online narratives, should it wish to do so. It does not take much to imagine what Chinese data scientists can do with this information, using machine learning and data mapping techniques like social network analysis.

As with the Soviets, a major priority for Chinese intelligence is domestic control and repression: intrusive surveillance of citizens, the suppression of pro-democracy dissent, indoctrination, and the incarceration of enemies, even those who pose little credible security threat. China’s internment of about one million ethnic Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang, and its forced labour programmes, recall the Gulag.

The CCP goes to comparable lengths to silence opposition and airbrush away its human rights abuses, creating what the author Louisa Lim calls the ‘People’s Republic of Amnesia,’ committed to destroying all popular memory of the 1989 democracy movement in China. Just as the KGB jammed British and American radio transmissions into the Soviet Union, today Chinese intelligence operates the great firewall, censoring internet traffic, with online censors preventing all internet search terms of Tiananmen Square and any online reference to the massacre of 4 June 1989, by blocking all combinations of searches of the numbers 6, 4, and 1989. They also blocked the Chinese word for ‘jasmine,’ the synonym for Tunisia’s colour revolution in 2011, incredible for a nation of jasmine tea lovers. China sells its digital playbook, including facial recognition software used for ubiquitous surveillance, to authoritarian regimes across the world – offering a tried-and-tested blueprint for social control, ready for dictators to use. Made-in-China surveillance technology is being found around the globe.

China’s doctrine of ‘winning without fighting’ (like Russia’s active measures) is designed to influence foreign affairs to its advantage. The two countries do, however, have different aims: Russia uses covert action to divide Western alliances and create chaos in Western democracies, while China seeks to project a positive image of itself as an alternative to its Western competitor, pulling foreign countries away from the US and into its orbit. As with so much else, though, when it comes to spying and covert actions, the CCP has taken matters to an entirely new level compared to the past. The MSS is staffed with approximately eight hundred thousand officials, dwarfing the KGB even at its height.

The Chinese government has regurgitated for Covid the same conspiracy theory cooked up by the KGB about AIDS. Whether by design or coincidence, Beijing has pushed disinformation that COVID-19 was a bio-weapon developed by the US military. The Chinese government has even claimed that COVID-19 originated at Fort Detrick, the same US military research facility where the KGB claimed AIDS was engineered. What’s old is new again.

But today there is no need for Chinese services to plant disinformation in obscure publications, as the KGB did. Social media now provides a quick, easy, and cheap torrent of disinformation about the coronavirus. As with AIDS, China’s Covid disinformation exploits existing divisions in the US and other Western societies. Western anti-vaxxers did the heavy lifting for Chinese trolls. Meanwhile, if we are to look for a laboratory that may have manufactured the novel coronavirus, we should look to Wuhan, not Maryland. The Soviet Union, after all, produced disinformation about American bioweapons when it was secretly conducting the world’s largest illegal secret biological weapons programme, Biopreparat.

At the same time, due to the nature of the Chinese one-party regime, Xi’s foreign affairs may be undermined by the same crippling sycophancy that beleaguered the Soviets. Xi’s regime does not incentivise intelligence officers to think independently and challenge political orthodoxy but instead places a premium on filtering out anything the Chinese leader does not want to hear. If history is any guide, when Chinese archives are one day hopefully opened, we are likely to find a similar chasm between the Chinese government’s ability to collect intelligence and its ability to accurately assess it – just as we saw in the Kremlin. Former MI6 deputy chief Nigel Inkster, a China expert, put his finger on the issue when he noted: ‘Rather as with the KGB, the difficulty has been in telling truth to power.’ After the Twentieth Party Congress in 2022, Xi’s politburo is stacked with loyalists. This raises the alarming prospect that Xi is making consequential decisions, such as about Taiwan, based on yes-men – his politburo is all male – and warped intelligence. Doing so increases the chances of a Chinese miscalculation. Chinese industrial espionage, stealing Western research and development, was the story before the coronavirus pandemic. Since then, China’s Belt and Road projects have stalled. Beijing has pivoted from traditional infrastructure investment abroad to new health, digital, and green Silk Road initiatives, which emphasise the benefits of trade with China. But something else is now also underway. China has identified thirty-five strategic technologies that it depends on from imports, so-called chokepoint technologies, vulnerable to supply chain disruption.

