The Chinese spying game has a long history

  • Themes: China

Alongside Confucian ideals of exemplary leadership, the Chinese tradition nurtured an equally influential alternative figura: that of the commander or strategist bent on conquering one’s opponent by means of secret stratagems

A message is received at the palace, a print painted in Ming dynasty China. Credit: Chronicle of World History / Alamy Stock Photo.
A message is received at the palace, a print painted in Ming dynasty China. Credit: Chronicle of World History / Alamy Stock Photo.

Espionage has deep roots in China. This may seem odd in a culture where Confucianism left a deep imprint on public and private life. After all, in order to be a worthy member of society, Confucius (551-479 BCE) said that one ought to aspire to be upright and genuine. Words and language ought to be carefully chosen. The Confucian gentleman had to mean what he said and respect customs and rituals. Officials were the visual embodiment of an ethical code that encouraged those with talent to live life as public servants and educators. At first sight, then, operating from the shadows with deliberate deceit seems far-flung from Confucian notions of righteousness and propriety. Yet this is only part of the story. Alongside Confucian ideals of exemplary leadership, the Chinese tradition nurtured an equally influential alternative figura: that of the commander or strategist bent on conquering one’s opponent by means of secret stratagems.

Sunzi’s Art of War (Sunzi bingfa), composed somewhere between the 5th and late 3rd century BCE, is one of the most frequently quoted Chinese classics. The text still figures today on curricula of military academies and business schools. Its recommendations are chewed over as ploys to help one win life’s battles. Policymakers turn to Master Sun for the odd quote in tweets or speeches. In recent months some columnists and news analysts even ventured to suggest Putin had better take a leaf from this ancient Chinese treatise before embarking on his invasion of Ukraine. Warfare, Master Sun professes, is the art of deception; victory hinges on gaining strategic advantage over one’s opponent. The astute commander should aim to secure victory before swords have crossed or a single arrow has been fired. The greatest battle is the one that has been avoided. This philosophy of passive aggression — appearing weak when you are strong and strong when you are weak – is conveniently applied to other domains of life, from the art of negotiating and diplomacy, to game theory.

Maintaining secrecy is a core element in military texts from China’s classical age. Espionage forms an essential ingredient of Sunzi’s Art of War: if one can outthink one’s enemy, battle can be evaded. Spies are cost-efficient. They save a ruler from having to spend ‘one thousand pieces of gold per day’ and help mitigate the economic chaos caused by prolonged warfare. Therefore, the text notes, ‘no one merits greater reward than the spy, yet no matters should be held in greater secrecy than those relating to spies’. The title of Master Sun’s chapter on espionage (ch. 13) translates ‘using go-betweens’.  The Chinese character for ‘spy’ (jian) used here depicts the sun peeping through a gate (it also means space-in-between or a time interval). Its core message: a good commander ought to gain foreknowledge of events. Yet good intelligence does not come from the spirit world (prognostication and praying for victory only gets you that far), it requires real men on the ground who get ‘in-between’ enemy ranks and are thoroughly familiar with the adversary’s situation.

Master Sun proposes that five kinds of spies are deployed: local spies, inside agents, double agents, expendable spies, and ‘live’ agents. Local spies or ‘village agents’ are recruited among the enemy’s own countrymen. Inside agents are enemy officials employed by the opposing party, double agents (‘turned spies’) are enemy spies who report to both sides. The expendable or ‘dead’ spy is one who has intentionally been given false information to pass on to the enemy. ‘Live’ or nonexpendable agents return in one piece from the enemy camp to report back. So, both the importance of information-gathering and disinformation tactics are acknowledged. When all these five types of spies are in operation they are said to act like an invisible ‘web devised by the spirits’ and form an enormous asset to the ruler. But employing spies is a complicated business, Master Sun warns: only the most perceptive rulers and the most humane and just commander will be able to deploy them. Extracting the truth from a spy requires a person who is subtle and alert. When a case of espionage is uncovered prematurely, the consequences are severe: not only must the agent himself die but also all those he talked to. Intelligence gathering must be thorough: extract the names of the defending commander and all his key personnel; attempt to identify enemy spies so they can be bribed to become double agents. The summum of military deployment is to keep an army formless, that is, not to divulge any set formations so that even embedded spies fail to discern one’s intentions (ch. 6).

Throughout subsequent centuries Chinese military treatises continued to reflect on spycraft in terms of the five basic types of agents defined by Master Sun. They also discuss a wide array of covert intelligence gathering techniques. These include the use of coded language, forged letters, and tallies to transmit messages so that even couriers could not decipher them. Prophetic verses and songs were another tool for clandestine messaging. In addition to bribery, there was the use of rumor and disinformation, honey trapping, and estrangement. The spy was to be unfathomable, mysterious, and inscrutable like the deepest elements of the cosmos. One Tang-period military governor, Li Quan (eight century), described the clandestine roving agent as ‘a blackbird who invisibly enters a forest or a fish diving into the deepest pool without leaving a trace.’ Sunzi’s Art of Warfare is adamant that there is nothing ethically wrong or perverse about spycraft or actively subverting an opponent’s plans. More than two thousand years later, Zhu Fengjia rehearses this point in his Book of Spies (Jianshu, written in 1855). Uptight Confucians may well have frowned upon tactics that breach virtues such as sincerity, trust, and righteousness. But by quoting an authoritative selection of cases from ancient canonical texts, Zhu counters the idea that significant historical achievements always result from the efforts of morally accomplished heroes. If enlightened rulers, generals and even sages in the past deployed agents to great effect, the ruthless art of espionage merits respect (in the Chinese tradition antiquity tends to be revered, and invoking the past does miracles to justify the present). After all, the ability to foresee events is hailed as a defining feature of all sage thinkers in China’s distant past. Perhaps this is where the minds of Confucius the administrator and Master Sun’s commander meet: the politician strategizes like a general.


Roel Sterckx