China’s Ministry of State Security: What Is This Hammer the Communist Party of China’s Arm Swings in Its Campaign against the US? (Part 1)

The Headquarters of the Ministry of State Security (above). China’s primary civilian intelligence service engaged in the political warfare struggle against the US is the Ministry of State Security (MSS). Yet, while fully involved in that work, MSS has adhered to its bread and butter mission of stealing national security and diplomatic secrets with specific regard to the US. It has also robustly enhanced another mission of grabbing intellectual property and an array of cutting-edge technologies from the US. This essay provides a few insights from outside the box on the MSS, the tactics, techniques, procedures, and methods, it believes, help to keep China secure and help to improve China’s capabilities and capacity to compete and struggle with the US.

There was a time not so long ago when discussion in US foreign policy circles concerning China centered on issues such as trade, Hong Kong, Taiwan, the South China Sea, North Korean denuclearization, and human rights. Now the primary focus of discussion is the coronavirus. China is where the virus originated and was surely ineptly handled, setting the stage for the current pandemic. How China has responded to the crisis turned pandemic has been a source of curiosity and absolute outrage globally. Despite preening about its own advances in science and medicine, China proved not to be up to the task of handling the outbreak that most experts agree more than likely began disastrously in a Wuhan laboratory. It is difficult to fully comprehend what on Earth went on in the minds of China’s leadership upon learning about their country’s coronavirus epidemic. Shutting down cities and restricting travel was among the means to control the spread among their own citizens but China’s government was quite derelict in ensuring the virus would not break out around the rest of the world. Worse, the Communist Party of China and the National Party Congress were unapologetic and frightfully defensive concerning all discussion of China’s role in what was happening. China very quickly became exercised with the US over the matter. They became particularly warm toward US President Donald Trump. The words of official spokespeople were certainly not seasoned in grace. Although it has found itself in an unpleasant, contentious relationship with the US as a result of its own doing, Beijing has nevertheless effectively doubled-down on the behavior that exacerbated the situation. China’s government spokespeople will most likely continue to assail the global media with waves of distortions. At the same time around the world, the number of people infected by the coronavirus continues to increase, the death toll rises, and the financial loss is being calculated in the trillions. Hopefully, People’s Republic of China President Xi Jinping is well-aware of what is transpiring and has set some type of guidance on just how far this whole cabaret put on by Beijing should go. Numquam enim temeritas cum sapienta commiscetur. (For rashness is never mixed together with wisdom.)

The figurative hammer of the foreign and national security policy apparatus swung by the arm of the Communist Party of China against the US is China’s intelligence services. They are the ones on the front lines of the political warfare struggle. Among those intelligence services, the primary element engaged is the Ministry of State Security (MSS). The Ministry of State Security is the embodiment of the logic that created the Chinese system’s intimidating, authoritarian order and for years has choreographed events to accomplish the Communist Party’s purposes. To that extent, the Communist Party of China has entrusted the defense of “their creation,” the modern Communist Chinese state, to this complex government organization. China has only offered soupçons about the MSS, and even less than that lately. Unless one is engaged in diplomatic, intelligence, defense, military, or law enforcement work, MSS is an elements of the Chinese government with which most outsiders when engaged in their normal business related to China, whether inside the country, in a country near by, or even at home, will have contact, but will often be completely unaware. The ostensible purpose and task of MSS is to defend China against external as well as internal threats. By performing its mission of collecting vital information about China’s friends, allies, competitors and adversaries MSS gives the leadership of the Communist Party of China time to make decisions and space to take action. To that extent, the MSS has adhered to its bread and butter mission of stealing national security and diplomatic secrets with specific regard to the US. However, it has also robustly enhanced another mission of collecting intellectual property and an array of cutting-edge technologies from the US. The Communist Party of China is surely counting upon it to successfully take on China’s adversaries in a large way with a small footprint. Interestingly though, there has been far greater discernment worldwide of MSS political warfare activities than Beijing might have imagined. The immediate implication of that has been the infliction of considerable damage to China’s reputation as a world leader. Veritas nimis saepe laborat; exstinguitur numquam. (The truth too often labors (is too often hard pressed); it is never extinguished.)

