China has assimilated cyber capabilities in ways that make it a formidable actor among global intelligence powers.

Intelligence has played a central role in Chinese policy and strategy since the era of the Warring States (circa 475–221 BCE), a period in which Sunzi published Sunzi Bingfa (Art of War), devoting an entire chapter of the book to the subject. Espionage has also featured in classical literature such as Sanguo Yanyi (Romance of Three Kingdoms), which includes archetypal intelligence and deception operations such as Zhuge Liang’s empty-city strategy. And espionage undoubtedly shaped the efforts of successive Chinese dynasties to manage relations with what they called the ‘barbarian’ nomadic tribes, as part of a border-management strategy that was for most of China’s history the extent of its foreign policy. Due to this tendency to look inwards, the practice of foreign-intelligence collection (as it is understood in the West) was not a major feature of China’s intelligence culture until comparatively recently.

Intelligence was important in the 1937–45 Sino-Japanese War and the 1945–49 civil war between Mao Zedong’s Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang. The communists had some significant intelligence successes in both conflicts: during the former, they acquired in 1941 predictive information on Adolf Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union and Japan’s military expansion into the Pacific; during the latter, they achieved comprehensive penetration of the intelligence organs of a demoralised Kuomintang. The events of this era continue to define the image of espionage in Chinese popular culture, through novels such as the Knifepoint series by Mai Jia, an officer in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and countless films and TV programmes – a trend encouraged by the CCP as part of its Patriotic Education Programme. But the overwhelming majority of this intelligence was generated from within China, and the country had only a limited capacity to collect useful intelligence overseas.

Nigel Inkster is Director of Future Conflict and Cyber Security at the IISS.

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China’s Cyber Power

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