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Rethinking Chinese Espionage

Project Kai

jiē kāi (揭开 ) V. to reveal; to uncover; to open

Project Kai

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few institutions have received as much weight but as little weighty analysis as China’s security and intelligence agencies.” - Xuezhi Guo, Guilford College

The problem

Chinese approaches to intelligence collection, covert action, and subversive activities are not well understood—leading to both underestimation and overreaction.

The solution

Grounded research based on data and evidence. The purpose of Project Kai is to support this endeavor by developing new conceptual frameworks and making data and tools accessible to researchers, policymakers, counterintelligence officials, and others.


Chinese espionage activities have long been a thorn in the side of U.S.-China relations, from President Barack Obama nearly canceling a summit with Xi Jinping over economic cyber espionage, to Secretary of State Antony Blinken actually canceling a trip to China over a Chinese spy balloon. Despite its centrality in Sino-American conflict, remarkably little is publicly known about the Chinese intelligence services—likely the world’s largest. In contrast to the voluminous works describing the histories, organizations, and operations of American and Russian spy agencies, barely a handful of works describe contemporary Chinese intelligence services in any detail.

The lack of reliable knowledge on Chinese intelligence has numerous adverse effects. Some examples of adverse outcomes arguably caused by a lack of understanding of Chinese covert or “gray zone” methods include:

  • Leading American institutions have inadvertently been amplifying Chinese influence operations for years.
  • Chinese security services engage in rampant transnational repression, including on campuses and especially in diaspora communities.
  • Billions of dollars are spent on removing and replacing Huawei equipment from American, UK, Danish, and Papua New Guinean telecommunications infrastructure. The same is happening with Chinese-made surveillance cameras and drones.
  • Chinese security services were able to secretly establish more than one hundred police stations abroad.
  • Using novel “gray zone” tactics, such as militarized fishing vessels, the Chinese military has incrementally established a network of military outposts across the South China Sea, with limited pushback from the U.S. or neighboring states.
  • Intellectual property valued at billions of dollars is siphoned out of democracies every year, through cyber espionage and other means.
  • Western research institutions have been complicit in supporting Chinese military modernization, often unintentionally underwritten by taxpayer funds.

At the same time, flawed threat assessments also swing in the opposite direction, leading to overreactions and racial profiling.

Historical parallels

The current difficulty of countering the unfamiliar methods of a novel adversary is reminiscent of an earlier situation. During the 1950s “Red Scare,” U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy led witch hunts after alleged Soviet spies and subversives, ruining the careers of hundreds of innocents. Meanwhile, the very real Soviet spies remained undetected while siphoning off some of the United States’ most sensitive secrets.

The U.S. government only employed about two dozen Russian speakers at the outset of that period. Following the McCarthy fiasco, the United States spent decades investing in and building up a sprawling ecosystem of “Kremlinologists.” These academic programs and institutes helped policymakers better understand the threat it was facing.

A similar endeavor is needed today to effectively meet the challenge posed by Chinese covert and gray zone actions. Project Kai aims to develop knowledge frameworks, toolkits, and datasets on Chinese espionage and make them accessible to researchers, investigators, and policymakers.

Project Kai - Team Lead

Gaute Friis