The PLA and CCP influence abroad: Business, intelligence, crime and interference enmeshed

Interview with Alex Joske on his research on alleged intelligence activities, defence universities and the CCP’s global influence operations.

Alex Joske, an analyst at the International Cyber Policy Centre of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), researches the CCP’s influence abroad. He has recently published on the CCP’s united front system, united front groups in Australia, the PLA’s use of PRC cooperation with Western universities, as well as the recent defection to Australia of an individual claiming to have worked for PLA intelligence.

Research by Joske and others shows the PLA and linked entities playing multiple roles in the advancement of the CCP’s interests abroad, including business, propaganda and cooption activity besides intelligence and military operations. In this interview, he talks about the role of the PRC military and the defence industry within the CCP’s interactions with foreign entities.

Wang Liqiang 王立强, a recent defector to Australia, claims to have worked for a PLA intelligence network active in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Soon after these claims became public, the PRC authorities denounced Wang as an impostor, producing various materials to argue he had been convicted of fraud. As the Taiwan Affairs Office’s new spokesperson put it, certain developments since his defection would thus amount to “a totally absurd, loophole-ridden ‘screenplay’ concocted by anti-China forces [反华势力炮制的荒诞不经、漏洞百出的‘剧本’]. Some media reports and casual commentary in Australia were likewise dismissive of Wang’s claims. Having worked on this story, you have had access to evidence likely unavailable to most of those commentators. Have Wang’s claims been debunked or undermined by these responses from Australia and the PRC? If scepticism is warranted, are his allegations simply untestable?

Many of Wang’s claims are nearly impossible to verify from open-source information. However, there is a trove of information available on the military links of Xiang Xin [向心] — the alleged People’s Liberation Army intelligence officer Wang worked under. Xiang’s companies have worked with and were at times even directed by individuals from China’s defence industry. There is far more research that should be done to assess some of Wang’s statements, but so far none of his key claims have been proven false.

Furthermore, both the Taiwanese and Australian governments appear to be taking Wang’s accusations very seriously. The Taiwanese government’s swift action to bar Xiang Xin and his wife Gong Qing [龚青] means that an investigation into the case is ongoing there. Following the airing of Wang’s story the head of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation also released an unprecedented statement affirming that it was taking the case seriously and had been investigating it.

If accurate, Wang’s statements would amount to a contribution to the study of the CCP’s influence, viz. new data on the interplay between (in this case military) intelligence and overt cooption activity conducted as united front and foreign affairs work. A second case that has come to light in Australia, that of Brian Chen (Chen Chunsheng 陈春生), further points to that overlap: Chen, a businessman and alleged intelligence operative, reportedly offered $1m to fund the political campaign of the luxury car dealer Nick Zhao (Zhao Bo 赵博). The overlap in methods and targets between the PLA’s liaison work apparatus and civilian organs has long been known, indeed noted in Stokes and Hsiao’s treatment of the former. Based on your analysis of the cases of Wang and Chen, what agencies and methods does the PLA appear to use in the alleged activities in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Australia? If verified, would these claims substantially alter our understanding of the PLA’s role in influence operations?

Wang’s claims have to be interpreted with the understanding that he is not an intelligence officer. While he says he interacted directly with the People’s Liberation Army on some occasions, he is not a military insider and is best understood as an important assistant to an intelligence officer. He would not have detailed knowledge of the PLA’s organisational structures and leadership.

Nonetheless, his defection has offered incredible insights into the workings of China’s military intelligence apparatus. His claims indicate how business activity and intelligence work are enmeshed, how influence work is a core part of PLA intelligence activity, and how operations can be run in a relatively autonomous way by intelligence officers. Information he has provided goes into great detail about his experiences over the five years in which he joined a company controlled by an alleged military intelligence officer, Xiang Xin, and gradually became a close aide to him.

The large numbers of China scholars who have quickly cast doubt on Wang’s claims are actually more of an indication of the shallowness of our understanding of CCP intelligence operations than an indictment against Wang. Many of the doubts people have raised highlight in particular a lack of knowledge about what appears to be the relatively autonomous nature of some CCP operations. We have to remember the high levels of corruption that have permeated the PLA, the involvement of the PLA in massive smuggling rings in the 1990s, and the commercial nature of much of the PLA’s intelligence work. These features of the PLA have a substantial impact on how its intelligence work is carried out.

The case of Brian Chen, an alleged military intelligence officer active in Southeast Asia, Portugal and Australia, leads one to similar conclusions. Chen used investment deals under the Belt and Road Initiative banner to secure meetings with elites in several countries. He allegedly attempted to recruit a Melbourne car dealer called Nick Zhao to run for federal parliament. Zhao was found dead a few months after he established contact with the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, but the circumstances of his death haven’t been determined. Chen also tried to acquire office space in a Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation building. In interviews, Chen admitted to having attended international forums like APEC under the guise of a journalist. He had also been photographed in PLA uniform, but claimed that he had never been in the military and simply enjoyed dressing up as a soldier.

