China: Ministry of State Security (MSS)

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The MSS program for controlling Xinjiang Province has sent thousands into forced labor factories, according to an Australian think tank. (Credit: Australian Strategic Policy Institute )

MSS: Agency of Social Control

There are few intelligence agencies with a more ambitious agenda than China’s Ministry of State Security. The MSS,  also known as Guo’anbu, is responsible for the government’s foreign intelligence and counterintelligence missions, as well as domestic security programs. Despite reports of internal turmoil, the Chinese intelligence has had numerous successes.

The stated mission of the MSS is to ensure “the security of the country through effective measures against enemy agents, spies, and counter-revolutionary activities designed to sabotage, destabilize or overthrow China’s socialist system.”

The Chinese government utilizes a broad approach to intelligence collection, involving both public agencies and private corporations. In the field of economic espionage, the FBI considers China the biggest threat to the United States.

The director of the MSS is Chen Wenqing, appointed by President Xi in 2016. (For more on Chen, read this article.)

The MSS polices public expression. In March 2021, six Chinese bloggers were arrested by MSS for ‘insulting’ People’s Liberation Army Ground Force soldiers who died in border clash with India by suggesting the death toll was 11 times higher than the official count of four.

Countering foreign influence is a priority. In late April 2021, the MSS announced that it was introducing several new measures to fight alleged infiltration by “hostile forces” of Chinese companies and other institutions. These measures include drawing up a list of companies and organizations considered to be at risk of foreign infiltration and requiring them to take security measures.

In June 2021, unsubstantiated news reports suggested Dong Jingwei, chief of counterintelligence for MSS, had defected and supposedly given the U.S. government information about the Wuhan Institute of Virology that changed the stance of the Biden administration concerning the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.  The Chinese government subsequently released a photo showing Dong attending the 16th meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.

In 2021, the US Justice Department charged  four Chinese nationals – three security officials and one contract hacker working with the MSS in a hacking campaign that targeted dozens of computer systems, including companies, universities and government entities, between 2011 and 2018.

“The Ministry of State Security (MSS) had fostered an ecosystem of criminal contract hackers who carry out both state-sponsored activities and cybercrime for their own financial gain,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said..

In August 2020, the U.S. Justice Department charged Alexander Ma, a former CIA officer, with spying for the MSS. According to court documents, Ma and a relative conspired with multiple Chinese intelligence officials to communicate classified national defense information over the course of a decade.

In December 2018 U.S. prosecutors charged two MSS agents for their role in cyber-attacks against the United States. The men allegedly hacked into computers of technology companies such Hewlett-Packard and IBM, and government agencies such as NASA and the Department of the Navy. They stole technological secrets and gained access to service providers, enabling large-scale supply chain intrusions, according to U.S. officials.

The MSS is not the only Chinese intelligence service.  Intelligence elements of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have also played a major role in Chinese intelligence via cyber intrusions  and human intelligence penetration of the U.S. Department of Defense.

 

The U.S. government has blacklisted Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant that is suspected of creating or allowing security loopholes in its products for the benefit of Chinese intelligence

Human Rights

The MSS has a played a leading role in China’s vast campaign to diminish the identity and influence of the Uighur people in the western province of Xinjiang. The MSS has created systems of surveillance and re-education to achieve the government’s goals of social control and ethnic assimilation.

 

Western human rights group charge that the MSS has created forced labor programs that put Uighurs to workk in factories supplying Western brands like Apple and VW.

 

The MSS also figures in China’s growing role in the affairs of Hong Kong.

 

In a letter released in June 2020, 86 civil society organizations declared  China’s proposed national security law for Hong Kong is a devastating assault on human rights and should be abandoned. “The law may allow agencies such as the Ministry of State Security and the National Security Bureau of the Ministry of Public Security – long known for serious rights violations in China – to operate in Hong Kong,” said the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch.

 

The MSS is highly secretive, but a string of defectors have shed some light on its inner workings. In 2017, Guo Wengui, a Chinese real estate tycoon, claimed former MSS vice minister Ma Jian had given him insider information. The incident resulted in the purging of many senior officials within the agency.

Resources

Researcher: Brianna Taylor