Perhaps it was appropriate that the news of a mass infiltration by insiders of Beijing’s ruling party should break in the same week that John le Carré died.
The passing of the master of spy stories reminded us all of times past, when the world was dominated by superpowers who employed tens of thousands to work in that shadowy space between diplomacy and sabotage; the arena of spooks and agents, doubles and triples.
The database had originally been leaked in September on Telegram, the WhatsApp for would-be James Bonds, and was made public to journalists this week by the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China.
It contained details of some two million members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), who just happened to hold senior and sensitive positions within foreign missions in Shanghai and in a series of major global corporations, including Boeing, Volkswagen and Pfizer.
It is not possible to draw a direct equivalence between membership of the CCP and being a Chinese agent. Nevertheless, the CCP are the elite of Chinese society: its members swear to “carry out the Party’s decisions, strictly observe Party discipline, guard Party secrets, be loyal to the Party, work hard, fight for communism throughout my life, be ready at all times to sacrifice my all for the Party and the people, and never betray the Party”.
Moreover, the country’s National Intelligence Law of 2017 mandates the use of “non-traditional” agents — that is, those who may be activated for specific tasks rather than long-term professional spies. The infiltration of the ruling party of a regime such as Beijing to the global corporate community is alarming, dangerous, and embarrassing.
There are two parts to this shameful saga. Those foreign ministries whose outposts have been compromised — the US, the UK, Australia and Germany among them — must to an extent regard it as part of the eternal game they play. Diplomacy has always been somewhat dirty.
But for the big corporations, this is a more unusual cause for red faces. Some are major defence contractors, like Boeing and Qualcomm. Given how closely such companies work with state institutions like the US Pentagon and the UK’s Ministry of Defence, there must be anxiety about the risk to classified information and intellectual property.
Pfizer has also been infiltrated. The Manhattan-based pharmaceutical giant has developed one of the vaccines for Covid-19, which has been approved in the UK, the US, Canada and Mexico, among others, and awaits approval in the EU and India. It would be deeply concerning to imagine that bad-faith actors like CCP agents had access to the medical details of the vaccine.
All the companies employing CCP agents must admit that their vetting procedures, and therefore their overall information security, are flawed. Serious questions will be asked, and it will be a consultants’ field day.
Worse than the potential of a specific breach, however, is the atmosphere it will instil within these companies. Suspicion, insecurity and paranoia are inevitable consequences of discovering a viper in the corporate bosom. For a telecommunications enterprise like Qualcomm, this is terrible publicity, given widespread and growing public concern about data security and harvesting. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
The scandal has exposed something else, though, something which should have been plain but which some have sought to ignore or overlook. Xi Jinping’s China is not an honest player in international relations. It is aggressive, oppressive, militaristic, expansionist, and acquisitive.
It is also, at best, amoral. The detention of perhaps a million Uighurs in concentration camps in Xinjiang should demonstrate that.
It is easy to be blinded by the promise of rich investment opportunities in China and, conversely, the flow of Chinese money into western coffers. But the regime should be no more trusted than was Soviet Russia in le Carré’s time. Beijing is not playing our game.
The afflicted companies have work to do. They must reassure shareholders and customers alike that they take security seriously and have structures in place to prevent espionage or data breaches. In the longer term, however, it may be that they have to demonstrate that they are appropriately critical and wary of China, that they understand the geopolitical threat it poses, and that they do not embrace the dragon simply in search of riches.
Survival, as le Carré once wrote, is an infinite capacity for suspicion.
Main image credit: Getty