China is innovating those technologies for itself, insulating itself from Western disruptions. We shall see whether Xi’s strategy is successful. The latest information available as this book goes to print, from leading US cybersecurity companies like CrowdStrike, is that Chinese hackers are moving from theft of Western R&D to insertion of malware. This can be used to sabotage infected systems.

Hong Kong, China’s ‘special Administrative Region, previously one of the most enterprising societies in the world, Hong Kong now offers a chilling indication of what Beijing has in store for territories it considers its own – like Taiwan, the democratic island off China’s coast. Hong Kong’s latest new national security law rammed through its compliant, handpicked parliament during the Covid pandemic in June 2020, effectively ended political opposition here, allowing Chinese authorities sweeping jurisdiction to surveil, detain, and arrest ‘subversives’ – invariably pro-democracy activists. The British consider it a breach of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, which provided for Hong Kong to remain autonomous – ‘one country, two systems’ – for fifty years after the 1997 handover. A watershed moment occurred in March 2022, when British judges withdrew from Hong Kong’s top court, the Court of Final Appeal, where they had sat since the handover (as they had under British rule). Hong Kong’s new national security law made their presence ‘no longer tenable,’ because the administration had ‘departed from values of political freedom, and freedom of expression,’ according to the head of Britain’s Supreme Court in London. Meanwhile, Singapore, with its rule of law, vibrant culture, and efficient government, seems set to take on Hong Kong’s mantle as Asia’s most dynamic city-state.

In February 2022, on the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Putin held a meeting with President Xi in which they declared themselves to be in a partnership with ‘no limits.’ Russia and China’s partnership is an express effort to overturn the US-led liberal democratic order. According to Xi and Putin, the US uses democracy and human rights as a pretext to impose its will on other nations. The US ‘attempts at hegemony,’ wrote Xi and Putin, ‘pose serious threats to global and regional peace and stability and undermine the stability of the world order.’ The West is decadent, and in decline. As Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov put it in a tweet: ‘We are at the beginning of a new era, a movement towards real #multilateralism, not the one which West tries to impose based on the “exceptional role” of the Western civilisation in the modern world. The world is much richer than just Western civilisation.’ Putin has been howling similar words since his 2007 Munich speech.

Putin and Xi mean what they say: that liberal democracy is not up to the task of responding to a world in crisis. Xi reportedly told Joe Biden that only autocracies can provide the rapid responses needed to address the challenges of the modern world, from pandemics to disinformation. The United States, with its pesky freedoms, performed badly when it came to the Covid pandemic. (Earlier Chinese propaganda, criticising America’s handling of the pandemic, has since become a distant memory given the brave, open criticism in autumn 2022 by Chinese citizens of their own government’s disastrous zero-Covid policy.) The painfully apparent dysfunction of the United States political system nevertheless offers endless, easy propaganda victories for the CCP, whose membership is larger than Britain’s population: Donald Trump’s torrent of lies and conspiracy theories, in and out of office, the polarisation of US society, which culminated with a white supremacist insurrection on the Capitol in January 2021.

The Cold War is not a perfect analogy for the world’s contemporary superpower clash. Cold War 2.0 is not simply a repeat of Cold War 1.0. China’s economic and technological integration with the rest of the world, and other countries' dependence on Chinese manufacturing, makes geopolitical relations with China significantly more complex – and more dangerous. Unlike contemporary China, the Soviet Union never made much that the rest of the world wanted. The country was a pariah. The US economy was a goliath. That is not the same now. China is the top trading partner for more than half of all countries and is Europe’s biggest source of imports. At the end of 2021, China held roughly $1 trillion of US debt. Little wonder that Secretary of State Antony Blinken performs linguistic acrobatics to avoid calling US-China relations a ‘Cold War.’ (He knows how trade can be used as weapons between East-West superpowers, having written a book about the Soviet-Siberian natural gas pipeline in the 1980s.) The Biden administration’s 2022 national security strategy likewise emphasises that the US does not seek a new Cold War. That, of course, overlooks one of this book’s central conclusions: Western powers can be in a Cold War irrespective of whether they seek one and before they recognise it.

