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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

The Hypocritical, Phony Outrage About Chinese Spying

If we are outraged by China’s spying against the U.S., then is it legitimate for the U.S. to spy on China? Or is espionage only objectionable when other countries do the same things we do already?

Early this year, a Chinese balloon flew over the United States, and many elected officials went apeshit. Republicans demanded that Joe Biden shoot the balloon down with a missile. The balloon was, they said, “intentionally launched as a calculated show of force” and displayed the “pressing threat of the CCP to U.S. national defense.” Biden did, in fact, send a jet fighter to destroy the balloon, and the whole thing created a major diplomatic incident with China, even though we now know that the balloon did not actually collect any intelligence, contrary to what earlier reporting had claimed

The massive freakout over the spy balloon should look, in hindsight, ridiculous, and should serve as a warning that if a Third World War ever begins, it will probably start over something incredibly stupid. But a new report in the New York Times gives us even more important context for the incident: the U.S. and China have both been relentlessly spying on each other in recent years. This country is just as guilty of trying to pry into the secrets of the Chinese government as the CCP is of spying on the U.S. This makes the outrage about Chinese spying seem like total unprincipled hypocrisy. Is the position of these politicians that it’s okay when we do it to China, but not when China does it to us? (It does often seem as if the most consistent “principle” underlying U.S. foreign policy is “do as I say, not as I do.”) 

Consider the following passage from the Times report: 

As China’s spy balloon drifted across the continental United States in February, American intelligence agencies learned that President Xi Jinping of China had become enraged with senior Chinese military generals. The spy agencies had been trying to understand what Mr. Xi knew and what actions he would take as the balloon, originally aimed at U.S. military bases in Guam and Hawaii, was blown off course. Mr. Xi was not opposed to risky spying operations against the United States, but American intelligence agencies concluded that the People’s Liberation Army had kept Mr. Xi in the dark until the balloon was over the United States. American officials would not discuss how spy agencies gleaned this information. [emphasis added]

In other words, while U.S. politicians were making angry noises in public about how China was threatening U.S. sovereignty with its dastardly balloon, the U.S. was somehow listening in on conversations at the highest levels of the Chinese government. Is this more or less intrusive than sending a camera in a hot air balloon 60,000 feet over Montana

The Times tells us that the “balloon crisis…reflects a brazen new aggressiveness by Beijing in gathering intelligence on the United States as well as Washington’s growing capabilities to collect its own information on China.” Note that when China spies on us, it’s “brazen aggressiveness.” But we don’t have brazen aggressiveness. We just have “growing capabilities” to collect information. 

There is a consistent pattern, as Noam Chomsky and I wrote for this magazine, of the U.S. treating Chinese behavior as “aggressive” while ignoring similar or worse actions by the United States. Our press fails to ask the most basic question of whether U.S. actions, judged by the same standard we apply to China, should rightly be perceived as aggressive. The Times quotes a spokesman for the Chinese government pointing out that “it is the U.S. that is the No. 1 surveillance country and has the largest spy network in the world.” The director of the FBI is quoted saying that we are “outnumbered,” and we are told that China tries “to recruit informants, steal information, hack into systems and monitor and harass Chinese dissidents in the United States.” But serious journalists have to ask: what do we do to China? We are told that the CIA has been trying to “rebuild its network” in China since a number of informants were discovered years ago. We are told that “the agency has hired more China experts, increased spending on China-related efforts and created a new mission center on China” although “American officials refuse to discuss details.” But the basic question is: how do American spying efforts in China compare with Chinese spying efforts? The Times tells us all kinds of rumors about how sophisticated the Chinese espionage apparatus is (apparently they have “artificial intelligence software” that can “detect the gait of an American spy,” a technology I find dubious). But then it tells us that we somehow know the internal deliberations of Xi and his generals! 

I spoke earlier this year with China expert Van Jackson, who confirmed that the outrage over the balloon was entirely hypocritical. Even if the Chinese government lied about the balloon being for weather research, we are engaged in far more intrusive efforts to learn Chinese secrets: 

The thing is it probably was a surveillance or spy balloon, and wasn’t just a weather balloon. But, if you choose rivalry, this is the price of rivalry: spy versus spy. The decision to have espionage happen, and the condition of possibility for that, is endemic rivalry. So, if you choose rivalry, there are certain costs and risks that go along with that. And America, again, being blameless, doesn’t like to look at the costs and risks. They like to make the choices and then have the costs be someone else’s problem. And that is bad history and analysis, and it leads to bad outcomes.…

Part of the acceleration of Chinese paranoia and triumphalism, in 2010—this only came to light recently, in the last few years—the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] discovered that the CIA had extremely high-level human intelligence plants in the party apparatus, including in security and intelligence ministries. The PLA [People’s Liberation Army] saw that it was an extreme threat to regime security, and that it was the corruption of their political system itself that made them vulnerable to CIA infiltration.

Xi Jinping came to power on the heels of this revelation and decided the whole regime is at stake, and that they have to get less corrupt and purge America out of their system. America is a threat—that’s the Chinese view at that point. You see this huge acceleration in Chinese assertiveness 2010-2012. Nobody in American foreign policy talks about the fact that China stumbled on to the CIA having infiltrated them at the highest levels. Talk about surveillance, we’re worried about a balloon! We’re not worried about China having our Vice President, I don’t think. And so, that’s a wild discrepancy in the spy versus spy stuff. It’s the price of rivalry, and we’re doing it times a thousand. But if they send a balloon, it’s a problem.

So, look: the U.S. is constantly trying to penetrate the Chinese government to learn everything it can. The Chinese are doing the same to us. It’s perfectly fair for both countries to try to stop the espionage efforts by the other. But it’s hard to take either government seriously when it complains about the spying of the other. Fine, shoot down the Chinese balloon. But remember that “turnabout is fair play.” 

Interestingly, the Times article suggests that mutual espionage might actually be useful to both countries in preventing a terrible war. Wars sometimes come about through misunderstanding of the intentions of the other party. This could easily happen between the U.S. and China. If the U.S. thinks China is preparing to invade Taiwan, we could adopt a militaristic posture that encourages China to become more assertive in response, with tensions spiraling out of control. But perhaps we are misunderstanding what Chinese officials are thinking and planning. In fact, the Times quotes the Director of National Intelligence saying that our own spying has led to the assessment that “Beijing still believes it benefits most by preventing a spiraling of tensions and by preserving stability in its relationship with the United States.” This is good to know, because it confirms that we should be trying to cooperate with China and not treating it as a looming menace. 

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