This essay does not focus on the political warfare effort by MSS, the nuts and bolts of which are somewhat straight forward, and compressed into summary form in the March 31, 2020 greatcharlie post entitled, “Commentary: Beijing’s Failed Political Warfare Effort Against US: A Manifestation of Its Denial Over Igniting the Coronavirus Pandemic”. It focuses on what the Ministry of State Security (MSS) is and what it does, day-to-day, for China. It is presented in two sections. This section, “Part 1,” provides greatcharlie’s insights from outside the box on the MSS and the tactics, techniques, procedures, and methods it believes both help to keep China secure and help to improve China’s capabilities and capacity to compete and struggle with the US. That discussion is buttressed by a few celebrated and trusted sources. “Part 2” continues that discussion and, without an ax to grind, greatcharlie calls attention to how, over recent years, a number of less-familiar, self-inflicted wounds have hindered the prosecution of a successful campaign by US counterintelligence services against the MSS as well as other Chinese intelligence services. The extent to which those same issues concerning US counterintelligence services have impacted the Trump administration is also touched upon. Without pretension, greatcharlie states that there is no reason for it to believe policymakers and decisionmakers in the White House and among US foreign affairs, defense, and intelligence organizations, would have a professional interest in its meditations on MSS intelligence operations in the US. However, it is greatcharlie’s hope that if given some attention, perhaps in some small way it might assist those who work on matters of gravity in this province improve their approach to defeating and displacing the MSS networks and operations as well as those of its sister organizations in the US. Bonus adiuvate, conservate popular Romanum. (Help the good (men) save (metaphorically in this case) the Roman people.)

People’s Republic of China Chairman Mao Zedong (left) and Kang Sheng (right). After the defeat of Imperial Japanese forces in China and prior to 1949, the Communust Party of China’s main intelligence institution was the Central Department of Socialism Affairs (CDSA). CDSA was placed under the control of Kang Sheng, a longtime political associate of Mao with a linkage from the past to Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing. With the Communist Party’s victory over Chang Kai-shek’s nationalist forces, CDSA became one among a full array of government intelligence organizations that were created to supplement Party-based intelligence services. CDSA would draw information from foreign news agencies and open sources. It was hardly a very rewarding business.

Chinese Intelligence Under the Communist Party: The Beginning

The foundation of the Chinese intelligence services was laid during the revolutionary period in which the Communist Party of China sought to establish its rule. In the early 1930s, two intelligence services existed. One was centered in Shanghai and the Communist Party, the othjer was based in the Chinese Communist government that existed in Shaanxi where Mao Zedong established his base after the Long March. The later intelligence service proved to be the stronger of the two. By the late 1930s, it was replaced by a newly created Social Affairs Department (SAD) within the Communist Party. Within the years of struggle against Imperial Japanese forces in China, there was the Yan’an Rectification, from 1942 to 1944, in which Mao consolidated his paramount role in the Communist Party of China. Yan’an was also the part of the ten year period in which: Mao established his premier role in the Party; the Party’s Constitution, endorsing Marxist-Leninism and Maoist thought as its guiding ideologies, was adopted (Mao’s formal  deviation from the Soviet line and his determination to adapt Communism to Chinese conditions); and, the postwar Civil war between the Communists and the Kuomintang. Prior to 1949, the Communist Party of China’s main intelligence institution was the Central Department of Social Affairs (CDSA). CDSA was placed under the control of Kang Sheng, a longtime political associate of Mao with a linkage from the past to Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing. With the Communist Party’s victory over Chang Kai-shek’s nationalist forces, CDSA became one among a full array of government intelligence organizations were created to supplement Party-based intelligence services. CDSA would draw information from foreign news agencies and open sources. It was hardly a very rewarding business.

The Ministry of Public Security was established as China’s principal intelligence service at the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. It, too, was placed under the leadership of Kang Sheng. CDSA fell into the hands of Li Kenong, a deputy chief of staff to People’s Liberation Army (PLA) chief of staff Chou Enlai and a vice minister for foreign affairs. The main role of the MPS, as with all previous Chinese intelligence services, was to serve the interests of the Communist Party of China. However, as time passed, it was also officially given jurisdiction over counter subversion, counterintelligence, and conducting espionage in Macau, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Overseas during the 1950s, most Chinese diplomatic missions accommodated the MPS with an Investigation and Research Office for intelligence collection staffed by CDSA personnel, with analysis performed by the Eighth Bureau, publicly known in 1978 as the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations. In 1953, CDSA became the Central Investigation Department (CID). In China, the MPS presence was nearly ubiquitous, as it kept a watchful eye on China’s population. It was energetically engaged in monitoring Chinese who returned from abroad. To cope with what it determined to be errant citizens, MPS ran labor reform camps. MPS personnel were known for behaving harshly among its own citizens. That behavior was said to be reflective of the violent mentality of its initial leader, Kang. Despite his alleged romance with Mao’s wife, Kang was far from a charming man. Rather, he was known for being an absolute brute. He would move on to become a member of the Communist Party of China Political Bureau, and Li Kenong moved up to take command there. In 1962, the decision was made to move Ministry of Public Security counterespionage functions over to the CID.

