China Keeps Files On the West Like the KGB Did

Commentary, Culture Wars, Lee Harding

The Chinese dragon puts his eyes on everyone he can. A Chinese tech startup is helping with that task in every way possible. Shenzhen Zhenhua Data Information Technology Co. Ltd. is collecting all of the open-source information available and is building tools to keep track of scholars, aerospace entrepreneurs, politicians and other people of influence. Curiously, nearly 4,000 Canadians are being tracked under three different numeric codes, including prominent politicians and their families. These efforts seem less than benign, since communist regimes have a 100-year history of using such information to subvert target nations. 

On September 14, 2020, the Globe and Mail let the world know what China is doing. Journalists walked up to the 14th floor of a towering building in Shenzhen, a high-tech hub in China. There they found the modest offices of Zhenhua Data, a military contractor led by a former IBM data centre management expert. The company has more than 30 employees and plans to expand.

The company is building tools to process all the open-source data available. These include LinkedIn posts, YouTube videos, criminal records, Twitter—anything. A female employee admitted, “Our client base is a bit special.” 

Zhenhua’s clients are in government, the military, universities and academic institutes, the woman at the company said, adding they can use the company’s technology to “conduct a more detailed analysis of a certain professor.” She said the company is not merely a technology provider, as its employees actively work with customers and are based in cities across China, including Nanjing and Wuhan. 

“Some foreign software companies are able to obtain content such as videos, text and music from social media posts. What we can do is to get them all at once,” she said. 

The company’s name suggests strong connections to President Xi Jinping and the Communist Party. Xi often refers to the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” and Zhenhua means “China Revival.”

When asked for an official interview, Zhenhua said it was not “convenient” to disclose trade secrets. However, the journalists played Zhenhua’s own game by finding whatever open source information was available, including blog articles, software patents and LinkedIn records. One employee described Zhenhua’s work as “mining the business needs of military customers for overseas data.” Before it became inaccessible, the company’s website listed important military contractors among its partners.

The company says it has built tools to interact with Twitter, WhatsApp and other platforms, including Facebook—even though it is banned from gathering data on that platform. Zhenhua has even secured a software patent for a “social media account simulation system.” This suggests Zhenhua could manage networks of phoney social media accounts which would emulate real people and make them more effective at spreading messages.

Just the same, a consortium of journalists accessed an early copy of the company’s Overseas Key Information Database. The records include 650,000 organizations and 2.4 million people, compiled from two billion social media articles and other public sources. The composite picture represents a Chinese firm interested in advanced warfare, the structure of U.S. intelligence agencies and the use of social media to achieve military victories.

The database records on Canada were curious. There were 16,000 entries, some collated from public news articles and archived Facebook posts. Much of it seems to have been taken from the business information website Crunchbase. Seventy per cent of the people captured are men. The database seems to have a disproportionate focus on the mayors of towns in Western Canada, plus academics and bureaucrats who focus on international relations. 

More concerning was the shorter list of 3,767 Canadians assigned coded numbers. People given a number one were those with direct influence, such as mayors. Dozens of current and former MPs were also given that number, including Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole. Senior bureaucrats at the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the Treasury Board, the Transportation Safety Board, Export Development Canada and the Office of the Privacy Commissioner were also numbered with ones. Current and former justices of the Supreme Court of Canada were also on the list. 

A number two was given to those who were relatives of people in power. The Globe showed the database to Professor Stephanie Carvin, a former national security analyst and an associate professor of international relations at Carleton University. She found it especially suspicious that the prime minister’s daughter, along with the son of a long-serving female MP, are on the list. 

“Why have these people in some kind of database? That, to me, is the question that national security agencies in the West have to figure out. That’s the thing I worry about,” Carvin said. “Is this an attempt to create a database of targetable individuals? And what are they trying to do with that?” 

Who knows? Maybe they’re looking for people who are bribable. A number three was given to prominent convicted criminals. These include Gilles Vaillancourt, the former Laval, Que., mayor jailed in 2016 on fraud charges; Amin Mohamed Durrani, jailed following the 2006 Toronto anti-terrorism sweep; and Michael Witen, an accountant who was found guilty of defrauding the federal government; Garth Drabinsky, who was convicted of fraud in 2009; former SNC-Lavalin executive Riadh Ben Aïssa, who pleaded guilty to corruption charges in Switzerland and testified against his superiors in Canada; and Nicola Iammarrone, a former Canada Revenue Agency auditor who pleaded guilty to taking bribes. The records listed 198 people associated with narcotics, 178 with conspiracy, 162 with fraud and 100 with money laundering.

Nicholas Eftimiades, a former senior U.S. intelligence officer, said, “China has collected personally identifiable information on 80 per cent of the U.S. population.”  The author of Chinese Espionage: Operations and Tactics added, “You’re talking about the ability to influence academics, political leaders ranging from mayors up through senior leaders in a government. It’s about influencing them to serve the Chinese Communist Party’s desires, their goals.”

As it turns out, this is an old playbook. Yuri Bezmenov, a KGB propagandist with Novosti Press Agency, defected to Canada in 1970. In a 1984 interview, he explained that the USSR had a target list of influencers it either sought to promote or undermine. He stated that much of the activity at the KGB’s Department of Research and Counter-Propaganda involved the compilation of large volumes “of information on individuals who were instrumental in creating public opinion: publishers, editors, journalists, actors, educationalists, professors of political science, members of parliament, [and] representatives of business circles. Most of these people were divided roughly [into] two groups. Those who would toe the Soviet foreign policy, they would be promoted to the positions of power through media and public opinion manipulation. Those who refused the Soviet influence in their own country would be character-assassinated or executed physically, con-revolution.”

One can easily see how 21st century technological tools could aid this strategy. Remarkably, they also aid the strategies of the ancient Chinese author Sun Tzu. In the book, Love Letter to America, Bezmenov cited Tzu as the progenitor of Russian disinformation tactics. Bezmenov summarized them this way:

  1. Cover with ridicule all of the valid traditions in your opponent’s country;
  2. Implicate their leaders in criminal affairs and turn them over to the scorn of their populace at the right time;
  3. Disrupt the work of their government by every means;
  4. Do not shun the aid of the lowest and most despicable individuals of your enemy’s country;
  5. Spread disunity among the citizens;
  6. Turn the young against the old;
  7. Be generous with promises and reward to collaborators and accomplices.

 

Collectively, much of the West has its guard down. Whereas the Cold War standoff between NATO and the USSR was in the collective consciousness of past decades, today’s China is a member of the World Trade Organization. What the snapshots above show us is that Canada should beware. On a personal level, Canadians should show caution in what they post online and what friend requests they accept. On a governmental level, everyone from the prime minister down to small-town mayors should be cautious of China’s intentions and what partnerships they form and maintain.

 

Lee Harding is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

Photo by Wesley Tingey on Unsplash.

  • Part III: (forthcoming)
  • Part IV: (forthcoming)