In the XVIIe and XVIIIe centuries, the craftsmen of France and Italy despaired of finding the secret of Chinese porcelain, introduced in Europe after the voyages of Marco Polo in XIIIe century, then imported more systematically after those of Vasco da Gama (XVe and XVIe centuries).
It was clumsily copied for centuries, until European envoys to China in the 18th centurye century – which today we would call “industrial spies” – finally discovered the secret of kaolin, this clay mineral without which there is no real porcelain.
Much later, in the 1920s, the new Soviet communist regime tried in vain to copy the phenomenal success of Henry Ford and his production cars, by sending spies to Detroit.
Industrial espionage is not new. But the country which invented porcelain is also the one which, at the end of the XXe century and in the XXIe, systematized it, by making it an ingredient of its economic takeoff after 1979, then the secret of its progressive domination of world trade.
Ten days ago, the CIA announced the formation of a special unit, the China Mission Center (or “China Operations Center”), dedicated to specific counterintelligence targeting this country.
According to its director, William Burns: “The most important geopolitical threat we face in the XXIe century is […] an increasingly hostile Chinese government. “
More than the military tensions in the Pacific, for example around Taiwan – threats already dealt with by a host of intelligence services, in the Pentagon and elsewhere -, we are talking here about protecting the state and the economy of the United States.
The CIA, with this announcement, highlighted “cyber espionage and industrial espionage”, which have become – as much if not more than tanks and submarines – the sinews of “war of the third type”.
Deng Xiaoping’s China systematically copied simple Western industrial processes, launching the first Made in China in the 1980s and 1990s. More recently, especially under Xi Jinping, it has shifted into high gear. Beijing is now accused of using its economic and commercial power to engage in high-level industrial espionage.
This espionage is no longer that of Grandpa. One of the great Chinese specialties for twenty years, it is the variant called “theft of intellectual property”. By combining it with an (almost) one-way application of the freedom protected by the World Trade Organization (where Beijing has been based since 2001), we have one of the keys to “Chinese secrecy”.
Systematic use has been made of the activity of foreign companies in China, Chinese companies abroad, to methodically capture and transfer plans, concepts, processes, products, prototypes … with a slogan: “We take it all! “
There are a myriad of examples of scientists, students, Chinese employees, interns in companies, institutes or universities abroad … where we discover that in parallel, their work of infiltration and diversion was systematic.
In Australia, there are countless examples of Chinese incursions. To the point that Canberra has operated, for about two years, a radical shift in its policy of cooperation with China, which culminated a month ago in the famous announcement of American submarines.
In the USA ? Just for three years, there have been dozens of cases of arrests and accusations of Chinese spies – some of whom had acquired American nationality – in companies of all kinds: IT, biology, transport, construction, armaments. And again, we only caught a fraction!
In several Western countries, there is an awareness of the “systemic” nature of this capture of their knowledge, of their technology by the Chinese government, by its companies which are never completely “private”. And by its nationals: good patriots, well paid mercenaries… or a combination of the two!
A word about cyberattacks … In this area, it seems that the Chinese, for two or three years, have learned a lot from their Russian friends, pioneers in this area. Last July, the United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom, among others, together accused China of carrying out a global cyberespionage campaign … constituting, according to them “a major threat to the economic and national security of our countries. country “.
We repeat, the Chinese did not invent industrial espionage… but Beijing brilliantly systematized it, made it a strategic instrument and not only an economic one, with a merger between private and public that would be impossible elsewhere.
China has benefited from it like no state, no country before, probably in all of human history.
Even if industry and research in China have acquired, in 2021, their own dynamic, and are no longer so dependent on this systematized theft, the breathtaking Chinese economic and technological boom for 25 years … has relied heavily on espionage become second nature, even a new paradigm of the XXIe century.
The establishment of such a “specifically Chinese” unit by the CIA also stems from the late “discovery” of this reality by the West.
François Brousseau is an international news columnist for Ici Radio-Canada. [email protected]