First Person Observations of How HUMINT (Human Source Collection) Operations are a Reflection of Cul...

Jim Schnell

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First Person Observations of How HUMINT (Human Source Collection) Operations are a Reflection of Culture in China and the U.S.

Jim Schnell

Ohio Dominican University


This article examines HUMINT (Human Source Collection) operations as a reflection of cultural practices in China and the U.S. As such it begins by describing the role of context within daily life in China and then provides theoretical explanation for this Chinese context emphasis by clarifying the U.S. as more of a low-context culture and China as being more of a high-context culture. This is then used as foundation to compare and contrast Chinese HUMINT (Human Source Collection) practices with U.S. HUMINT practices. The fundamental finding from this analysis is that Chinese HUMINT practices tend to be reflective of Chinese high-context communication norms in contrast with U.S. HUMINT practices that are more reflective of U.S. low-context communication norms. The author draws from over 35 years service in the U.S. intelligence community, as both uniformed military and civilian. He retired from the U.S. Air Force (Reserve) in 2007, at the rank of Colonel, with his final 14 years serving as an Assistant Air Force Attache at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, China. Since that time he has continued to work, teach and do research focusing on national security and intelligence issues.

Cite this article:

  • Schnell, Jim. "First Person Observations of How HUMINT (Human Source Collection) Operations are a Reflection of Culture in China and the U.S.." American Journal of Educational Research 2.11 (2014): 1115-1125.
  • Schnell, J. (2014). First Person Observations of How HUMINT (Human Source Collection) Operations are a Reflection of Culture in China and the U.S.. American Journal of Educational Research, 2(11), 1115-1125.
  • Schnell, Jim. "First Person Observations of How HUMINT (Human Source Collection) Operations are a Reflection of Culture in China and the U.S.." American Journal of Educational Research 2, no. 11 (2014): 1115-1125.

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1. Introduction

Late one evening in the summer of 2000, I was standing in my room at the Beijing, China Jian Guo Hotel when the phone rang. I answered and a warm voice conveyed “Sir, would you like your evening massage service?” I was startled by the question and paused. She followed up by saying “It is complimentary for our valued guests.” I was still startled. I had been to Beijing numerous times and this had never happened. I guessed it to be a prostitute and, in a mildly disdainful voice, responded “No, I will not be needing the massage service tonight or any night. Please remove my name from your call list” and hung up abruptly.

I was in Beijing, in my role as an Assistant Air Force Attache at the U.S. Embassy, to assist with Secretary of Defense Cohen’s visit to China. Secretary Cohen had departed Beijing and I had been at a “wheels up” social gathering at Colonel Kevin Lanzit’s apartment earlier that evening. He was my supervisor and hosted a dinner and drinks event to celebrate our performance of duties in support of the SECDEF (Secretary of Defense) visit. The beer flowed freely. The Jianguo Hotel was located across Changan Boulevard from his apartment so I drank an extra beer knowing it was a short walk to my room.

Upon return to the Jianguo Hotel, which was only a few blocks from the U.S. Embassy, I showered and was preparing for bed when my phone call from the “massage service” rang in. I had just stepped out of the shower and was looking for my towel. It occurred to me that I might have been targeted for such a call by the Chinese HUMINT (human source collection) agency but I could not know for sure. I assumed Colonel Lanzit’s apartment was bugged with listening devices and that my evening of alcohol consumption was duly noted. I also observed that the room I occupied appeared to be the same room where I had stayed on an earlier visit or at least in the same area of the building on the same floor. It seemed easy to speculate about the aforementioned but it was too vague of an occurrence to come to any firm conclusion regarding intent.

I sat down at my desk and flossed my teeth. My eyes drifted to some materials on my desk and night stand that were provided by the hotel. One free standing card, that appeared to be commercially produced, conveyed a message about the massage service that is offered by the hotel. That was about my 12th visit to China and I had never experienced such a thing. It struck me as odd. I went to bed, slept soundly and did not think much more about it.

The next morning I went down to the restaurant for a lengthy breakfast and did some reading while I was eating. I thought about the massage offer incident and decided to report it at the embassy. When I returned to my room I reached for the aforementioned massage offer card, so I could take it to work as part of the reporting process, and it was gone. I could not find it anywhere.