The 1960s were a volatile time for Chinese intelligence services as with all military institutions in China. Li Kenong died in 1962 and in 1966 he was succeeded by Luo Quinchang, who had been adopted by Kang in 1958 and ushered into the MPS. However, the MPS became involved in the power struggles that embroiled the Communist Party during the Cultural Revolution. Mao, feeling his power base was threatened mainly as a result of his failed Great Leap Forward, implemented the “Four Cleans Movement,” with the objective of purifying politics, economics, ideas, and organization of reactionaries, led by a one time ally, Luo Quinchang of MPS. His staff files were seized and mined for candidates for criticism and banishment to the lao jiao prison system.

Kang Sheng (above). The Ministry of Public Security (MPS) was established as China’s principal intelligence service at the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. It, too, was placed under the leadership of Kang Sheng. The main role of the MPS, as with all previous Chinese intelligence services, was to serve the interests of the Communist Party of China. As time passed, it was also officially given jurisdiction over counter subversion, counterintelligence, and conducting espionage in Macau, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. MPS personnel were known for behaving harshly among its own citizens. That behavior was said to be reflective of the mentality of Kang, who was known for being an absolute brute.

Most of the leadership of the CID was sent to the countryside for reeducation and the organization, itself, was abolished for a time. Its activities and assets were absorbed by the Second Department of the PLA’s general staff taking over its duties. The Second Department oversaw human intelligence collection to include military attachés at Chinese embassies overseas clandestine collection agents sent to other countries to collect military information, and the analysis of overt sources of information. Mao turned to Kang to ensure that his ideological and security directives were implemented. Kang, Mao’s wife Jiang, Wang Hongwen, Yao Wenyuan, Zhang Chunqiao, dubbed the “Gang of Four,” worked together in a campaign to renew China’s revolutionary spirit. With the assistance of the Red Guards, a mass student led paramilitary movement mobilized and guided by Mao from 1996 to 1967, the Gang of Four set out to destroy the “Four Olds” of society: old customs, old culture, old habits, old ideas. The Red Guards were particularly disruptive. Apparent moral confusion caused the base student army to rise and nearly wreck China by attacking senior Communist Party leaders such as Deng Xiaoping and by conducting mass executions. There were reports that the Red Guards cadres had engaged in cannibalism, eating students. They destroyed approximately 66 percent of China’s famous temples, shrines, and heritage sites. These included nearly 7,000 priceless works of art in the Temple of Confucius alone. The Red Guards would face resistance in major cities. Often the PLA was forced to violently put down their destructive attacks. The organization having fully flown off the rails, Mao instructed leaders of the Red Guards to end their movement.

Meanwhile, Kang had returned to the intelligence service from on high to assume responsibility for the CID cadres that remained left in limbo. Eventually, a new organization, the Central Case Examination Group, composed of CID cadres under Kang was created. That organization was instrumental in the removal of Deng Xiaoping from power. The CID was reestablished in 1971 following the death of Lin Biao and then again became entangled in another power struggle as Hua Kuo-feng and Deng Xiaoping vied for control of the party. By then, Kang had receded into the distance, viewed as too connected to the untidiness of the Cultural Revolution.

Following Mao’s death in 1976, the new leadership under Hua Guofeng initially tried to return to the pre-Cultural Revolution years and strengthen the CID. When Hua Kuo-feng and Wang Dongxing assumed power in 1977, they tried to enlarge the CID and expand the Communist Party of China intelligence work as part of their more general effort to consolidate their leadership positions. However, their hopes and dreams met their fate. Deng Xiaoping, having steadily ascended within the leadership ranks of the Communist Party of China, was uncertain of CID loyalties and his opinion of it was unfavorable. Circumstances indicated that he should order the shut down of all Investigation Offices in Chinese embassies. Although it remained part of the Chinese intelligence services, the CID was officially downgraded. According to Anne-Marie Brady in Making the Foreign Serve China: Managing Foreigners in the People’s Republic (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2003), the impact of the CID’s downgrade was softened by the fact that its intelligence efforts  were being paralleled and to some degree occasionally outmatched by the extraordinarily secret International Liaison Department of the Communist Party of China, which became deeply involved in inciting and assisting international revolution by moving weapons, financial support, and other critical resources to numerous Communist and non-Communist insurgencies worldwide.

