In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section History of Intelligence in China

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Intelligence in Ancient and Imperial China
  • Republican-Era China (1911–1937)
  • Intelligence in World War II and Civil War China (1937–1949)

Military History History of Intelligence in China
Sara Castro
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0230


Ancient Chinese texts document some of the first-known intelligence operations and tradecraft in history. Classic strategic texts from the Chinese canon describe state use of espionage, deception, sabotage, and other unconventional methods for achieving superiority over enemies. These texts have influenced Chinese leaders throughout history and continue to do so. However, nothing approaching the level of transparency about intelligence practices found in ancient texts still exists today. The leaders of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) hold the state’s intelligence practices as a deep secret, and they have rarely allowed or facilitated the open release of details that scholars can typically find for other countries’ intelligence regimes. Thus, this subfield of Chinese history can be difficult for scholars to explore. Moreover, bibliographies focused on Chinese intelligence can look sparse relative to the long lists of books, articles, and databases that focus on less sensitive topics such as Chinese politics, strategy, economics, or even military issues. The expansion of the Internet and social media has facilitated the development of new research and sharing of resources on Chinese intelligence, largely by scholars outside China. Scholars within China face serious limitations on what they can publish about intelligence history. The Internet has enabled new connections between scholars that have both refined and expanded understanding of how the PRC has pursued intelligence since the establishment of the country in 1949. Scholars outside China now have a consensus that the PRC defines intelligence practices differently than most Western countries, with expectations that often recall the practices for unconventional warfare described in the ancient military texts. At the same time, most scholars agree that China’s intelligence capabilities and appetite for pursuing foreign intelligence operations are greater than observers assumed in the 1990s and 2000s. From the use of cyber warfare and influence operations to economic and technical espionage, PRC intelligence activities have raised a profile that has recently allowed the subfield of Chinese intelligence studies to expand, but this subfield of historical study is not what most would consider expansive. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense, the US government, US Air Force Academy, or US Air Force.

General Overviews

Reflective of paucity of information about China’s intelligence history, few general overviews specific to China’s intelligence history have been published. Works in this category are most helpful for scholars seeking a broad sense of Chinese intelligence history, a sense of the field of foreign intelligence history generally, and understanding how intelligence fits into Chinese statecraft and military strategy, including terms and jargon. Smith and West 2021 is an excellent entry point into key terms, cases, and organizations involved in China’s intelligence history; originally published in 2012, this resource was recently updated in a second edition. Sawyer and Sawyer 2007 relies on primary sources to offer a broad overview of how China’s statecraft has employed intelligence practices over its long history. Sawyer also offers a general, contextualized view of China’s intelligence history in an article published in Davies and Gustafson 2013, a volume of articles about global intelligence history that offers useful perspective for how to conceptualize comparative intelligence history. While not focused specifically on China, Minnick 1992 and Richelson 1995 provide useful explanations of international intelligence practices from a global and historical perspective.

  • Davies, Philip H. J., and Kristian C. Gustafson, eds. Intelligence Elsewhere: Spies and Espionage Outside the Anglosphere. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2013.

    Edited volume on comparative intelligence history. Features some theoretical articles about topic and some country specific. Scholars interested in Chinese intelligence history should see Ralph D. Sawyer’s contribution, “Subversive Information: The Historical Thrust of Chinese Intelligence.”

  • Minnick, Wendell L. Spies and Provocateurs: A Worldwide Encyclopedia of Persons Conducting Espionage and Covert Action, 1946–1991. London: McFarland, 1992.

    A biographical dictionary includes individual entries on 627 people involved in espionage, covert action, or other intelligence practices since the end of the Second World War. People featured come from various countries, mostly Europe and the United States, but some entries focus on individuals from China.

  • Richelson, Jeffrey. A Century of Spies: Intelligence in the Twentieth Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

    Global survey of international intelligence work since 1900. The book is written as a chronological narrative, with examples related to China appearing throughout the volume. Readers can easily access these specific China examples via the index. This book reveals intelligence work as an act of international relations that can involve alliances, conflict, and cooperation.

  • Sawyer, Ralph D., and Mei-chün Lee Sawyer. The Tao of Deception: Unorthodox Warfare in Historic and Modern China. New York: Basic Books, 2007.

    Featuring English translations and quotes from a range of Chinese primary sources, Tao of Deception describes the role of deceptive strategies and tactics in Chinese statecraft and foreign policy from ancient times to present. Situates a variety of intelligence practices in context of Chinese strategic approach to war and diplomacy as explained in classic texts from the ancient and imperial eras.

  • Smith, Ivian C., and Nigel West. Historical Dictionary of Chinese Intelligence. 2d ed. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2021.

    Well-indexed and recently updated compendium of explanations on Chinese intelligence activities from ancient times (400 BCE) to present. Includes a chronology of Chinese intelligence activities, a bibliography of additional works, and a dictionary of intelligence-related terms and jargon. English-language only with no Chinese characters included. The dictionary portion of this makes a good starting point for researchers outside China seeking to achieve a sense of the field and learn the terms and key players.

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