There are other differences too. The Cold War was characterised by universalist, incompatible ideologies. Unlike the Soviet Union, the Chinese politburo today does not espouse a universalist philosophy. Like Russia, China’s bid for global power is based on ethnonationalism. Someone who looks like me can never become Chinese, though I could have become a Soviet fellow traveller and even a citizen (Russian racism, however, was never far from the surface in the Soviet days). China’s intelligence offensive today is also more expansive than anything the Soviets could muster. The latter’s intelligence offensive during the Cold War was traditionally focused on specific targets. China’s strategy is much broader, a whole-of-state approach, using a ‘human wave,’ or a ‘mosaic,’ or ‘a thousand grains of sand’ to vacuum up foreign intelligence and overwhelm American counterintelligence.

That said, the Cold War is still a useful paradigm. It is the only precedent we have for a sustained intelligence superpower clash. Both sides today, East and West, have nuclear weapons. (China wishes to increase its warheads from about 350 to 1,000 in 2030, compared to America’s reported 5,500.) Unlike with the Soviets, there are no effective nuclear arms limitation agreements between the US and China. As in the Cold War, relations between both sides today rest on the principle of mutually assured destruction. ‘A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,’ as Reagan liked to say. While there is not a clash now between communism and capitalism, this century’s struggle does have an ideological component to it: between authoritarianism and liberal democracy. This is not just rhetoric, or talking points for pundits on CNN. Both sides, East and West, espouse the benefits of their different, divergent forms of government. They are each seeking to contain the other, in yet another struggle for the future order of the world.

The full scale of the Chinese onslaught on the West is only now being appreciated. In 2020, the House Intelligence Committee reported that, without a significant realignment of resources, the US intelligence community would not be prepared to meet the challenge posed by China this century. The US government has only recently awakened to the nature of this onslaught, and the damage done, and is struggling to catch up. If I were to situate where we in the West are today compared to the last century’s Cold War, based on public information and trends, I would place us at approximately the year 1947: Western intelligence services are alert to the nature of the national security threat, are turning their sights to it, but they are chasing a horse that has already bolted the stables.

Matters are improving. In October 2021 the CIA, under the leadership of the veteran diplomat William ‘Bill’ Burns, established a China Mission Centre. According to Burns in 2022, the CIA plans to double the number of Mandarin speakers in the coming years, though that does not tell us much, without knowing how many Mandarin speakers were in the agency before. MI5 tells us that its Chinese investigations have grown sevenfold since 2018 – but again, from what number is unclear. Intelligence collection, especially espionage, alas cannot be turned around quickly.

What about the future? How this century’s clash of superpowers turns out is, of course, impossible to know. As Joseph Nye, former chairman of the National Intelligence Council, has reminded us, there are only future scenarios, not certainties. But I will leave you with observations about where we seem to be heading, based on where we have been. History, as Churchill noted, is a guide for the present and what may lie ahead. Applied history is most usefully understood as history that informs the present – a phrase I have borrowed from Paul Kennedy.

As Mark Twain used to say history does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme. In the geopolitical standoff between the United States and China, we can already see what those rhymes will be: emerging technologies that will define our lives in the twenty-first century, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and biological engineering. They are this century’s equivalent to atomic secrets in the last. While last century’s superpower contest involved an arms race for nuclear superiority and computing, this century’s contest will involve a race for the control of data. The West does not appear to be winning the sprint for AI.

According to the Pentagon’s former software chief, who resigned in November 2021, the US government has already effectively lost the battle to China over AI.

China’s massive data collection strategy, across the globe, is ‘collect and store now, decrypt later.’ This is where the East-West race for quantum computing poses such dangers. By using subatomic particles, quantum computing will render obsolete our existing public key encryption systems, which hitherto have been the backbone of Internet cryptology. Whoever masters quantum will be able to decrypt the data they have stolen and stored that uses public key encryption. China is currently trailing Western companies like IBM in the race for quantum computing – but it is catching up. The threat that quantum computing poses to existing cryptology, however, is not as dire as even recently thought. As of autumn 2022, private Western companies are offering open-market encryption services invulnerable to quantum computing. The task for Western companies, and governments alike, is to migrate existing and future data into such protected systems starting now.

While there is thus a ‘fix’ to quantum, another looming threat, lies with the vulnerability of the five or six big private companies that provide security certificates for the internet. The internet relies on them. The companies are vulnerable to human penetration or sophisticated cyberattacks. One company, RSA, already has been exploited. Penetrating them would allow an actor to read encrypted communications, using their certificates.

