December 03, 2012
Credit: Credit: Chinese Internet
Richard D. Fisher, Jr. Washington
China is one of the most difficult espionage targets to crack. However, its long-standing culture of secrecy—modernized and codified under decades of Chinese Communist Party rule—does not mean everything that is hidden by pervasive state secrecy laws is inaccessible. With due care, many open sources can be exploited to gain relatively useful insights.
Language and strategic culture alone create a high wall surrounding China's secrets. American military attaches assigned to the country are taught that “China's first line of strategic defense is the Chinese language.” It takes about a decade to become reasonably proficient in Chinese—all too often an impractical quest—but on top of that, many Chinese will admit that the vocabularies of the military and related sciences approach a separate language, unknown to most.
To make its language more accessible, the country sponsors more than 100 Confucius Institutes worldwide, mainly on university campuses, to provide subsidized language instruction. But the expectation is that their hosts will practice self-censorship regarding sensitive topics, such as Taiwan and Tibet, while the Chinese instructors gain an opportunity to become better acquainted with the students, should they pursue a career in the government or military.
China's development of a strategic culture that nearly worships secrecy and deception, exemplified by the works of Sun Tzu (596-544 BC)—which are venerated in China today much like the writings of the U.S. founding fathers—predates the harsh realist counsel of Niccolo Machiavelli by almost 2,000 years. Historian and translator Ralph Sawyer has noted that for Sun Tzu and his contemporaries, secrecy offered a “force multiplier,” recalling Sun Tzu's often quoted lines: “The pinnacle of military employment approaches the formless . . . . If I determine the enemy's disposition while I have no perceptible form, I can concentrate my forces while the enemy is fragmented.”
Sun Tzu maintained that the ability of a leader to keep and enforce secrecy formed a key aspect of his “virtue,” or his moral strength to rally followers. Secrecy as a virtue pervades former “paramount leader” Deng Xiaoping's 24-character strategy that guided China's 1980s foreign policy: “Observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership.”
China's historic cultivation of secrecy was reinforced by Mao Zedong's victory in 1949 in two distinct ways. First, the Leninist heritage and structure of the Communist Party demanded pervasive secrecy regarding itself, the military, state and economy, while the party secured absolute control over information and the media and started campaigns of indoctrination.