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China has become a tough target for U.S. spies

The U.S. has yet to fully recover from a catastrophic setback in which an informant network inside China was unmasked and dismantled. At least 20 were executed.
People walk past a video screen showing a speech by Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Museum of the Communist Party of China in Beijing on March 3, 2023.
People walk past a video screen showing a speech by Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Museum of the Communist Party of China in Beijing on Friday.Greg Baker / AFP - Getty Images

With Washington and Beijing locked in a tense superpower rivalry, the United States faces a daunting task in discerning the intentions of leaders in a country where power is increasingly concentrated and surveillance widespread, former American intelligence officials said.

Reliable information about decision-making in China is in high demand in Washington amid fears Beijing could opt to arm Russian forces waging war in Ukraine or try to seize control of Taiwan by force. 

But under President Xi Jinping’s rule, China has become an elusive target for U.S. intelligence agencies, according to five former senior intelligence officials and congressional aides.

Xi’s tightening grip on power, his government’s vast electronic surveillance apparatus, a crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong, and a strict three-year Covid lockdown have all made intelligence gathering exceedingly difficult, former officials said. Some of the officials spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the topic.

Moreover, the U.S. has yet to fully recover from a catastrophic setback in which a network of intelligence informants inside China was unmasked and dismantled.

The episode represented one of the most significant intelligence breaches in American history, NBC News previously reported. The Chinese penetrated clandestine communications and used that knowledge to arrest and execute at least 20 CIA informants, according to multiple current and former government officials.

“It was a horrible, devastating loss to the intelligence community,” a former intelligence official said. “Lives were lost.”

Top intelligence officials are due to testify Wednesday and Thursday at annual congressional hearings on global threats facing the U.S., and China will likely dominate much of the discussion.

Until even a decade ago, China’s collective leadership, with power more diffused among different factions and individuals, offered up an array of possible intelligence targets and a more fluid political environment.

“There was a wider circle of people that intelligence agencies might target. It’s a much more centralized, tight system now,” said a former senior U.S. intelligence official familiar with the matter. 

“The risk of being surprised is greater.”

The consolidation of power under Xi combined with three years of a stringent anti-Covid policy “has made getting authoritative information out of the system very difficult,” said Chris Johnson, president of China Strategies Group, a political risk consultancy.

“Then, more broadly, the expansion of their surveillance and monitoring capability over the years makes that very, very challenging,” said Johnson, a former senior China analyst at the CIA.

In short, he said, “it’s a b----.”

If Xi were to die suddenly, U.S. intelligence agencies likely would have no clear idea who might succeed him, former intelligence officers and analysts said.

“That’s how closed the system is, because we simply don’t know,” said Dennis Wilder, who served as the CIA’s deputy assistant director for East Asia and the Pacific from 2015 to 2016.

“The inner ring is difficult to penetrate,” said Wilder, now a research fellow for the Initiative for U.S.-China Dialogue on Global Issues at Georgetown University.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence did not respond to requests for comment. 

When contacted by NBC News, the CIA referred to recent comments by William Burns, the agency’s director. Asked in an interview last month with CBS News if the U.S. had a window into Xi’s thinking and decision-making, Burns said that was “always the hardest question for any intelligence service” in an authoritarian system “where power is consolidated so much in the hands of one man.”

Burns added that “it’s something we work very hard at, and try to provide the president with the best insights that we can.”

'Not a black box'

Some former intelligence officials and regional experts are more optimistic about America’s ability to read China, as they say Xi and other senior communist officials often state publicly the goals and objectives of the regime.

“China is not an intelligence black box,” one former national security official said. “Far from it. In examining his speeches and directives, intelligence analysts have long assessed that Xi sought to displace the U.S. as the world’s dominant power and to replace the U.S.-led order with one reflective of China’s values and interests.”

Burns and other top Biden administration officials recently chose to publicly divulge intelligence reporting that suggested China was considering supplying weapons to Russia in its war in Ukraine.

CIA Director William Burns speaks at the agency's headquarters in Langley, Va., July 8, 2022.
CIA Director William Burns speaks at the agency's headquarters in Langley, Va., July 8, 2022.Susan Walsh / AP file

The disclosure “shows there is some insight into what is going on in the upper echelons of the Chinese government,” said Mollie Saltskog, a senior intelligence analyst at The Soufan Group, a global intelligence and security consultancy. 

The initial intelligence suggesting that China was contemplating such a move was gleaned from Russian government officials, NBC News reported previously. U.S. officials then corroborated the information from other sources of intelligence and with allies, a current and former U.S. official said.

China has denied it is considering sending lethal aid to Russia, dismissing the U.S. accusation as “disinformation.”

U.S. officials say they have exposed and disrupted Chinese attempts at spying inside the U.S. over the past several years. The first Chinese intelligence officer to be extradited to the U.S., Yanjun Xu, was sentenced last year to 20 years in prison after he was convicted of economic espionage against GE Aviation and other aviation companies. 

U.S. intelligence leaders have vowed to treat China as their top priority. In 2021, the CIA announced a new center focused on gathering intelligence about China. The China Mission Center “will further strengthen our collective work on the most important geopolitical threat we face in the 21st century, an increasingly adversarial Chinese government,” Burns said in announcing the move.

Designs on Taiwan

China has long refused to rule out seizing control of Taiwan by force if necessary, but some senior U.S. military commanders have warned that the People’s Liberation Army is poised and even likely to launch an invasion within the next several years.

Some former intelligence officials and China experts disagree, arguing that there is a clear distinction between China’s military capabilities and the intentions of its political leaders -- and that Xi’s plans remain uncertain.

The increasingly tough rhetoric from Washington runs the risk of pushing China into more aggressive action instead of preventing it, former officials said.

China’s new foreign minister, Qin Gang, said Tuesday the U.S. and China are heading toward inevitable “confrontation and conflict” unless Washington changes course.

The intelligence challenge posed by China and the increasingly hostile atmosphere clouding U.S.-China relations underscore the need for more dialogue between the two superpowers to avoid an unintended collision, former intelligence officials said.

The Biden administration has cited the need to bolster America’s competitiveness and to rally allies and partners to counter China, but “you’ve got to talk to the Chinese too,” said Johnson, the former CIA analyst. “You’ve got to talk to them.”

Communication channels, particularly between the Chinese and the U.S. militaries, have withered as relations have deteriorated. The breakdown in communication was on full display when a Chinese surveillance balloon traversed the U.S. last month, with the Chinese rebuffing a phone call from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. 

Ely Ratner, assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs, called the lack of communication “destabilizing and dangerous,” and said that “we think we both ought to be doing a better job of managing it.”

“These are the kinds of times that we need to be talking about what our intentions are, what our perspectives are,” he said.