Chinese checkers| Book review: Chinese Spies – From Chairman Mao to Xi Jinping by Roger Faligot

A comprehensive telling of the opaque and murky world of Chinese spies spanning hundreds of years.

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The sheer density of personal detail can overwhelm the reader, calling for perseverance.

Books on espionage occupy a distinctive niche on the global bookshelf and those on China are an even smaller sub-set. The volume under review is part of this small sliver and is comprehensive in detailing the genesis and evolution of the opaque and murky world of ‘Chinese spies’ and has a temporal sweep that spans over a hundred years.

The rich detail about a vast number of intrigues that dot Chinese espionage through the last century has been woven as a large spy novel-like tapestry that involves hundreds of characters. The sheer density of personal detail can overwhelm the reader, calling for perseverance.

This book first appeared in French in 2008 and has since seen four iterations with new material being added in each edition, and this volume is the latest in English. Author Roger Faligot is a French investigative journalist who has specialised in matters pertaining to the opaque intelligence world and his 2001 book, The Chinese Mafia in Europe, established his credibility as an author of note in relation to China and its octopus-like intelligence network tentacles.

A little under 600 pages, this volume distills decades of Faligot’s deep personal interest with China and the Cultural Revolution—a passion that began in the mid 1960s when the author was a teenager. As a young journalist the unwavering focus on China continued and his first book, The Chinese Secret Service: Kang Sheng and the Shadow Government in Red China, with co-author Remi Kauffer was published in 1989, the Tiananmen year.

Divided into three parts, the first section of the book under review traces the origins of China’s espionage service, now known as ‘Guoanbu’, the ministry of state security since 1983. The opening vignette of the book is a recounting of the 90th anniversary of the oldest of the Chinese secret services, held in Beijing in 2017, and the guest of honour was 102-year-old Yao Zijan. The event celebrated the birth of the ‘Zhongyang Teke’ on November 11, 1927, under the aegis of a future prime minister of independent China—Zhou Enlai—a name that is very familiar to Indians who recall the early decades of the Sino-Indian bilateral relationship.

This is the most substantive part of the book, accounting for 240 pages, and highlights the role of the intelligence/ espionage operatives of various Chinese factions in the tumultuous decades before Mao consolidated his position as the chairman of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) in 1949.

A wealth of detail about intrigue, deceit, double-crossing and the ruthless extermination of those deemed to be ‘anti-national’ fill the pages, and Faligot provides little-known nuggets from the Cultural Revolution, the stabilising role played by Deng Xiaoping, the 55 days at Tiananmen Square in 1989 that were seminal to the CCP and the future trajectory of China. It closes with the return of Hong Kong to Beijing in July 1997.

For this sailor reviewer, of special interest was the section on the Chinese purchase of the Russian/Ukrainian built aircraft carrier, the Varyag, and the web of falsehoods and red herrings that were strewn by the Chinese spy network to bring this hull from its parent shipyard to China and the overlap of the Chinese state with various private entities. This was also the period when the ‘Guoanbu’ increased its footprint globally in more than 170 cities across 50 countries.

A CIA report has been cited, wherein Chinese deputy prime minister Zou Jiahua at an intelligence conference proudly claimed that under President Jiang Zemin, by the late 1990s, “Tens of thousands of nameless heroes who cherish and loyally serve their homeland are fighting quietly in their special posts abroad, in a complicated environment.” From business people to the media, academia, think-tanks and myriad Chinese students and researchers, the ‘Guoanbu’ spy network is huge and opaque.

The last two decades, co-terminus with the post 9/11 world disorder, have been covered at a more brisk pace in the latter section of the book. This is the period when the CCP baton is passed from Jinag Zemin through the Hu Jintao years to Xi Jinping which is now open-ended. In this part of the book, major global and domestic Chinese events from the Afghanistan war, the Clinton election and the 2008 Olympics (where Faligot establishes the link between espionage and gold medals) to the covid pandemic have been brought into focus.

Under President Xi Jinping, Chinese intelligence operations have become increasingly hi-tech and this is of special significance for India. In his lucid foreword to this book, Vikram Sood, a former chief of India’s (R&AW), notes that China’s current “quest for hi-tech independence and supremacy is particularly significant for it shows tremendous foresight and a single-minded determination to seek this capability that is not restricted to any one leadership’s time”.

There are many strands of critical relevance to the Indian grapple with espionage that could be extrapolated and Faligot provides a vast amount of grist for the professional mill. The analytical part of this tome is below the median and at the end of the book, one would have benefited from an assessment or conjecture about the DNA of the Chinese spy and the future technology-enabled transformation that the ‘Teke-Gunganbu’ will undergo. The 40-page index, alas, is careless while being copious and does little credit to the volume editor/publisher.

(C Uday Bhaskar is director, Society for Policy Studies.)

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