The US has admitted it is restoring its spy network in Beijing, but any efforts against it will likely be dubbed ‘paranoia’
Recently, CIA director William Burns said the US was working on “rebuilding” CIA networks in China. The comments came after the Chinese state had successfully purged the presence of the CIA from its upper echelons in previous years, making it difficult for the all-seeing eye to decipher the intentions of China’s leadership.
Despite this, any talk of what the CIA “does” in China is never truly covered by the mainstream media, and those who report on it are often dismissed as “fringe” or conspiracy theorists. Similarly, China’s warning of “external forces” manipulating its politics is also never taken seriously, and moreover any arrest by China on charges of espionage are also dismissed as illegitimate and politically motivated. So is the CIA there, or is it not?
In the realm of confirmed public knowledge, the CIA only truly exists in terms of history. That is, we learn about some of the things it has done from documents declassified years later, but we never get to know what it is doing now. We can read, for example, about how the CIA infiltrated countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan and bribed officials to defect in anticipation of coming invasions, or how it launched coups in countries throughout the world. But the key is, we don’t hear about these events at the time they happen, that is relegated to secrecy, and hence all the things the CIA does at the time of happening are framed as efforts for freedom, democracy, etc.
It is no surprise that, despite offhand comments such as this by Burns, it is an unequivocal truth that the mainstream media simply pretends the CIA does not exist, and its actions in the present are never behind any kind of event or development. Those who seek to whistleblow and expose its activities, such as Julian Assange, are hunted down and subjected to brutal punishment. When a new leak revealed that the CIA under Mike Pompeo planned to go as far as even assassinating him, it was widely ignored by the media, excluding the BBC reporting on it in Somali language just for the purposes of plausible deniability.
Given this background, China’s caution and vigilance towards the CIA is widely dismissed as paranoia and an unsubstantiated excuse for oppression. If China takes action against firms it deems linked to potential espionage, such US consultancies, the mainstream media responds by framing Beijing as unreasonable, closed, insecure and therefore, as every narrative pertaining to Beijing always concludes these days, “bad for business.” It is ironic that, while the US media bends to dismiss every single inclination that Beijing may have about American spying (despite comments such as Burns’), it simultaneously ramps up fear of Chinese spying to a hysterical scale and has no limitations or logic on what it may accuse of operating as an espionage tool on behalf of Beijing.
But the fact that China has successfully purged CIA networks in the past, and is tightening the space for spies to operate, indicates that it is not experiencing paranoid delusions, but has correct judgement. It is logical that, with the US having designated China as its primary rival and foreign policy objective, the CIA will, as Burns says, increase its focus and activities in China. So the fears are not unfounded. The real question, of course, is what the CIA is doing to “rebuild” its presence. First, it wants to spy on China’s leaders, deciphering their moves, intentions, and strategies. Second, it wants to spy on China’s industries and technologies. Third, it wants to be able to instigate dissent and unrest in China’s society in order to try and weaken the government, which includes trying to buy the loyalty of officials to betray the state.
Explicit interventions by the CIA have included a focus on regions such as Xinjiang and Tibet, but also more explicitly stirring up unrest and insurrection in Hong Kong, an accusation which is still currently being dismissed as Beijing’s “authoritarian paranoia.” But, of course, when decades pass, the truth will eventually come out, and the “taboo” imposed on public discourse that dismisses all reference to CIA activities as “conspiracy theories” will be lifted. Either way, it remains true that China is prepared to do everything it can to root out and nip the CIA network in the bud as it emerges, because as much as some people are in denial about it, the lessons of history don’t lie. The CIA infiltrates, subverts, interferes and undermines countries, both friends and foes, in the name of US geopolitical objectives. Now, it has China in its sights, but its success is far from guaranteed.