About five years earlier, while doing a duty tour as an Air Force Attache in Washington, D.C., I had met Nicholas Eftimiades. He worked for the DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency) as an expert on China intelligence practices and had authored a book titled Chinese Intelligence Operations. I had taken a look at his book and remembered it addressed the aforementioned type of scenario. I did a closer read of his book and observed his specific mention of the Jianguo Hotel as a location that has surveillance equipment installed to snoop on inhabitants (Eftimiades, 2004, p. 45). It also specifically lists the Jianguo Hotel as a location that houses intelligence facilities and runs intelligence operations (Eftimiades, 2004, p. 2). The first edition of the book was published in 1994. I am now working from the second edition.

I concluded that it was a pretty safe bet that I had been targeted by the Chinese intelligence apparatus. Living and working in China, as a U.S. government employee, put me in other types of related situations that seemed to indicate paralleled conclusions but such phenomena were difficult to prove for sure in that the evidence was sketchy at best.

In July, 1998 I was in China to help with the visit to China by President Clinton. It was a five city visit. I was working from Beijing and then proceeded to Xian, where Clinton arrived for his first stop, and then I went back to Beijing (Clinton’s second stop). While in Beijing, I stayed at the St. Regis Hotel. It was unusually nice and conveniently located about four blocks from the U.S. Embassy. Visiting U.S. government officials routinely stayed at the St. Regis. I stayed at the St. Regis before proceeding to Xian and after I returned from Xian. They offered a complimentary happy hour, with food and beverages, that I typically enjoyed at the end of the work day.

They offered Heinekin beer and this served to increase the probability of my patronage. I was always mindful of who I was, and what I represented, when I worked for the U.S. government in China and would limit myself to three beers on such occasions. I got to know a fellow who adopted the English name of “Wilson.” He served the food and beverages during the St. Regis happy hours, spoke very good English and noted my preference for Heinekin beer. It got so he would greet me with a warm smile, hand me a cold Heinekin and the “China Daily” newspaper. I would typically sit quietly in the corner and read the news of the day.

Attaches typically wore civilian clothes but, when we were working in relation to a Presidential visit, we wore our military uniforms. I held the rank of Major at the time. Sometimes Wilson would be working at the front door of the hotel, see me in uniform, and compliment me on my appearance. I explained the uniform to him and mentioned I was a Major. I always changed into my civilian clothes before going to the happy hour but, when I arrived, Wilson would usually greet me with “Good evening, Major Schnell” (along with my Heinekin beer and “China Daily” newspaper).

I typically would vary my patronage of hotels near the Embassy so as to get familiar with the lodging venues where our delegations were lodged. However in October, 2001, when I was in Beijing helping with preparations for President Bush’s visit to Shanghai for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference, I stayed at the St. Regis again. It was an unusually tense time at the Embassy. The Sept. 11, 2001 attacks had occurred the month before and security in the Embassy district was tight.

I remembered the St. Regis happy hour and picked up on my after-work routine from my last visit in 1998. I walked in and there was Wilson. He warmly greeted me with “Hello Major Schnell” and handed me a Heinekin beer along with the “China Daily.” When I had a second beer I mentioned that I had been promoted to Lieutenant Colonel since our last meeting and put a sizeable tip in his tip jar. We had an engaging conversation. It was nice to see him again.

On the last day of that stay I entered the hotel after lunch, in my uniform, and Wilson was working the door. He was bidding me farewell and I told him I might be coming back soon in relation to a project I was working on. He told me of his interest in history and the United States. I told him I had a book about U.S. history and that I would bring it along for him next time I came to Beijing. He casually mentioned he would be most grateful if I would allow him to have my old Major insignia since I would no longer have a need for them.

I always maintain a keen sense of what is appropriate under such circumstances and his request registered as not being appropriate. It may have been a genuine interest but I did not want to risk making a gesture that might move me in a regretful direction. I deflected the request with an apology, indicating I had already passed my old insignia to a junior ranking officer—although all of my junior ranking insignia were stored away in a shoe box at home. Again, it may have been an innocent request but I realized it could be associated with ulterior motives on his part. Such was life in Beijing. I never wanted to over react but, at the same time, it was essential to consider possible realities that could exist in my relations with the local population and the relevance of varied contexts.

