Foreign researchers pursuing sensitive topics in China must contend with a phalanx of “barbarian handlers,” or Chinese professionals designated to interact with and manage foreigners and keep them away from truly important Chinese. Foreigners can readily meet academics and even foreign ministry officials intent on controlling U.S. space warfare capabilities, but they likely will never meet the military officials building China's own space weapons.
The handlers provide a near-immediate warning mechanism for government officials, who can then restrict or deny access to researchers or others who prove problematic, a method long applied to encourage self-censorship in foreign academic, business and even government circles. The result is that many foreign researchers are effectively co-opted by China's secrecy culture.
Mao's second contribution to modern Chinese information security was to impose nearly three decades of strict isolation on the Chinese people. Vital military information was difficult to obtain, and major catastrophes, such as the Mao-induced Great Famine of 1959-62 that took more than 40 million lives, were largely unknown beyond the Chinese who were affected. Rare foreign visitors were handpicked friends of China, or (as seen during the late 1960s and early 1970s) great efforts were made to deceive early academic delegations, up to and including the construction of “Potemkin Villages.” Anti-foreign paranoia was pervasive. A former Chinese official, who was part of one of the early Mao-era foreign missions to Europe in the mid-1950s, recounted to this analyst that upon his return, his unauthorized purchase of foreign cigarettes would be used to justify a decade-long sentence to a farm labor camp.
The desperation of this period provided opportunities for the British and U.S. intelligence communities to score victories through the keyholes of Taiwan and British-controlled Hong Kong. A sometimes hot war between Mao and Taiwan's Nationalist government included energetic espionage campaigns that yielded some results, with Taipei successfully exploiting the poverty of many Chinese and appeals to anger with the Communist Party. A formal Taiwan-U.S. military alliance from 1954 to 1980 involved extensive intelligence cooperation, including electronic and signals intelligence gathering and “Black Cat” overflights by U-2s supplied by the CIA and supported by the U.S. Air Force, but with Taiwanese pilots and insignia. Some intelligence cooperation continues under the quasi-diplomatic U.S.-Taiwan relationship.
Today, however, the tide of incentives is against the West. One former U.S. observer of the U.S.-China intelligence battle tells Aviation Week that China's transformation into an economic superpower has reduced the once-myriad rewards for exploitation. By controlling access to China's phenomenal economic rise, the government has created almost irresistible inducements for Chinese at home and abroad to conform to its desires and appeals rather than cooperate with foreign powers.
As for Taiwan, its titanic struggle with China for the loyalties of overseas Chinese ended by the late 1990s, as it became clearer that Taiwan's economic elite had bet their future on access to business in China. Some sources note that Taiwan's espionage successes have declined. The more frequent headline is the exposure of a senior Taiwanese military officer spying for China, or the use of a Taiwan national or false-flag operation by China to pursue intelligence goals in the U.S. Should Taiwanese increasingly perceive a shift of power to China away from the U.S., the challenge of maintaining loyalties to the government in Taipei (much less to its U.S. defense relationship) will only increase.
Wealth has enabled China to keep pace with new information age requirements to maintain secrecy. In the early 1990s, new startup companies with strong ties to military and intelligence sectors, such as Huawei and ZTE, built a self-contained, national, fiber-optic “Great Wall” network that was inherently secure because it had only a few access points and did not use more accessible legacy transmission systems.
In addition to a multitude of hackers exploiting foreign information networks, China maintains an army of Internet censors, numbering in the tens of thousands, to squash dissent, eliminate sensitive postings and manage information revelations. In late 2010, these censors helped project Chinese power as they allowed distant and indistinct images of the Chengdu J-20 stealth fighter to appear on military web pages, previewing its “official” first flight on the eve of a visit by a U.S. defense secretary.
Such assertiveness, however, also betrays China's gradually rising confidence in its future power, which has made it easier and more productive to exploit open sources to gain insights into the country's current and future capabilities. For example, the expansion in military programs means that more information has to be offered to promote desired foreign sales. It took 14 years from first flight for basic data about the Chengdu J-10 fighter to be revealed at the 2012 Zhuhai air show, whereas similar data for the more modern and capable Shenyang J-31 were revealed two weeks after its Oct. 31 first flight—because Shenyang seriously wants to sell this fighter. Growing confidence, as well as a desire to quell suspicions, has led to increasing Chinese willingness to reveal more about its space program, too.
Long-range nuclear missiles, anti-satellite weapons, military space planes and energy weapons are not being previewed at arms shows, but (with careful reading and correlation of authors and institutes) it is possible to gain insights into these programs from Chinese engineering journals available from huge Chinese electronic databases, such as the China National Knowledge Infrastructure.