Efforts to influence the outside world involve not only PLA-linked entities and agencies of the party-state. Recent developments in Australia suggest the CCP’s influence there might be benefiting from the conversion of organised crime figures into ‘United Frontlings’ – leaders of organisations linked to the PRC’s united front system. What are your views on the interplay between the roles of legal and illegal, overt and covert activity in the CCP’s external engagement?

Distinctions like legality and illegality, and overtness and covertness, are somewhat artificial when talking about CCP influence work abroad.

Australia’s introduction of counter foreign interference laws shows how clearly harmful and malicious activities were not being captured by existing laws. The role of organised criminal organisations in united front work suggests that money laundering, visa fraud, coercion and smuggling can be intertwined with legal activities such as those carried out by community associations that have been dismissed by some commentators as ‘benign’.

It’s also difficult to draw a clean line between overt activity and covert activity. Overt activities such as cultural events may be backed by or used as platforms for covert work. As we’ve seen in the United States, a Confucius Institute — a relatively overt form of CCP influence — can be used as a platform to illegally bring a PRC official into the country under false pretences.

Besides overt and covert cooption work, the PLA and the PRC defence sector interact with foreign entities through academic collaboration. You have written two reports on this subject: Picking flowers, making honey, focused on PLA scientists, and the China Defence Universities Tracker, which accompanies a database of defence research institutes. You provide examples of collaborations between PRC military research and universities abroad; beyond Australia, your research has led to reporting on such collaboration in, e.g., Sweden and Belgium. Compared to other locales, how extensive is such collaboration in Europe? Do you see any such relationships with European institutions as requiring particularly urgent attention?

Europe is possibly the primary destination for PLA scientists seeking to gain training and technology from abroad. I have estimated that the UK, for example, has trained roughly 600 PLA scientists in areas such as artificial intelligence, hypersonics and anti-jamming technology. The problem is compounded by the fact that, in comparison to the United States and Australia, European governments and universities are relatively late to recognise the need to recalibrate research collaboration with the PRC.

The prestigious Northwestern Polytechnical University (NWPU, 西北工业大学) in Xi’an enjoys various forms of cooperation with universities all over Europe, from France through Belgium to Poland. The China Defence Universities Tracker designates this university as “very high risk”. What motivates such a designation? What are its implications for the wisdom of establishing and deepening academic partnerships with NWPU?

Northwestern Polytechnical University was designated very high risk because it has some of the deepest military links of any Chinese university. Each year, more than 40% of its employed graduates go to work in the defence industry or military. It hosts more than a dozen laboratories focused on defence work, many of which were directly established by the military. They work on technologies such as torpedoes, drones, and jet propulsion. The university has also been implicated in efforts to illegally export US equipment used in underwater warfare to hunt submarines.

I do not know of any comparable western civilian university.

By engaging with NWPU on defence-related research areas, universities risk having the fruits of their collaboration end up in the Chinese military’s hands. When working with a university that has such deep defence links, it would be reckless to assume that any dual-use research carried out with it will only be used for peaceful purposes.

Interview by Jichang Lulu.

Further reading:

Alex Joske, “Defections are messy and we may never know the full story”, The Age, 25 Nov 2019.

—, “The China Defence Universities Tracker”, ASPI, Nov 2019.

—, “The Central United Front Work Leading Small Group: Institutionalising united front work”, Sinopsis, 23 July 2019.

—, “Picking flowers, making honey”, ASPI, Oct 2018.

Clive Hamilton and Alex Joske, “United Front activities in Australia”, submission to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, 2018.

On CEFC, a company linked to PLA liaison work front CAIFC, and its role in influence operations in the Czech Republic and globally, cf.

Mark Stokes and Russell Hsiao, “The People’s Liberation Army General Political Department: Political Warfare with Chinese Characteristics”, Project 2049, 14 Oct 2013.

Martin Hála, “United Front Work by Other Means: China’s ‘Economic Diplomacy’ in Central and Eastern Europe”, China Brief 19:9, 19th May 2019.

Sinopsis and Jichang Lulu, “United Nations with Chinese characteristics: Elite capture and discourse management on a global scale”, Sinopsis, 25 Jun 2018.

The European Parliament China Friendship Group has claimed to have a ‘partnership’ with a company within the PRC’s military industry, once sanctioned for allegedly proliferating missile technology. See

Jichang Lulu, “Repurposing democracy: The European Parliament China Friendship Cluster”, Sinopsis, 26 Nov 2019, p. 19.