Matt Brazil, Running Around Finding Out About Chinese Espionage
Willie Brazil interviews his uncle, a former US Army officer, diplomat, corporate security investigator, and current adjunct professor of modern Chinese history who recently co-published a book called Chinese Communist Espionage and who is now working on another one on the history of the Communist Party’s intelligence community.
Q: What was it that kickstarted your interest in China to begin with?
A: I think it was mainly living in the San Francisco area. At a young age I became aware of the relatively large Asian population in and around San Francisco. My brother and I used to bug our parents to take us into Chinatown, which was not very far away from where we lived. During that time, I developed an interest and started to read everything I could about China.
I was ten years old when the Chinese cultural revolution began in 1966 and I think that was a catalyst as well. After all, the students in China at the various levels were criticizing their teachers, tying them up, putting them in the jet plane position, putting white hats on them, criticizing them in front of crowds, and imprisoning them in pigsties, which was all very exciting for someone who’s ten or twelve years old. Additionally, when I was a teenager I was lucky enough to get into a summer school class on Taiwan and China, which included a trip to Taiwan. I met some pretty interesting people along the way, including Monte Bullard, who was the Professor of Military Science at UC Berkeley at the time, and from there I managed to use the U.S. Army as a way of training myself as a beginning China Specialist.
Q: How do you see things developing in your field over the next several years?
A: I think that this field, which has been a not very well subscribed field when I was younger, has grown.
It used to be rather unusual for someone who was non-Chinese to speak and read the language. Now it’s much less so, despite the fact that it takes a long time to get anywhere with the language, much less master it. There’s much more instruction of the language now than there was before, and understanding and mastering the language is key to getting anywhere in this field, or at least doing well in it. We’re still not very well situated, in my opinion.
There are still only a few places where you can actually take the language from a young age and taking it at a young age is key to getting anywhere with it. So beyond that, the field is growing. There are more people in it than there were forty years ago, however, we still lack a lot of basic understanding of that country and about Asia in general, which is one reason that I want to continue to think and write about Asia and try to publish things that are usable by the general reading population.
Q: Can you tell me about your  book Chinese Communist Espionage and walk me through what it took to develop it?
A: When I was ending my first corporate employment with Intel in 2012, I took a trip to Washington, D.C., to meet some people and basically look for a job.
I walked into the Jamestown Foundation because I wanted to meet the editor of their publication, The China Brief. His name is Peter Mattis. He had no idea who I was and I didn’t know much about him at the time. He’d been writing about Beijing’s espionage apparatus for a while and he was surprised that there was somebody else out there who was studying an aspect of it that he hadn’t really touched on, which was their earlier history.
One thing led to another and we started working together. We were asked by a family foundation that was interested in seeing a good handbook on that issue, useful by law enforcement in the United States, to put it together. And so, we began our work on it.
I had another job shortly thereafter with a company in South Carolina that was doing business in China and needed some help to set up factories there. When I approached them and told them I would be writing this book, they gave me an emphatic no. They told me I would not be allowed to continue employment with them if I did so. And so, I didn’t do it at first. That employment lasted for exactly two years, after which they decided they no longer needed security of any sort.
So, out I went and fortunately there was a grant waiting for me to write this book. I spent the next year and a half putting it together. The thing we tried to do that was different, compared to other works on this subject that had been published mostly by journalists, was to not put together an alarmist, fantastic, and salacious account of the said problem.
We wanted to do something that was useful to serious people, and by contract we were obligated to write a book that was in essence a handbook for specialists, which is what it turned out to be. We put together chapters regarding what the organizations are, the people, what their history is, how that history has influenced the present, major cases, the things that you have to worry about if you travel to or live in China as a foreigner (particularly a foreigner who is associated with a company that possesses trade secrets desired by the host government), and so forth.
Q: Is there anything that you are currently in the process of working on and developing?
Well, I’m putting together a second book.This one will be a narrative. It will be a short history followed by a narrative account of how various organizations have been restructured in the last seven years, and how this restructuring has led to a much more effective set of organizations, particularly in the cyber realm.
What I would like to do is explain how it is that these organizations have become much more effective. In particular, how they’ve been able to acquire target material that would be desired by any espionage service. Immediately, the ones that come to mind that are well-known in the public are the hackings that have been done against the Office of Personal Management where millions of records were acquired, a real coup for Beijing’s services, and subsequent hacking to supplement the material of the entire databases of United Airlines, Experian, and Marriott.
The Marriott hotels, as I experienced when I was a foreign service officer and bureaucrat in Washington, was and is one of the preferred suppliers of hotels for government employees when they travel overseas. So, with these amounts records and this enormous amount of data, anybody of real interest to Beijing can be thoroughly analyzed.
Not only that, there’s traditional espionage that I think hasn’t been very well explained in the public realm. Traditional espionage would be finding people, often through sites like LinkedIn, for example, that have posted their entire lives there.
Somebody like me for example. As an author who likes to sell books, I put a lot of material on LinkedIn, and anybody who wants to connect with me, I say yes to, because I want to reach a wider audience. But, there are many people who inadvisably post a lot of information about their past employment, and so on, which is fine, except when your previous employers indicate that you know a lot of secrets that could be desired by a foreign government. It is a very interesting and difficult problem in a free society to tell people that they shouldn’t do this or that, when society is set up in a way that requires the sharing of information in order to be competitive as a prospective employee of companies you want to work for.
I am hoping to write about these, and other related problems, in ways that demystify China, because if there is one thing that will get us in trouble in the future, it is mistaken assumptions about that big country that is not going away.
The Chinese government party is not going away, and whether you like them or not they have an enormous talent for getting themselves out of difficult situations. That’s called pulling the fat from the fire.
Surviving is one of the most important attributes to the Chinese Communist Party. They’re going to be around for a long time, so we have to live with them and be able to get along with them if we’re going to solve problems; problems like climate change. So, in my opinion, it’s more than just holding your nose and voting, as they like to say. It is figuring out a way of getting along without compromising our principles and it isn’t something that can be done out of ignorance.