The emblem of the Ministry of State Security (above). In 1983, there was considerable frustration in the Communist Party of China with the high volume of secret information being leaked to the West. This was particularly true with regard to information about debates occurring within the Communist Party and reports of poor economic and social conditions within China. In reaction, counterespionage responsibilities were transferred from the MPS to the new Ministry of State Security (MSS). Known as the Guojia Anquanbu or Guoanbu, the MSS was stood up in July 1983 to rectify the deficiencies of the previous iterations of the intelligence function in the Chinese national security apparatus.

The Inception of the Ministry of State Security

The story of the Ministry of State Security (MSS) began thoroughly in July 1983. That year, there was considerable frustration in the Communist Party of China with the high volume of secret information being leaked to the West. This was particularly true with regard to information about debates occurring within the Communist Party and reports of poor economic and social conditions within China. In reaction, counterespionage responsibilities were transferred from the MPS to the MSS. Known as the Guojia Anquanbu or Guoanbu, the MSS was stood up to rectify the deficiencies of the previous iterations of the intelligence function in the Chinese national security apparatus. When the reorganization of the MPS was completed in 1983, it was temporarily left with only traditional police functions. Nevertheless, the change turned out to be quite positive as both organizations were allowed a new beginning so to speak. MSS represented a reimagination of the intelligence collection process abroad and the counterintelligence struggle against outside powers. It eventually bring new dimensions to China’s foreign intelligence scheme. The creation of MSS freed MPS to revamp existing capabilities and explore and adapt a new as well as more technological set of cards to play in the domestic intelligence game so to speak. It represented a reimagination of the intelligence collection process abroad and the counterintelligence struggle against outside powers.

At its nascent stage, the ranks of the MSS were filled with longtime MPS who transferred over to the office. MSS provincial branches were often staffed predominantly with PLA and government retirees. Despite the declaration of its raison d’être as a foreign intelligence organization, the MSS was initially asked to do what its rank and file knew how to do best, which was to perform as police. For that reason, the most important task that it was given after its inception, focusing on students in both China and abroad after the Tiananmen Square protests, was a natural fit. Tiananmen Square, in addition to being frightfully embarrassing to the Communist Party of China leaders, caused them to remain greatly concerned over a possible follow on move by students. That concern was thoroughly evinced when Chinese authorities announced that some 200 Chinese had been accused of spying for the Soviet Union. One might say that the counterintelligence purpose of the assignment made giving it to the MSS plausible. However, MPS had the domestic counterintelligence mission covered. Redundantly taking on the assignment concerning the student–surely MPS was on it–was a turn in a wrong direction. The MSS would eventually develop into an authentic foreign intelligence service, but it would take time. It would be an evolutionary process.

An ocean of student protesters in Tiananmen Square in May 1989 (above). At its nascent stage, the ranks of the MSS were filled with longtime MPS who transferred over to the office. MSS provincial branches were often staffed with People’s Liberation Army and government retirees. Despite the declaration of its raison d’être as a foreign intelligence organization, the MSS was initially asked to do what its rank and file knew how to do best, which was police work. For that reason, the most important task that it was given after its inception, focusing on students in both China and abroad after the Tiananmen Square protests, was a natural fit. The protests, in addition to being frightfully embarrassing to the Communist Party of China leaders, caused them great concern regarding a possible follow-on move by students.

As aforementioned, a paucity of quality information exists publicly from the Chinese government about the present-day MSS in primary or secondary sources. No official Chinese government website exists for the intelligence organization. There have been no press releases distributed or press conferences held by the organization’s public relations department. Access to information from the organization is essentially nonexistent. No significant writings have been published  by security scholars in China on the MSS. Precious few defections from MSS have occurred, so little has been provided from an insider’s view. What is best known generally about MSS in the US has been superbly relayed in I.G. Smith’s and Nigel West’s celebrated Historical Dictionary of Chinese Intelligence (Rowman & Littlefield, 2012).

