Behind the Fog

When secrecy can harm the very purpose of having an intelligence organization in a State

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Sitting in a café with friends sometimes makes one want to talk of complex global concerns. If for nothing else, then just to sound erudite to the person sitting on the table next to yours. And then there are times when this royally backfires.

So as my friend and I sat discussing intelligence agencies around the world, he mentioned China and that one word brought a hard-stop to the discussion. None of us could name the Chinese intelligence agency. Not that we are encyclopedias and that our not knowing, was a total shocker but still we could recall no mention of it in newspapers or in broadcast news. Anywhere!

I quickly made a run-through of all the intelligence agencies that I could recall- CIA, Mossad, R&AW, ISI but all the mind-palace efforts couldn’t help me stumble on the name. So finally, we pulled out our smartphones to clear the mystery.

-Ministry of State Security.

MSS was formed in 1983 and oversees counter-intelligence, amassing data from around the globe and political security. Not so astonishingly, it can even arrest citizens on violation of state security matters, unlike other intelligence agencies around the globe.

The MSS doesn’t work for the welfare of the people but for the maintenance of the Communist Party’s autocratic rule.

The Chinese name for MSS is Guojia Anquan Bu or GAB and it handles operations for Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau, spy handling, cyber security technical intelligence and foreign liaison.

During its initial years, Deng Xiaoping didn’t want the MSS to recruit spies but to employ businessmen, journalists who would have a natural existing cover to aid questioning of any sort on the international front. He thought that operating from under the MSS would have more information fall into China’s lap than via a façade of institutions, which would end up raising more eyebrows and investing in cover-ups than actual work.

There is a second civilian intelligence agency called MPS- Ministry of Public Security which supports information security research and engages to a lesser degree in domestic intelligence operations. Military intelligence, on the other hand falls under PLA(People’s Liberation Army).

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Most countries with populations more than 5 million have intelligence agencies asset up. Even Hong Kong had managed to set up a “political department’ to cater to such needs before it was returned to China’s control. But in a county of 1.3 billion such as China, talk of such an organization is taboo and non – existent in mass media conversations or official documents.

How do the citizens perceive the ‘intelligence agency’ which has transformed into ‘secret service’? Many concerned netizens have asked for reforms urgently to ensure transparency and instill a supervising mechanism in place for the Chinese intelligence. But first of all, China needs to officially admit the existence of such agencies which can allow for accountability by people or even relevant government agencies.

It has become a trend for scholars of comparative politics to overlook intelligence agencies as mere components of government information processing units. They miss the crucial role played by them in maintaining state power and in formulating international policies. The matter of policy interventions by an unchecked intelligence community, functioning on certain biases will lead to misguided decisions that can spell disaster for the country.

Taking US’s example, its intelligence agencies moved from “non-existence” to public scrutiny after the1960s, which led to unearthing of many scandals and direct control by the White House and Congress. Now, however damaging, be these scandals, they are atleast proof of the checks in place and reflect on the active-passive state of the agency.

But then yet again, ‘transparency’ in a secret service organization seems incompatible. Doesn’t the nature of the work itself incorporate discretion ? Also, the Snowden leaks have revealed, how little tabs governments can actually place on top intelligence bodies.

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China differs in another aspect — of reporting the information to the government. It does not have an official way of integrated reporting into considered strategic analysis, or the ability to distill assessments into a single holistic view. Chinese intelligence agencies, both military and civilian, also have components that operate at the provincial level, leading to regional differences in their analysis, performance and equipment. With multiple layers between the intelligence sources and China’s leaders, it’s probable that what reaches the top levels has been influenced by multiple procedures and biases, leading to a less reliable finished intelligence product. It’s important to remember that an authoritarian system isn’t necessarily a unified one.

The primary purpose of the MSS today is to be the panopticon in China. In Michel Foucaults’ Discipline and Punish, he mentions the Panopticon to be a circular building with a tower in the middle from where an observer can watch anything and everything – Non-stop surveillance. But for Foucault, panopticism wasn’t an intrusive term but an encouragement to economic productivity and social harmony.

But what he doesn’t take into consideration is what happens when the watchman starts abusing such all prevailing power, which is exactly the case with MSS and MPS today.

Hope China clears the fog.