I periodically stayed at the Kerry Center in Beijing. It is another hotel that was about four blocks from the U.S. Embassy. I was fully aware that use of a laptop computer in my room, if left unattended, could result in the computer being tampered with. One never really knew for sure but it was a realistic suspicion. On one particular stay I was making use of my laptop computer during my free time, typing some unofficial materials for a research project, and one evening when I turned on the computer after dinner I found that all of my files had been corrupted. I lost everything.

Luckily, I had much of it backed up at home in the U.S. so I continued with my project with the awareness that I could fill that void when I returned to the states. A few days later, after typing a few more documents, I found that those new files were corrupted and subsequently lost as well. I was furious. I turned and yelled at the large light fixture that hung from the ceiling. “I don’t care if you bastards look at what I am typing but do NOT delete it!” I then realized I had either adequately conveyed my chagrin toward the tampering individuals, in that the light looked to be large enough to easily conceal a camera, or—if it was not a surveillance unit—then I was screaming at a light fixture. One had to maintain a sense of humor under such conditions.

As with the Jianguo Hotel, I found that I was repeatedly assigned to rooms in the same part of the Kerry Center. So many of these observations, by themselves, did not offer concrete evidence of anything but, taken together, they provided a picture that perpetuated my belief that I was being observed. After a while, I got so I did not take it personally. I did not really hold bad feelings toward the guilty parties. I figured they were just doing their job. Again, I did not mind if they observed what I was typing on my laptop but I did not want to be inconvenienced with the deletions of my stuff. Such is life for a U.S. military attaché working in China. This dynamic becomes part of the China experience.

This all had parallels with my existence when I was teaching as a civilian at Beijing Jiaotong University (formerly known as Northern Jiaotong University). In 1987, while on the faculty at the University of Cincinnati, I was sent to Beijing Jiaotong University for three months to serve as a visiting professor. The University of Cincinnati had established a relationship with Beijing Jiaotong University and my function was to help cement that relationship as part of the faculty exchange agreement.

It was quite clear that I was there in a “friendly” capacity, as a professor, but I still was monitored because of my foreigner status. I was housed in a far end of the second floor of my building. Any visitors to my room had to pass a front desk that monitored who came and went. During my return visits to Beijing Jiaotong University between 1987-1993 I was always lodged in one of the two same rooms. I was never harassed and there was no inconvenience associated with it but the feeling of being observed did take some getting used to. A benefit was that I felt exceedingly safe. Nobody wanted a dead foreigner on their watch.

The unspoken guidance I felt from the university was to stay out of trouble by not doing anything out of the ordinary. I always sought to give that appearance. This type of guidance was typically conveyed in a general contextual manner rather than a list of specific do’s and don’ts. I was never told that some thing or some place was off limits. If I made an inquiry to pursue something that was frowned upon, the response would not be “yes” or “no.” It would be more along the lines of “why would anybody want to do that?”

For example, I consistently sought to visit the university library. I was never told “no” but I could never seem to get such access arranged. The topic would be changed, a possible meeting with a library official would be mentioned or a future date would be alluded to. But, in the final analysis, I found that it never happened. I wanted to see the library holdings so I could convey my observations to University of Cincinnati faculty who would be coming to Beijing Jiaotong University in the future. I thought it to be a totally reasonable request.

I eventually made my way into the library on my own without drawing undue attention to myself. I quickly found what I perceived to be the reason for my lack of access. Most of the books I saw were photocopies of books and this would be a direct violation of copyright laws. Copyright laws were a controversial topic at the time and me, as a foreigner, seeing such violations was likely interpreted to be problematic.

After I had that understanding I continued to request formal access to the library so I could observe the many ways that access was denied. I thought this kind of contextual sense would help me deal with other types of requests that were deflected. Overtime, I began to recognize the patterns and forms. I was struck with how many people would be involved with such deflections. In retrospect, I doubt there was much discussion among the Chinese regarding specifics. I think there was simply a general awareness regarding how foreigners were to be dealt with.

On the day I left to return to the U.S. I thanked them for their hospitality during my visit but casually mentioned my disappointment at not having been able to visit the library. This was a building that was less than a two minute walk from my dormitory. Their response was one of mild surprise in that “all you needed to do was ask.” I laughed to myself during the drive to the airport.

