Spying Risk

How Chinese ‘moles’ could have burrowed deep into foreign firms

Data leak reveals that 1.9 million Communist Party members allegedly worked for major overseas companies and embassies

Acclaimed author John le Carré revolutionized the spy novel genre. The former British intelligence officer was also widely credited with inventing the word “mole” to describe an agent buried inside a security service or an organization.

If that is true, it is unlikely that le Carré would have batted an eyelid by Sunday’s revelations that Chinese operatives had burrowed deep within major “multinational corporations.”

But he would have raised more than an eyebrow before his death last week at what is being described as an unprecedented data leak involving nearly two million members of the Communist Party of China.

Many, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China or IPAC, are now embedded in the workforce of some of the world’s leading companies. Included in the ‘who’s who’ list are aerospace giants, big banks and pharmaceutical groups manufacturing coronavirus vaccines, as well as foreign embassies and consulates.

“This investigation proves that members of the Chinese Communist Party [CCP] are now spread around the globe, with members working for some of the world’s most important multinational corporations, academic institutions and our own diplomatic services,” Iain Duncan Smith, a British politician and a former Conservative Party leader, said in media reports published in the United Kingdom and Australia.

Anonymous dissident

Up to 1.95 million CCP members are on the database, which was sent to IPAC by an anonymous dissident after being leaked on the Telegram messaging app, the Mail on Sunday and The Australian revealed.

Details showed that members of the Chinese Communist Party were, or are still, employed by:

  • Aerospace high-fliers such as Airbus, Boeing and Rolls-Royce;
  • International banks HSBC and Standard Chartered, which have a major presence in politically toxic Hong Kong;
  • Big pharmaceutical groups Pfizer and AstraZeneca, which have been at the cutting-edge of Covid-19 vaccine research and development;
  • As well as foreign diplomatic missions around the world.

While the “list” offers no evidence of covert intelligence operations, it points to the fact that all card-carrying CCP members must swear an oath of loyalty and “secrecy to the Party.”

“It is my will to join the Communist Party of China, uphold the Party’s program, observe the provisions of the Party Constitution, fulfill a Party member’s duties, carry out the Party’s decisions, strictly observe Party discipline, guard Party secrets, be loyal to the Party, work hard, fight for communism throughout my life, be ready at all times to sacrifice my all for the Party and the people, and never betray the Party.”

In a commentary written for the Mail on Sunday, IPAC Co-Chair Duncan Smith compared “CCP”membership to “joining a crime family in the New York Mafia.”

“The CCP demands secrecy, cunning and utterly ruthless discipline. Notoriously secretive, its authority is absolute,” he said about the 90 million card-carrying members.

In response, China’s state-owned media has dismissed the allegations as a “witch hunt,” concocted by Duncan Smith and IPAC, an affiliation of 150 politicians from around the world. 

Global Times even compared the reports to “McCarthyism,” referring to the reds-under-the-bed hearings overseen by US senator Joe McCarthy. They took place in the 1950s against the backdrop of the nascent Cold War, pitting the United States against the Soviet Union.

‘Anti-China clique’

Fast forward 70 years and the nationalistic tabloid, which is owned by the official mouthpiece of the CCP, the People’s Daily, stated that this was “not a new trick for the anti-China clique.”

“Observers said that the narrative that connects [Party] membership to intelligence work and security risks was ‘ridiculous and ignorant of Chinese society,’” Global Times said.

Chen Hong, a professor at East China Normal University, went further, calling it a smear campaign after appearing on the “list”. “I suspect the database is completely erroneous,” he said, adding that he had never joined the CCP.

To paraphrase le Carré’s work, that sentence could have come straight from Beijing Central. Or, maybe, from an alleged spy that came in from the cold?

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