In This Review

Spies and Lies: How China’s Greatest Covert Operations Fooled the World
Spies and Lies: How China’s Greatest Covert Operations Fooled the World
By Alex Joske
Hardie Grant, 2022, 272 pp.
America Second: How America’s Elites Are Making China Stronger
America Second: How America’s Elites Are Making China Stronger
By Isaac Stone Fish
Knopf, 2022, 288 pp.

Two books consider the subtle and covert ways Beijing is seeking to spread its influence abroad. China’s Ministry of State Security (MSS) engages in traditional spycraft, but unlike most countries’ intelligence agencies it also has a large portfolio of campaigns designed to influence opinion in the West and among Chinese overseas communities. With prodigious digging on the Internet, Joske has been able to expose many of the ministry’s senior operatives and their achievements. A vice minister who worked under the pseudonym Yu Enguang charmed Westerners while serving as a journalist in London and Washington, created the China International Culture Exchange Center (whose mission was to “use culture to make friends” abroad), and infiltrated George Soros’s China Fund, which attempted to promote liberal reforms in China in the year and a half before the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. Zheng Bijian, known for the emollient concept of “China’s peaceful rise” (which he described in an article for this magazine), was not an MSS employee but chaired an MSS-created think tank called the China Reform Forum, which encouraged Western academics and officials to support engagement with China. The ministry’s Tenth Bureau infiltrates overseas student and dissident groups; the Eleventh Bureau runs a foreign policy think tank that engages Western diplomats; the Twelfth Bureau manages front organizations designed to sway unwitting Western targets of influence—many of whom Joske identifies by name.

Stone Fish looks at Chinese influence operations from the side of the targets, naming numerous American consultants, chief executives, Hollywood big shots, and academics who have said and done things that China wants said or done, either for the sake of access or out of an idealistic sense of “friendship” cultivated by warm treatment from Chinese officials. He focuses especially on Henry Kissinger, whom Stone Fish accuses of “monetizing” his relationship with China by charging business executives for introductions to Chinese leaders after he left government service. Other major figures Stone Fish criticizes for falling victim to Chinese blandishments include members of the Bush family, executives of the Disney corporation, sports figures, and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. Hollywood has bowed to tacit Chinese censorship to avoid being excluded from the enormous Chinese market. Many academics have steered clear of sensitive topics or softened their language to avoid visa denials for themselves or trouble for their students. But it is hard to find purely disinterested discussions of China: those who have something valuable to say usually also have interests or need access. Many Westerners named in both these books could plausibly argue that influence goes in both directions and that their contacts with China make their understanding of the country more, not less, well informed.