Most Americans are focused on details in our day-to-day living but life in China, and interacting with the Chinese anywhere, is much more about the general contexts. The aforementioned story about the library is seemingly anecdotal but I found it, and similar scenarios, to be very instructive in my learning how to deal with the Chinese.

I offer a few more illustrations whereby a pattern regarding context became evident to me. These simple consistencies I observed, as a civilian foreigner functioning in China, became very helpful to me when I advanced to a U.S. military attaché position functioning in China. It is very much akin to being on a large dance floor, having everybody around you doing the same dance that is different than your own, and having the desire to learn their dance step so as to fit in and progress in desired ways.

One of the first items I sought after arriving in Beijing in 1987 was a map of the city. I was able to get one from a hotel downtown. One of the initial realizations I had with it, after using it for directions, was that it had significant flaws. The large streets and avenues were accurate but some of smaller side streets and specific locations were simply not accurate. I later learned, during my time as an attaché, that the map problems were on purpose so as to enhance security in the capital. I ended up creating my own basic map whereby I listed locations, intersections, street names etc. It was very basic but it served me well.

Another item I sought was a space heater for my room. My living space was very cold by American standards. I requested the space heater and even offered to pay for it. My request was acknowledged, was never rejected, but I never got my space heater. I checked daily for two weeks and was continually, politely conversed with but never got anywhere with it. I was eventually moved to a room across the hall (I was always lodged in one of two rooms during my visits there) that got the morning sun, I jammed the window cracks with newspaper, warmer spring weather finally arrived and it became a moot issue.

I was never told “no.” I was just seemingly stalled on the issue. Years later I found out that such a space heater was entirely out of the question because the electrical wiring at that time could not handle the load. It would have been a safety hazard. I would have preferred to know that up front and I could have proceeded accordingly. Again, over time I developed this contextual sense for how to interpret they were conveying “no” even though it was not being said.

Partially as a result of the cold room, I developed an eye infection that caused me some worry and I sought to doctor myself to some degree. I am generally a very healthy person and will push ahead with my task at hand even if I’m not feeling well. I have never taken a sick day off from work. However, I realized this eye infection could become an obstacle to my functioning. My room was so cold at night that I piled my dirty laundry on top of me to stay warm. I piled it on top of my head as well. I theorized that this was part of the problem regarding my eye.

I sought some basic isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol so I could periodically clean around my eye. My search for this product was not fruitful. I could not find it anywhere. I eventually went to the university Foreign Affairs Office and enlisted their support. This, in my mind, was a very simple matter. They took me to the university health clinic and the physician gave me a very small bottle (about 3 ounces) of the requested alcohol. This is a product that I could easily get in the U.S. from any drug store at a cost of 79 cents for 12 ounces.

My receiving the liquid came with a stern warning from the administering staff that I not abuse the use of it. I was baffled by all of this. It seemed to be some sort of controlled substance in China. I later learned that they suspected I might be trying to drink it. That is, they guessed I wanted it for recreational purposes instead of medicinal purposes. Again, none of this was blatantly stated. Instead it was in the context.

Thus, I learned that context was very important for dealing with all kinds of situations. I found it very helpful, almost a requirement, to have my contextual radar turned on when in China or when dealing with Chinese in the U.S. I came to appreciate how different this must be for them, dealing with Americans, as well. It was not a quaint cultural difference. I found it could be a blunt show-stopper if I proceeded in my attaché duties without this sense. Conversely, I found such awareness to be a lubricant for moving issues toward desired resolution.

2. Method

First person experiences in such situations can underscore how the relevance of context is blatantly stressed. This will be used in the following pages as foundation for conveyingthe theoretical underpinnings for what context is, why it is relevant and how China and the U.S. differ regarding context. Throughout this development the reader should consider how this holds importance for the HUMINT (human source collection) activities conducted by China and the United States. That distinction will be further developed later in this report.

The exchange of meaning in China, that involves an American, poses unique challenges for the both the U.S. and Chinese perspectives. It requires not only understanding the particular phenomenon being addressed but also the cultural context within which the topic exists. In Chinese Perspectives in Rhetoric and Communication, Ray Heisey (2005, p. xix) stresses how the interaction of Eastern and Western communication perspectives should emphasize an understanding of the cultures within which these communicative practices exist.

