China fishes for secrets in rich, vulnerable waters
December 11, 2007

China's smile will be on global display during next summer's Olympic Games. The athletic and cultural extravaganza will be a well choreographed 17-day magic act designed to ensure Beijing's woeful human rights record vanishes.

The imprisonment of scores of human rights activists will be conveniently forgotten. So, too, will the abuse of lawyers, writers, academics and HIV/AIDS campaigners who have challenged the unyielding regime. Indeed, in its most recent annual report, Human Rights Watch described China's already tattered human rights standing as having "deteriorated significantly."

Western governments, including Canada, will likely look the other way for fear of alienating the host nation and jeopardizing lucrative trade deals with Asia's economic behemoth.

Governments of various political pedigrees will also, no doubt, continue to look askance at Beijing's audacious and technologically sophisticated spying that constitutes a much less savoury counterpoint to the happy face the dictatorship intends to relentlessly market to the world come August.

There was more evidence of this fact when the British government recently issued an extraordinary alert to 300 top executives and security chiefs at banks, accounting and law firms warning of an "electronic espionage attack" from "Chinese state organizations."

Not surprisingly, Beijing denied that it had carried out any state-sponsored cyber-espionage against pillars of Britain's economy. But the official British warning echoes, in part, the alarm raised earlier this year by Chen Yonglin, a former Chinese diplomat who defected to Australia in 2005, insisting that China had 1,000 agents operating there.

Chen has also claimed that a similarly sized legion of Chinese spies also manoeuvres covertly in Canada. Though his allegations appear outlandish, they have been treated as credible by authorities.

That Chen bandied about a headline-grabbing number wasn't particularly persuasive for China watchers inside the spook world. The more reliable aspect of his disclosures was the description of the subtle nature of Chinese spying.

Patience and penetration are central to the Chinese espionage model. Trained spies pilfer military, economic and trade secrets. Their covert work, Chen said, is abetted by a network of informants – from students to businessmen – who are recruited to feed intelligence to Beijing. And all of it is tolerated by the western democracies in the name of commerce and at the expense of human rights.

None other than Jim Judd, the head of Canada's spy service, CSIS, appeared to confirm Chen's portrait of the scope and character of Chinese spying in Canada during testimony before the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence this past April. Judd told the panel that China is the agency's most formidable adversary, preoccupying almost half of CSIS's counter-intelligence apparatus.

Judd's testimony was surprising for a number of instructive reasons. It represented a striking about-face by CSIS mandarins concerning the threat posed by Chinese espionage to Canada's national security.

A few years earlier, Judd's predecessor, Ward Elcock, had publicly dismissed the findings of a joint RCMP-CSIS probe into China's espionage in Canada, dubbed Project Sidewinder, as an "interesting theory" that couldn't withstand scrutiny.

In the late 1990s, the Sidewinder analysts produced a report that mirrored the central thrust of recent "revelations" by Chen and Judd. Rather than being feted as prescient, the team was disbanded at the behest of CSIS over the objections of RCMP brass who insisted that the civilian spy service had effectively torpedoed the hush-hush probe.

In internal correspondence, the Mounties accused senior CSIS officers of having "compromised the integrity" of intelligence reports to Ottawa about existing and emerging security threats and charged that CSIS analysts had been forced to bury their findings.

In fact, CSIS officials had ordered the initial Sidewinder report to be softened and documents related to the study destroyed. (A copy of the original, unsanitized report was leaked to the media.)

Of course, when Elcock made his disparaging remarks about the work of some of his own intelligence officers, a Liberal government was spending considerable diplomatic and political currency cultivating trade ties with China.

Now that Stephen Harper's Conservatives have taken a harder line toward China, CSIS has suddenly and predictably changed its tune.

The RCMP and CSIS officers involved in the ill-fated Sidewinder probe are surely bemused by it all. They were apparently on the right track at the wrong time. They probably know that by the time the Olympic torch is lit in Beijing, all the talk and reports of Chinese espionage will become mute. Canada and the world will be too busy smiling with China.