Gathering intelligence on the world’s largest secret society: the Chinese government

Xi JinpingINTELLIGENCE OBSERVERS OFTEN REFER to the Communist Party of China (CPC) as “the world’s largest secret society”. Barring brief periods of relative openness in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the closed decision-making system of the CPC has presented Western intelligence analysts with cascading intractable enigmas for over half a century. This problem has become even more pressing under the decade-long leadership of Xi Jinping, during which the imposition of rigorous counterintelligence measures have turned China into a text-book hard intelligence target.

How does one manage to monitor developments in the inner sanctum of the Chinese state in the face of such formidable obstacles? According to two intelligence experts, it is still possible to gather and analyze actionable intelligence on China, by adopting the right approach. In their article “Beijingology 2.0: Bridging the ‘Art’ and ‘Science’ of China Watching in Xi Jinping’s New Era”, published on Monday in the International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence, Bjørnar Sverdrup-Thygeson and Stig Stenslie outline the main contours of such an approach. China specialist Sverdrup-Thygeson is Senior Research Fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs. Stenslie is Research Director and Head of the Centre for Intelligence Studies at the Norwegian Defense Intelligence School.

From Beijingology to Beijingology 2.0

The two authors explain that the Chinese intelligence riddle is not new. In fact, China-focused intelligence practitioners have long referred to their work as “Beijingology”. The term refers to the art (as opposed to science) of studying the Chinese closed political system, based on widely divergent sources of intelligence. These range from “rumor mills among Beijing diplomats” and speculations on social media, to social-science-based quantitative studies. Sverdrup-Thygeson and Stenslie explain that the two extremes of Beijingology are invariably disconnected from what is actually happening on the ground in China, and are thus of limited value.

The key, they argue, is a well-balanced mixture of approaches, which they term “Beijingology 2.0”. This approach combines traditional Beijingology methods with a host of advanced and innovative tools in social science research, such as discourse analysis and textual analysis of official Chinese government documents. The latter “offer one of very few windows into Chinese elite-level political dynamics” and thus cannot be ignored. Like all bureaucratic regimes, the Chinese political system produces copious amounts of official information in the form of public documents, speeches, and CPC-authorized statements. Such sources include daily editions of the People’s Daily (the CPC’s official media organ) and the People’s Liberation Army Daily.

Given the increasing information restrictions imposed by the Xi regime on elite Chinese political circles, publications such as these are absolutely indispensable. Moreover, the authors claim, they can be effectively utilized for purposes of intelligence analysis by employing novel social science tools. Among these is advanced text mining, which can discover information patterns within large volumes of textual data. To be effective, such an approach requires analysts with fluency, not only in Mandarin, but in Chinese “officialese”, i.e. “the particular linguistic tropes that set official [People’s Republic of China] political documents apart from everyday Chinese”.

The Elite Studies Approach

The authors propose combining the deep-level textual analysis of Chinese government-issued communications with tools provided by the social science field of elite studies. The latter focuses on the study of authoritarian political systems by “tracing the general dynamics of power brokers, formal and informal, [and] looking at the mechanisms for elite circulation and integration”. This is done by, for instance, “tracing when and where key personnel are present, and when and where they are absent”, in order to map intraparty factions and intrigues within the governing elites, especially when significant policy changes are underway. Coupling the elite studies approach with in-depth biographical knowledge of key figures within the CPC can illuminate “how are future leaders recruited, on which basis, and through which channels may they be identified”, the authors claim. This, in turn, can allow intelligence analysts to trace people and networks within the hard intelligence target that is the CPC, with a significant degree of accuracy.

In conclusion, Sverdrup-Thygeson and Stenslie recommend a careful bridging of art and science, through the integration of machine tools and research methodologies from the social sciences. The resulting Beijingology 2.0 approach may be a timely catalyst for the West’s understanding of Chinese policy and politics in our time, they argue.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 21 July 2022 | Permalink

2 Responses to Gathering intelligence on the world’s largest secret society: the Chinese government

  1. MI6 says:

    What about data gathered by satellites and drones irrespective of their ownership? After all, such data (eg on Wuhan car park usage) was useful in analysing the start of Covid19.

  2. John Munro Wright says:

    Intelligence that is of best value comes or is obtained from people working within the Chinese government departments and who, for whatever reasons, dispatch data to Western sources (the so-called ‘data dispatchers.’) So the West needs to cultivate Chinese individuals (students on exchange visits/years to educational institutions are ideal) and induce them to provide the West with information once they are back in China and working in a variety of increasingly senior roles.

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