Defection Spotlights Chinese Way of Spying

Chen Yonglin says he oversaw 1,000 informers in Australia. Beijing is believed to favor human intelligence over high-tech espionage.

By Mark Magnier

Los Angeles Times

July 15, 2005

BEIJING — The defection of a senior Chinese diplomat in Australia who claims he helped oversee a vast spy network has cast a spotlight on China's espionage activities at a time of increased global trade tensions and concern over Beijing's military spending.

Chen Yonglin, the first secretary of the Chinese Consulate General in Sydney, chose a particularly embarrassing moment to go public against his employer — a rally last month in Australia marking the 16th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators.

At an impromptu news conference shortly after Australia turned down his request for political asylum, the bookish Chen announced that he'd spent the last four years managing a network of 1,000 informants and spies in Australia on behalf of the Chinese government.

Their primary target, he added, were members of Falun Gong, a quasi-religious group banned in China as an "evil cult," and those advocating independence for Tibet, Taiwan and East Turkmenistan.

Beijing immediately disputed his claims and similar charges by Hao Fengjun, a second Chinese official applying for an Australian visa. The allegations are "fabrication and lies," Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said in Beijing. "Sino-Australia relations should not pay a price for two such people and two such incidents."

"We have some Chinese who don't like China that much and want to profit for their own personal agenda," Fu Ying, China's ambassador to Australia, said last week. Chen "now appears to be hating China so much, but China offered him the best a young man can have."

The incident could reverberate beyond Australian shores, analysts said, emboldening China's critics at a time when Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and other Washington conservatives are expressing concern about Beijing's intentions and questioning its growing military spending.

The case has also embarrassed the government of Prime Minister John Howard, which critics accuse of putting trade ahead of human rights to avoid angering Beijing, a charge the administration denies. China is Australia's third-largest trading partner, with annual bilateral commerce worth $22.7 billion, and a voracious consumer of its natural resources. The two nations are also discussing a free-trade agreement to strengthen ties further.

Opposition lawmakers accused the Howard administration of immediately informing the Chinese government when Chen submitted his application and rejecting his request for a safe meeting place. Last Friday, Australia granted Chen a permanent visa. Hao has petitioned for a protection visa, and his case is now awaiting a decision.

Part of the equation, analysts said, is that neither Chen nor Hao — who claims to have worked in the Chinese city of Tianjin at a security office charged with stamping out Falun Gong before fleeing to Australia — appears to be a huge intelligence catch.

"For Western intelligence agencies, knowing how China monitors Falun Gong is not so important," said Steve Tsang, a China scholar at Oxford University. "I suspect that's why they didn't grant Chen's first application. If he was involved in a missile program or counterespionage, that would probably be a different thing."

Like those of most countries, China's intelligence efforts employ a system of concentric circles, analysts said. Unlike U.S. intelligence agencies, with their reliance on satellite data and high technology, China is known for its "humint," or human intelligence.

"They can and do send out thousands of people with limited tasking, flooding the target country," said Larry M. Wortzel, a former U.S. Army attache in Beijing now at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington.

China has three kinds of spies, asylum-seeker Hao told Australian reporters: "professional spies" paid to collect information, "working relationship" spies operating in business circles and "friends" in less formal networks, a category analysts said Chen's 1,000 spies would fall into.

China employs a relatively small number of well-trained, professional spies, intelligence analysts said, charged with digging up the most sensitive military secrets and strategic policy.

In the second tier, China relies on well-placed front companies and scientists to go after key technologies, including dual military and civilian-use products that are easier to acquire than top-secret military items.

"But you use dual-use or trading companies as far from the embassy as possible," said an intelligence expert who declined to be identified. "They're a big radioactive tag."

In one recent case, a Chinese American couple in Wisconsin was arrested on suspicion of selling China $500,000 worth of computer parts with potential applications in enhanced missile systems.

But it's China's biggest concentric ring that often garners the most attention. Beijing is known for gathering small bits of information from "friends" — Chinese businesspeople, students, scientists, trade delegations and tourists traveling overseas — which it assembles into a bigger picture.

"They spread a rather wide net," said James R. Lilley, a former CIA station chief and U.S. ambassador to China. "It's often a rather blurred line between 'cooperator' and 'undercover agent.' "

People may be motivated to provide information by money, patriotism, flattery or various forms of persuasion, analysts said. An overseas Chinese with a family back home might be approached, said Oxford's Tsang, and told: "I understand you have a daughter trying to get into college. I hear she may not be so bright, but I have a friend at that college and can put in a good word."

China's approach, sometimes referred to as "1,000 grains of sand," has complicated life for foreign counterintelligence agencies already burdened by the U.S.-declared war on terrorism, analysts said.

"There are 150,000 students from China. Some of those are sent here to work their way up into the corporations," Dan Szady, the FBI's assistant director for counterintelligence, told the National Intelligence Conference and Exposition in Arlington, Va., in February. "There are about 300,000 Chinese visitors annually and 15,000 delegations touring the U.S. every year."

Many of these people are potential spies, he added, gathering information or being questioned when they return to China.

"Even as we increase our numbers of agents, we can't possibly totally stop it," Szady said.

But the intelligence expert who requested anonymity said there was a temptation to believe that everyone who vaguely looks Chinese is busy funneling information back to Beijing. "There's a lot of hysteria," he said, citing an unsubstantiated claim by a bipartisan congressional commission five years ago that China operates 3,000 front companies in the United States.

"It's jingoism of the highest order," he said. "Also, what they do in appealing to patriotism is not a lot different from the French and the Israelis. The Israelis pulled a lot of the same motherland appeals with [Jonathan Jay] Pollard," an American military analyst sentenced to life imprisonment in 1986 for leaking secrets to Israel.

Espionage also works both ways. In 1995, the Australian media reported that China's embassy in Canberra, the capital, was bugged as part of a joint Australian-U.S. spy operation. And a U.S.-made Boeing 767 bought for then-Chinese President Jiang Zemin in 2000 reportedly contained more than 20 spying devices.

One analyst said that even if Chen's claim of 1,000 spies in Australia was accurate, they were almost certainly not all well-trained field agents. "The idea that they have such a large number working on behalf of Chinese intelligence seems a bit dubious," said Jonathan D. Pollack, director of strategic research at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. "It's obvious that anyone wanting to defect wants to up their value."