Another rhyme with the Cold War is likely to be the influence of non-aligned countries, which will again doubtless use the East-West clash for their ends. India has chosen to align itself, yet again, with Moscow. Will Xi and Putin’s alignment with ‘no limits’ develop into a Bloc, a kind of Warsaw Pact 2.0, to rival NATO? Will there be a split between China and Russia, like the Sino-Soviet rupture? Will Western intelligence agencies be able to help policymakers exploit such a split? Perhaps the war in Ukraine will become like the Korean War, a hot conflict in a broader Cold War. And so on. It is unknown. Whatever the future has in store for us, however, it is not difficult to see Hong Kong or Taiwan becoming last century’s Berlin, contested cities, similarly buttressed by battalions of spies. The application of history does have limits when it comes to informing the present. Just as it is frequently a mistake to claim something is ‘unprecedented,’ it is equally mistaken to think there is nothing new under this century’s rising red sun. We do live in a brave new world. We are on the brink of the fourth industrial revolution, witnessing blurring boundaries between physical, digital, and biological realms. This will fundamentally change how we live, work, and interact with each other, in a way that will be as disruptive to our societies as the first industrial revolution previously was.

Today’s interconnected digital world is changing not only how we live, but also the nature of intelligence and national security. All intelligence agencies are having to rethink tradecraft. Maintaining espionage cover in an age of global digital information is more difficult than it was even in the recent past. The time of an analogue intelligence operation is over. Social media, and the digital dust we emit as we use our phones – and are caught on CCTV, door or dashcams – offer ubiquitous technical surveillance, forcing agencies to rethink how they conduct traditional business.

In the past, Soviet intelligence planned sabotage operations for the outbreak of hostilities between East and West, during World War Three, by conducting physical reconnaissance of critical infrastructure in Western countries and secretly planting arms caches there for use during war. Today, there is no need for such physical operations (though they do continue). Chinese hackers in the PLA’s cyber unit, known as 61398 – as well as corresponding Russian, Iranian, and North Korean units – can vault into the heart of Western governments and critical infrastructure, planting malware on computer operating systems for activation like delayed-action booby traps. Today approximately 85 per cent of US critical infrastructure lies in the private sector, which dramatically increases the attack surface for a hostile state like China.

Our new globalised information environment has inverted the nature of intelligence. During the Cold War, it is estimated that US intelligence derived 80 per cent of all its collection on the Soviet Union from secret sources, namely technical collection and espionage, and 20 per cent from open sources. Now those proportions are believed to be reversed. Governments no longer hold a monopoly on intelligence. The future of intelligence lies with the private sector, not with governments. Open-source (or commercially available) data is already transforming the landscape of intelligence, leading to an existential crisis among Western agencies. Outfits like Bellingcat and C4ADS are revealing secrets about Russia and China, respectively, that traditionally would have taken an intelligence service huge resources and time. (Even then, success would not have been guaranteed.) Another open-source intelligence start-up, Strider Technologies, has shown that the Chinese government is exploiting scientific research collaborations at Los Alamos to advance its defence industries in dual-use technologies like hypersonics. The echoes of the first Cold War – Los Alamos, home of the Soviet atom spies – are blindingly obvious. As in the last Cold War, the US government is effectively funding an adversary’s defence industry. US government research grants for Chinese scientists at Los Alamos have advanced Chinese S&T and decreased American competitive advantage. Again, this information was derived from open, not secret, sources. Public information about parking tickets, and patents, shines a light on what is going on behind the digital and bamboo Iron Curtains. To stay relevant and continue to provide a margin for decision-makers, traditional secret services like MI6 have to come out of the shadows, embrace, and integrate with new technologies that can turn complex data into insights. This reiterates that this century’s East-West intelligence war will be about data and who can best exploit it, through machine learning and AI.

The history of the last century’s epic intelligence war offers seven lessons for the superpower struggle now unfolding between the United States and China.

First, the best defence is good intelligence. Given the unprecedented Chinese assault on US secrets, good intelligence – timely, accurate, and relevant information – will be key for Western policymakers to act decisively about Chinese intentions and capabilities.

