Spies and intimidation do not normally go hand-in-hand, at least in the understanding of most of us. We tend to think of spies as secretive, somewhat anonymous, cloak and dagger individuals that operate in the shadows of society. This, despite the likes of James Bond. I should perhaps add here that James Bond was based on a real spy who operated in Europe between the two World Wars, and very much lived the lifestyle of his on-screen copy.
The West has always lagged far behind its enemies in the scope of their undercover operations. It’s almost laughable now that, in 1929, Henry Stimson, the U.S. Secretary of State, shut down the country’s code breaking agency on the basis that “gentlemen do not read each other’s mail”.
In 1936, Britain’s ambassador in Moscow refused to allow MI6 to open a station in the embassy because “it was liable to cause embarrassment”. Russia, in the meantime, had founded Cheka in 1917 “to terrorize the enemies of the Bolshevik revolution and steal secrets abroad”. By the time the British ambassador refused to allow MI6 to open a station in his embassy, Cheka was employing 100,000 active agents. Even at the start of World War II, Britain’s Foreign Office went so far as to ban espionage against its new ally, Russia, and the code breakers at Bletchley Park were not permitted to monitor, let alone decrypt, Soviet communications.
Switching to the present day, a BBC report this week said that the vast majority of Uyghurs in the U.K. had received visits from Chinese Communist agents trying to persuade them to spy for China against the U.K. Each of those visits included threats to their Uyghur families back in China, if they did not follow these “requests”. Spies and intimidation personified!
British Intelligence reported that the majority of those approached had declined. Admirable though that is, the ability of Chinese agents to operate in the U.K., apparently without constraints, to intimidate in this way is reprehensible on the part of the U.K. government. One would assume that MI5 knows who these agents are, if they are operating so openly, so why doesn’t it deport them, or just make them disappear?
A report by the British Parliament’s intelligence committee, published on July 13th this year, said China “almost certainly maintains the largest state intelligence apparatus in the world – dwarfing the U.K.’s intelligence community.
How many Chinese in the United States have relatives back in China, and are therefore vulnerable to intimidation? How many Chinese students studying at universities in Europe and the U.S. are Chinese agents planted there to gather information and to intimidate Chinese American citizens.
Things are beginning to change, although it is almost certainly the case of trying to close the barn door after the horse has escaped. In 2020, the FBI opened a new China-related counter-intelligence case every ten hours.
Some may claim that such spying and intimidation is also perpetrated by the West on Russia and China. Certainly true. However, what are the numbers of people in China and Russia who would be susceptible to similar intimidation. I would guess thousands and thousands less than the other way around. Is this stupid naiveté on the part of the West. Again, certainly yes, but you can’t change those numbers. Who, in the West, seriously wants to emigrate to live in Russia or China? Given this lack of internal resources in those countries, we must be much smarter, more focused, and way more aggressive to combat foreign agents in our own lands.
A book written by Calder Walton examines this situation from an historical and current perspective. In that book he states that America and its European allies insist they do not want a cold war with China. “However,” he says, “that, of course, overlooks one of this book’s central conclusions: Western powers can be in a cold war irrespective of whether they seek one or not. And they can be in one before they recognize it”. Too true! It would be stupidly naïve not to assume that we are, and aggressively act accordingly.