Chinese spy agencies deceived the world by popularising ‘Grains of Sand,” and many Chinese analysts are now debunking this theory.
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The classic Chinese text Art of War is most widely quoted when it comes to understanding the mindset of the Chinese establishment, especially in the context of its military operations and espionage activities. However, it isn’t sufficient to explain the present-day strategies, approach and mindset of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) when it comes to building and deploying a massive and formidable spy network.
We need to have a look at multiple aspects to develop an understanding about the approach adopted by the Chinese intelligence agencies. According to Art of War, five kinds of spies should be deployed: local spies, inside agents, double agents, expendable spies, and ‘live’ agents.
“The end and aim of spying in all its five varieties is knowledge of the enemy; and this knowledge can only be derived, in the first instance, from the converted spy. Hence it is essential that the converted spy be treated with the utmost liberality,” says Sun Tzu in Art of War.
Roger Faligot mentions one of the least discussed aspects of Chinese intelligence in Chinese Spies: From Chairman Mao to Xi Jinping, “The word Qingbao in Chinese has two meanings: ‘intelligence’ and ‘information’… The concept becomes even more interesting when one studies the Chinese characters and roots of the word Qingbao. The original meaning of Qing is “life light” and “heart”. It can be translated as “the reality of the situation”, “the way things are”, the “situation” put in perspective. The second character, Bao, originates from an ancient pictogram, simplified in modern times, meaning “a person, whose hands are fixed, kneeling, forced to confess. Quite a lot of meaning to unpack in a single character.”
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Ian Williams made an important observation in UK-based publication Spectator in January 2022. In this article titled, How China Spies on the West, he mentioned, “The word Qingbao in Chinese means both ‘intelligence’ and ‘information’, and it neatly encapsulates the unique nature and breadth of a China’s vast spying system, which combines formal and informal techniques, both overt and covert, to obtain new intelligence. There is often a fine line between theft and the voluntary transfer of know-how, and China has pushed the latter to the limit. Over the years, the CCP has built a comprehensive system for spotting and acquiring foreign technologies by multiple means.”
For a long time, China has been able to deceive the rest of the world by popularising ‘Thousand Grains of Sand’ theory. This theory was floated by former FBI agent and China analyst Paul D Moore in the 1990s and since then it has been used extensively to explain the Chinese approach when it comes to spying in other countries. Let’s try and understand the Thousand Grains of Sand theory. Moore explained it: “If a beach were a target, the Russian would send in a sub, frogmen would steal ashore in the dark of night and collect several buckets of sand and take them back to Moscow. The US would send over satellites and produce reams of data. The Chinese would send in a thousand tourists, each assigned to collect a single grain of sand. When they returned, they would be asked to shake out their towels. And they would end up knowing more about the sand than anyone else.”
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