Second, intelligence in this century will increasingly be dominated by open-source information. There will continue to be a niche for traditional espionage. A well-placed spy like Oleg Gordievsky can give insights into a foreign leader’s mindset, and thinking, that would remain mysterious with even the best open-source intelligence. The West must seek such sources. An ironclad rule from the last century is that spies catch other spies; the same will be true this century, requiring Western intelligence services to penetrate China’s intelligence agencies to protect our secrets. But outside this niche area for traditional espionage, this century’s intelligence war will be about open-source data and the scientists who can exploit it. The age of a Secret Service is over.

Third, Western strategy regarding China must be based on strategic empathy. It would be a mistake to put forth a grand strategic doctrine like NSC 68, which set out the US government’s strategy to contain the Soviet Union but failed to address how that doctrine would appear to those in Moscow. NATO made a similar strategic miscalculation after the Soviet Union’s collapse when it failed to understand Russia’s deep sense of humiliation and its intense desire to protect its ‘national interests.’

Fourth, Western policymakers must use covert actions cautiously: they have limited practical effect, can result in unforeseen consequences (‘blowback’), and tend to embitter relations between superpowers. Whether it is regime change, degrading alliances, or discrediting targets, covert actions are only effective when they supplement diplomacy and statecraft. Seductive as they are as a quick fix for failed diplomacy, covert actions cannot replace overt foreign policy. Outside of the Soviet-Afghan war, and perhaps US support for the anti-Soviet Solidarity movement in Poland (QRHELPFUL), it is difficult to think of a single US covert action that provided a long-term strategic success.

Fifth, information warfare in this century’s cyber age will continue to involve the insidious spread of disinformation, which can cause us to question the existence even of facts and truth. ‘Truth decay’ cannot be solved by Western clandestine services alone – that is the true lesson of US efforts to counter Soviet disinformation. Intelligence agencies of democracies can do their best to counter online disinformation. But their efforts will never be sufficient; like chopping off a hydra’s head, more spring up on social media. The answer to the challenge of algorithmically driven disinformation lies with the patient, long-term education about online information – digital literacy. What is required is a broad-based public-private effort, a new Marshall Plan of the Mind.

Sixth, the intelligence war between East and West will persist whatever happens overtly with relations between China and the US, whether they improve or deteriorate. Russia, past and present, has used its intelligence services offensively against Western countries when their defences were down, as a result of improved relations, or when they were distracted elsewhere. There is no reason to believe that China would not do the same. Western governments must be alert to this and expect it. Seventh, and finally, the US government must be as transparent as possible about the known nature and scope of Chinese espionage and other illicit activities. Chinese clandestine efforts must be disclosed, challenged, and debated.

One of the major conclusions from last century’s intelligence war between East and West is that two incompatible things can be true at the same time. Just as with Soviet espionage, Chinese espionage can be real – and Western democracies can create McCarthyite witch scares. Chinese intelligence actively recruits from Chinese diaspora populations, but few Chinese Americans become spies. They are frequently victims of Xi’s regime. Operation FOXHUNT involves Chinese intelligence officers targeting, capturing, and repatriating Chinese citizens overseas who are considered to be political threats, often by using threats to family still residing on the mainland. Over eight years, about nine thousand people worldwide were hauled to China as part of FOXHUNT, some of them US nationals. While the Chinese government undertakes every kind of covert activity, the FBI also makes mistakes. The FBI wrongly accused a professor at Temple University, Xiaoxing Xi, a naturalised American citizen and world-renowned expert on superconductor technologies, of being a Chinese agent. The same happened to Gang Chen, an MIT professor. He was cleared in January 2022 after a lengthy DoJ investigation but is stepping away from federally funded research because of anxiety about being racially profiled.

There is a real prospect of a new Red Scare, targeting US citizens who happen to be of Asian descent, chilling free speech and academic freedom, with innocent citizens of Western countries wrongly accused of being Chinese spies. We do not know whether Charles Lieber, former chair of Harvard’s Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, was a Chinese agent. He has been convicted of taking Chinese money, which he hid from Harvard and the National Institutes of Health. That does not necessarily make him a spy – he may simply have made bad decisions. It is time for an urgent public policy conversation about the nature of Chinese illicit activities in the West, and the balance that Western democracies are prepared to strike between national security and civil liberties. Sunlight remains the best disinfectant.