The MSS headquarters is located in Beijing in a large compound in Xiyuan, on Eastern Chiang’an Avenue, close to Tiananmen Square. Within the security perimeter is snowing apartment block, Qian Men, where many of the MSS staff and their families live. The MSS is a civilian intelligence service and operates independently from the People’s Liberation Army General Staff Second and Third Departments, which also conduct military intelligence and counterintelligence operations. Although it has a central headquarters, the MSS actually was not built up as a centralized organization. It is composed of national, provincial, and local branches much as the MPS from which it sprang. Even the initial CDSA and later CID units of the MPS operated domestically under a decentralized and autonomous structure throughout China that was supported by the Communist Party of China. Their structure somewhat resembles that of the erstwhile regional and Soviet republic KGB bureaus. The provincial, and local branches receive directives from headquarters in Beijing and are financed by National Security Special Funds. Yet, only to the extent that provincial and local branches receive “administrative expenses,” could they be considered accountable to headquarters. They are largely autonomous in reality, reportedly acting as essential adjuncts to the local administration. The formal chief of the MSS holds the title Minister of State Security. As of this writing, the minister is Chen Wenqing. However, from the national level to the local levels, the MSS and its subordinate departments and bureaus report to a system of leading small groups, coordinating offices, and commissions to guide security work while lessening the risk of politicization on behalf of Communist Party of China leaders. Initially, the most important of these was the Political-Legal Commission (Zhongyang Guoja Anquan Weiyuanhui). The Political-Legal Commission was chaired by a Politburo member at the Central level with the title Secretary, who serves essentially as China’s security czar. There are Deputy Party Secretaries at the lower levels. The lower-level commissions oversee all state security, public security, prisons, and procuratorate (judicial) elements for their levels. Currently, there is a Secretary of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission (Zhengfawei) who oversees China’s security apparatus and law enforcement institutions, also with power reaching into the courts, prosecution agencies, police forces, paramilitary forces, and intelligence organs  Xi announced the creation of the Central State Security Commission (CSSC) in the Third Plenary Session of the Eighteenth Party Congress in November 2013. The CSSC held its first meeting on April 15, 2014. The purpose of this new commission was twofold. First, it was intended to balance internal political power created by the expansion of the security services and their capabilities in the 2000s. Second, the commission orient’s the MSS and other security forces toward planning and preempting threats to the party-state. At lower levels, provinces, counties, and municipalities have state security leading small groups (Guoja Anquan Lingdao Xiaozu). The political-legal Commissions and State Security leading small groups overlap in personnel but not perfectly. They combine with defense mobilizations committees and 610 offices to create a kind of system of systems that oversees local security and intelligence work. Headquarters is surely kept apprised of what the provincial and local branches are doing. Each level reports to the next MSS level up and the Political-Legal Committee at that level. This florid arrangement of horizontal and vertical relationships often creates bureaucratic competition that encourages pushing decisions upward while hiding information from elements of equal protocol rank.

Intellect, will, and hard earned experience drove MSS leaders forward as they molded the MSS into a truly effective intelligence organization. What compelled the domestic focus of its initial work is further apparent in that process. The first two ministers, Ling Yun and Jia Chunwang, faced the challenge of turning a small Ministry with only a handful of outlying provincial departments into a nationwide security apparatus. The expansion occurred in four waves. In the first wave during MSS’ inaugural year, the municipal bureaus or provincial departments of state security for Beijing, Fujian, Guangdong, Guangxi, Heilongjiang, Jiangsu, Liaoning, and Shanghai were created. A second wave appeared shortly thereafter between 1985 and 1988, including Chongqing, Gansu, Hainan, Henan, Shaanxi, Tianjin, and Zhejiang. The third wave from 1990 to 1995 completed the expansion of the Ministry across at the provincial levels, bringing in Anguilla, Hunan, Qinghai, and Sichuan provinces. The fourth wave the provincial-level departments expanded vertically, taking over local public security bureaus or established subordinate municipal or County bureaus. The MSS policy of expanding representative offices in most major towns and cities was reversed in 1997. Nevertheless, when MSS minister Jia left in 1998 for the MPS, the MSS was a nationwide organization at every level. Presently, the MSS’ thirty-one major provincial and municipal sub-elements. Interestingly, as MSS moved through each growth spurt, it did not ignite efforts to rename the organization, to divide it into pieces and parcel out some of its departments among other Chinese intelligence services, or to disband it altogether in the way CDSA and MPS suffered in the two previous decades. There seemed to be an understanding system wide that the need existed for a solid civilian foreign intelligence as well as counterintelligence capability. Continue reading