On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Spy vs. Spy

In a world gone bonkers, espionage takes precedence in topping the competition. Just look at the US and China today.

IF you grew up reading MAD, the classic American humour magazine, you’ll be familiar with the segment “Spy vs. Spy”, which features two agents, who in their desperation to outdo each other in the name of espionage, end up being a pair of comedians.

In the comic strip, the characters are drawn apart by their all-black and all-white attire, but they are virtually the same, typified by their bird-like heads.

They’re always at war and despite their colours, both are certified villains. There’s no black and white here, just grey matter for one’s own interpretation.

The original MAD magazine, which started in 1952, ended in 2018, though an online presence remains.

And to throw context into all of this, in recent weeks, Malaysia has unwittingly found itself in the world news as US and Chinese spies cross swords. The rivals have accused each other of spying games.

We’d be gullible to believe that only the Chinese – in the purported guise of being academics, diplomats and scientists – are involved in such cloak-and-dagger activities.

Yesterday, the South China Morning Post reported that Beijing has claimed that US Air Force had used fake identities – at least in 100 times this year – putting civilian airlines at risk.

The Americans, Russians and the British have been immersed in intelligence work for decades in formalised institutions such as the CIA, KGB and MI6. And of course, there’s Mossad, the Israeli spy network.

The rest of the world has certainly been shaken and stirred by them on many occasions.

They all do intelligence gathering, covert operations and counter terrorism. In Russia, political opponents even get poisoned. Of course, no one will admit to it.

It’s common knowledge now how North Koreans spies came to Malaysia to kill Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of Kim Jong-il, the powerful leader of the country.

The agents poisoned him in 2017 and disappeared from our shores without being caught. It was a clean job in the world of espionage, where the bottom line is escaping capture.

Certainly, hacking and using more capable geeks has become routine for all intelligence networks, including those operating under the police.

Last week, the US Justice Department announced charges against five Chinese nationals and two Malaysians from Sitiawan, Perak.

They have been accused of running global hacking operations for at least six years to steal identities and video game technology, plant ransomware, and spy on Hong Kong activists.

It was reported that three of the Chinese suspects operated out of Chengdu 404, a Sichuan-based company that supposedly offers network security services for businesses.

They hacked the computers of hundreds of companies and organisations around the world to collect identities, hijack systems for ransom, and remotely use thousands of computers to mine cryptocurrency like bitcoin.

Two other Chinese nationals who formerly worked for Chengdu 404, and the two Malaysians, were indicted for hacking into major gaming companies to steal their secrets and “gaming artifacts” – likely tradable in-game chits and credits – and reselling them.

Together, the seven were long recognised by cybersecurity experts as the “APT41” hacking organisation, identified by their shared tools and techniques, according to media reports. While some suspect the group could be run by the Chinese government, the indictments don’t suggest a strong official connection.

It was widely reported that a Chinese company with links to Beijing’s military and intelligence networks has been amassing a vast repository of detailed personal information on thousands of Australians, including prominent and influential figures.

It is said a database of 2.4 million people has been leaked from the Shenzhen company Zhenhua Data, which is supposedly used by China’s intelligence service, the Ministry of State Security. Apparently, the People’s Liberation Army and the Chinese Communist Party are among its clients, too.

Interestingly, it was also reported on Sept 10 that a US airforce aircraft had electronically impersonated a Malaysian plane while flying over the South China Sea.

The RC-135W Rivet Joint reconnaissance aircraft flew off China’s Hainan island on Tuesday, coming within 55 miles of the Chinese mainland.

But the caper was exposed on Twitter by a think tank operated by the Chinese government, which provided enough details for independent verification.

The Twitter account of the South China Sea Probing Initiative shared a pair of screenshots revealing an RC-135W taking off from Kadena Air Base, a US Air Force base on the island of Okinawa. The plane flew south-west, following the Ryukyu islands chain past Taiwan, and loitered off the coast of Hainan.

Conveniently, none of the US and international media picked up on this news, which attests to the US and its allies being more adept at managing the media.

The Chinese are now seen as the bad guys and the only reason Hollywood hasn’t lumped them together with the Russians, Albanians, Arabs and Afghans, is that Tinsel Town knows it can’t afford to paint the Chinese as the enemy if it still wants to rake it in at the Chinese box office. The Western media knows how to use major languages such as English, French and Spanish in a more polished and subtle manner in conveying their messages. However, China, epitomised by its hawkish “Wolf Warrior” diplomats, has been using words that seem out of place in the modern world. So the republic continues sounding crude, assertive and leaves a pungent taste, especially when translated into English.

“Spy vs. Spy” isn’t just about planting booby traps but also about winning the hearts and minds of the international community, especially the young.

The Chinese, even with their wealth, don’t have think tanks such as those in the US, which have funded many groups in the name of promoting democracy and human rights, even if in truth, it is essentially to serve the interest of the US. At least, these think tanks are not known to those in the English-speaking world.

China’s Foreign Ministry hasn’t set up fellowships for young opinion shapers to take sabbaticals and study at their prestigious universities. Certainly, the country can’t rely on Global Times and Xinhua because their nationalistic tone won’t draw much international attraction. At least China Daily and the China Global Television Network have much greater appeal, where both have also hired foreign staff. Likewise, the Falun Gong-backed Epoch Times is just as bad as the pro-China nationalistic media.

But US spy involvement in China has existed for decades, even as far back as in the 1950s, during the time of the late Chiang Kai Shek under the Kuomintang.

There are plenty of declassified US documents, books and reports of CIA involvement in China, and this information is easily found online.

Hong Kong is an example where US involvement is suspected. There are many pictures of Westerners conducting training or openly taking part in its street protests.

None of them have been arrested or charged in courts, so it remains unclear and unproven.

It would be odd if there are no CIA agents based in Hong Kong because they will be safer there than in mainland China.

Last month, the South China Morning Post reported that for over five years, Kong Tsung-gan was a name that turned up regularly as a Hong Kong protest activist and writer quoted frequently by foreign media.

“Now, the revelation that ‘Kong’ is in fact a pen name of possibly an American named Brian Kern has ignited debate over the legitimacy of using a pseudonym in Hong Kong’s highly charged political environment.

“The controversy was sparked recently by an American alternative news website that accused Kern of adopting a fictitious identity as an ethnic Chinese grassroots activist as a ‘deceptive ploy’ to ‘disseminate anti-China propaganda’.”

“Kong” later responded to the article by admitting he had been using a pen name all along, though he didn’t confirm his true identity. His defenders claim he had to operate incognito for his own safety. He had 32,000 followers on Twitter, with a photograph of a Chinese man accompanying his anti-government tweets. “Kong Tsung-gan” has appeared in reports on Hong Kong by CNN, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Agence France-Presse and The Guardian, among others.

In the run-up to the US presidential elections, the world can expect to read more of such Chinese espionage. But upping the ante negatively is how ethnic Chinese of other nationalities will also invariably get dragged through the mud.

It may not even end after the polls because US-China rivalry will continue, and even with a change in president, the stance will remain.

This time, the US has drawn in its Western allies and Asian partners to be on its side. The last thing the world needs is for China to start lining up its allies.

One thing’s for sure, China needs to be more persuasive in its narrative.

No one wants to take sides in this conflict, which began as a trade dispute but is now in danger of becoming a Cold War, which is a term used to describe a state of hostility, propaganda and threats. Does the world need another?