The American Century, if we understand that to mean the age of America’s global leadership, so termed by the American media magnate Henry Luce, is now over. When the history of this period comes to be written, we may well conclude it came to an end in 2016. Under a president willing to ride roughshod over norms and laws, the United States experienced the seductive pull of authoritarianism. Strong leaders, the cliché says, can ‘get things done.’ One of America’s foremost experts on Russia, Fiona Hill, has concluded that the United States risks becoming like Russia. Given the levels of nativist populism, violence, partisan divide, political corruption, and a recent coup attempt in the US, it is hard to disagree with her. (Trump, inevitably, dismissed Hill, who is English-born, as a ‘deep state stiff with a nice accent.’) In 2017, the Economist Intelligence Unit downgraded the United States to be a flawed democracy. It has remained such in reports since. American democracy has arguably gotten worse, rather than better, in the years since. America has many similarities to the corruption and mob rule that the ancient historian Polybius wrote about, in the quote at the beginning of the chapter, when explaining the rise of the Roman republic (read: China) to replace the Greek city-states (America) as the dominant Mediterranean power.

The ultimate damage that Trump inflicted on American democracy lies with the Big Lie: his claim, without evidence, that he did not lose the 2020 election – that it was ‘stolen’ from him. The refusal of Trump to concede that he lost, fearing he would be branded a loser, was insidious enough. But then, on 6 January 2021, he helped to instigate a coup attempt at the Capitol to overturn the election result. He was indifferent about his vice president being killed for his ‘betrayal’ – for not being loyal enough to the president to ignore US law and join in Trump’s plan.

This is the stuff of tin-pot dictatorships. It has a direct precedent, as we saw earlier in Chile when the US government tried to rig the election of Allende. Swap the name Biden for Allende, and the parallels with Trump’s effort to suborn electors to overturn the 2020 election hit you in the face. Both tried to pressure electors not to ratify a democratic election. What the US government did overseas in the past is now being done at home. Speaking in October 2022, former CIA director Michael Hayden, who spent a career analysing dangerous foreign regimes, said that he believes the US has a fifty-fifty chance of surviving.

If you travelled overseas as an American during Trump’s presidency, it became quickly apparent that his administration made our country into a laughingstock on the world stage. Trump’s America appeared like a crumbling edifice, like his former Taj Mahal in Atlantic City. Since Putin’s war in Ukraine, the Republican Party has tried to rewrite its recent past, but we should not forget that in the 2020 US election, Trump used Russian disinformation, claiming that Ukraine, not Russia, was responsible for meddling in the 2016 election. He then tried to withhold crucial weapons for Ukraine and attempted to blackmail the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, earning Trump the first of his two unprecedented impeachments by the House of Representatives.

When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, I thought – naively – as an American who has lived overseas most of my life, that the issue of racism in the United States had finally been consigned to history. Instead, Obama’s presidency threw fuel on a simmering fire of racism in US society. Trump’s presidency appealed openly to the country’s nativist fears, and to white nationalists, who were eager for a champion. He encouraged fringe ideas and conspiracy theories, like QAnon, which holds that Democrats are a cabal of satanic paedophiles and cannibals out to sabotage Trump, to become respectable and mainstream. (Its leader, Q, holds a Q-level security clearance, used for nuclear secrets, and therefore knows what is ‘really’ going on, you see.) Hostile foreign governments like Russia saw the paranoid strain in US politics and exploited it.

The US domestic situation is dire. That said, China’s continued economic rise is not guaranteed. President Xi may be physically imposing, at nearly six feet, but China is not ten feet tall. Beijing has had to impose emigration restrictions to stop a brain drain from China. Xi’s ‘China Dream’ may already be over, and could become a nightmare through a war with Taiwan, for example. Worryingly for the rest of the world, a China in decline may become an even more dangerous player. As Russia shows, a superpower that never achieves the global dominance it believes it deserves is a dangerous one, capable of unleashing an aggressive clandestine foreign policy. Decline increases risk-taking.

For all the West’s problems, most people, I believe, would still rather live in the United States, Britain, or, if you are lucky enough, Europe, with their democratic freedoms, than under China’s digital authoritarianism. I am free to criticise the US government in ways that would land me in jail in China or Russia. As Winston Churchill said, democracy remains ‘the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried.’ Democracy and freedom are also worth fighting for, as Ukrainians are bravely showing. Russia’s war in Ukraine will hopefully lead to a renaissance of democracy over authoritarianism. With luck, that will be the history of our future, the next chapter of the epic intelligence war between East and West.




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