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The Diplomat: Overview of China’s State Security Departments and Nationwide System

Author Mercy Kuo of The Diplomat regularly interviews subject-matter experts and strategic thinkers across the globe for their insights into U.S. Asia policy. In conversation with Alex Joske, senior risk advisor at McGrathNicol, former analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, and author of “Spies and Lies: How China’s Greatest Covert Operations Fooled the World (Hardie Grant Books, 2022) this is the 390th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”

Explain China’s state security system structure and the role of provincial organs. 

China’s state security system refers to the Ministry of State Security (MSS) and its network of regional agencies across China. The structure of this system follows the general pattern of the rest of the Chinese bureaucracy. The central agency – the Ministry of State Security – exercises some degree of coordination and leadership over counterparts at lower levels of the bureaucracy.

Every province of China has its own state security department that is a provincial government agency while also being part of the national state security system. This is very different to how intelligence work is done in the West, where it is generally the sole remit of federal or central governments. 

The vast majority of China’s state security personnel are working in these provincial agencies. By extension, they probably carry out the majority of foreign intelligence operations. As I point out in my paper, most known examples of MSS operations were actually carried out by agencies such as the Shanghai State Security Bureau or Guangdong State Security Department.

Chinese military intelligence is also structured according to this pattern but divided by regional theater command rather than province.

What is the relationship between China’s state security organs and state entities such as foreign affairs offices, overseas Chinese affairs offices, and United Front Work departments? 

As a covert intelligence apparatus, the state security system relies heavily on cover to carry out operations. Other organs of China’s party-state are a natural source of cover, including United Front Work departments, overseas Chinese affairs offices, and foreign affairs offices. 

In some cases, this type of cover was used by quite senior intelligence officers in a way that may have given them direct involvement in the decision-making process of other agencies. This is consistent with the idea that the state security apparatus played a greater role that previously appreciated in China’s external affairs. 

The depth of this integration has varied from province to province. For example, the founding head of the Zhejiang State Security Department had a close relationship with the provincial party secretary. Theoretically, this would be a source of political capital that would help increase the State Security Department’s influence over the province’s external affairs. 

Of course, non-official cover is also widely used for intelligence operations but is much harder to spot and track. 

How has foreign intelligence work in the state security system developed over time? 

For a long time, the Ministry of State Security was often characterized by foreign observers as primarily an internal security agency – more FBI than CIA. This is true in some respects, but it downplays its extensive foreign intelligence work and the long history behind that.

As I found in my research, the state security apparatus took in experienced foreign intelligence and counterintelligence officers upon its founding in 1983. The majority of state security personnel in the 1980s were more police officers than spies in terms of background. In many ways, the MSS’ use of front organizations and cover is a reflection of its origins as a domestic intelligence agency that had to build China-based structures for working on foreign targets. Up into the 1990s, the MSS lacked access to slots in Chinese embassies. This is also why many known cases of MSS operations involve foreigners being invited to China and then cultivated and ultimately pitched to become assets of the MSS. 

Of the first established 14 state security departments and bureaus, spotlight the top three in terms of influence, resources, and impact.  

It’s difficult to find data on the size and effectiveness of state security agencies. Prosecutions, for example, aren’t an accurate sample of state security operations. Guangdong and Tianjin stood out in my research as being relatively large at the time of their establishment. Both remain prominent in the state security system. 

Another difficulty in comparing state security agencies is that they sometimes have different focuses. These can be regional. Personnel in Yunnan, for example, had experience running cross-border operations into Southeast Asia. Some cities have large expatriate communities that are also natural targets for intelligence work. 

How do state security operations contribute to China’s overseas influence efforts?

Influence operations have been one of the most effective types of state security operations. I argued in my book, “Spies and Lies: How China’s Greatest Covert Operations Fooled the World,” that the Social Investigation Bureau of the MSS was especially successful at influencing foreign elites. MSS officers pretended to be reformist scholars as they built relationships with foreign academics, diplomats, and policymakers, pushing narratives like the claim that China was inexorably moving toward democracy. 

One lesson I took away from this was that access to important officials and privileged information about Chinese politics often comes with strings attached. Time and time again it’s undercover officers of MSS or Chinese military – or their proxies – who peddle access, using it as a tool in their intelligence operations. Nonetheless, carefully unpicking the backgrounds and cover stories of these individuals is something that can often be done through open-source research.

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