Chinese diplomat's defection casts spotlight on China's spy activities

Beijing known for reliance on its human intelligence

July 17, 2005|By Mark Magnier | Mark Magnier,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BEIJING - The defection of a senior Chinese diplomat in Australia who claims he helped oversee a vast spy network has cast a spotlight on China's espionage activities at a time of increased global trade tensions and concern over Beijing's military spending.

Chen Yonglin, the first secretary of the Chinese Consulate General in Sydney, chose a particularly embarrassing moment to go public against his employer - a rally last month in Australia marking the 16th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators.

At an impromptu news conference shortly after Australia initially turned down his request for political asylum, the bookish Chen announced that he'd spent the past four years managing a network of 1,000 informants and spies in Australia on behalf of the Chinese government.

Their primary target, he said, was members of Falun Gong, a quasi-religious group banned in China as an "evil cult," and people advocating independence for Tibet, Taiwan and East Turkmenistan.

Beijing immediately disputed his claims and similar charges by Hao Fengjun, a second Chinese official applying for an Australian visa. The allegations are "fabrication and lies," Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said in Beijing. "Sino-Australia relations should not pay a price for two such people and two such incidents."

"We have some Chinese who don't like China that much and want to profit for their own personal agenda," Fu Ying, China's ambassador to Australia, said recently. Chen "now appears to be hating China so much, but China offered him the best a young man can have."

The incident could reverberate beyond Australian shores, analysts said, emboldening China's critics at a time when U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Washington conservatives are expressing concern about Beijing's intentions and questioning its growing military spending.

Part of the equation, analysts said, is that neither Chen nor Hao - who claims to have worked in the Chinese city of Tianjin at a security office charged with stamping out Falun Gong before fleeing to Australia - appears to be a huge intelligence catch.

"For Western intelligence agencies, knowing how China monitors Falun Gong is not so important," said Steve Tsang, a China scholar at Oxford University. "I suspect that's why they didn't grant Chen's first application. If he was involved in a missile program or counterespionage, that would probably be a different thing."

Like those of most countries, China's intelligence efforts employ a system of concentric circles, analysts said. Unlike U.S. intelligence agencies, with their reliance on satellite data and high technology, China is known for its human intelligence.

China has three kinds of spies, asylum-seeker Hao told Australian reporters: "professional spies" paid to collect information, "working relationship" spies operating in business circles and "friends" in less formal networks, a category analysts said Chen's 1,000 spies would fall into.

China's approach, sometimes referred to as "1,000 grains of sand," has complicated life for foreign counterintelligence agencies already burdened by the U.S.-declared war on terrorism, analysts said.

"There are 150,000 students from China. Some of those are sent here to work their way up into the corporations," Dan Szady, the FBI's assistant director for counterintelligence, told the National Intelligence Conference and Exposition in Arlington, Va., in February. "There are about 300,000 Chinese visitors annually and 15,000 delegations touring the U.S. every year."

Many of these people are potential spies, he added, gathering information or being questioned when they return to China. "Even as we increase our numbers of agents, we can't possibly totally stop it," Szady said.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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