A broader framework is offered via varied perspectives on cross-cultural communication (Gudykunst& Kim, 2007; Hofstede, 2008; Hall, 2011). Similar illustrations are clarified from more macro level orientations as well (Neuliep, 2010; Triandis, 2012; Koester, 2005).

Such a stress can initially consider the relevance of language. Devito (2006, p. 148) states that language is “a social institution designed, modified, and extended (some purists might even say distorted) to meet the ever changing needs of the culture or subculture.” The element of context is important in this understanding. “As we grow up in the world, our experience is formed by the language in which it is presented and talked about, and this language becomes so much a part of the mind as to seem a part of nature” (White, 2006, p. 276). Ochs emphasizes this degree of context more strongly in saying that “language is the major vehicle for accomplishing communication, language functions both in context and as context, simultaneously constructing and being constructed by the social occasion” (2008, p. 206).

Chinese people, and the Chinese language which reflects the culture, are less likely to communicate ideas in a direct manner in comparison to people in the United States. “Within Chinese conversational style is a tendency to respond in terms of expectations, goals, even models rather than mundane facts” (Murray, 2009, p. 13). The important role of context cannot be overstated when the aforementioned is paralleled with the system of government in China. “China’s governance involves both the overt system of public institutions with whose members we interact rather easily and the more shadowy system of political and security organs whose work is not open...” (Murray, 2009, p. 10). This process is defined as high-context communication.

Hall (2007) states that high-context cultures must provide a context and setting and let the point evolve. Low-context cultures are much more direct and to the point. Andersen (2004, p. 23) explains that “languages are some of the most explicit communication systems but the Chinese language is an implicit high context system.” He goes on to explain that “explicit forms of communication such as verbal codes are more prevalent in low context cultures such as the United States and Northern Europe” (p. 24).

Hall (2009) goes on to explain that “a high-context communication or message is one in which most of the information is either in the physical context or is internalized in the person.” This is typically a reflection of cultural practice. Conversely, “the low-context communication is just the opposite” (p. 79). The Hall high-context/low-context model offers a framework for interpreting what is presented in this inquiry.

So, in consideration of the aforementioned, it should be clear that the Chinese tend to operate using a high-context perspective for conveying and receiving meaning. Conversely, it should be clear that Americans tend to operate using a low-context perspective for conveying and receiving meaning. As such a foundation exists for significant confusion and conflict, not just for advancing differing objectives, but for even achieving a common understanding of what the issues are.

I offer a minor footnote to the previous paragraph. The reader should observe I indicated that the Chinese and Americans “tend” to operate in such ways. It should be understood that there are exceptions. That is, this is not a pure science. There are some Americans that lean toward high context approaches and there are some Chinese who lean toward low context approaches. The point is that, for the most part, Chinese (and the Chinese government) will practice high context approaches and Americans (and the U.S. government) will practice low context approaches.

HUMINT operations are a representative high-context/low-context phenomenon. This is a fundamental premise of this report in that it is offered as foundation for understanding, not just differences between U.S. and Chinese perspectives for communicating, but also as foundation for understanding differences between U.S. and Chinese approaches for conducting HUMINT operations. As such, it is imperative that the reader grasps this fundamental distinction. It is a simple distinction but it has complex ramifications regarding the differing world views that are foundation for this distinction and the differing world views that emanate from this distinction.

This premise has relevance for understanding U.S-Chinese cross-cultural exchanges on the interpersonal, group, organizational, societal, mass communication and cyber-space levels. As I present the following illustrations, the reader should consider how paralleled situations in his/her own life could exist if confronted with similar kinds of phenomena.

Such first person situations offer data for analysis that exemplifies appropriate degrees of academic rigor. There are a wide range of considerations within such a construct.

I offer my marriage as an example from the interpersonal level. My wife is Chinese. We have a cross-cultural marriage. I periodically joke that we sometimes have had disagreements that I did not even know we had. That is, our understanding of some issues is so far a part that I missed perceiving there was a problem. Some of this has to do with standard gender difference but most of it flows from the cultural divide. The practice of fengshui offers such an example that can be readily recognized.

Many Chinese practice fengshui principles. It has to do how one physically arranges material objects in their world. For instance, how one arranges household furniture. When we have moved from one location to the next I have found that I am concerned with direct (low context) functional implications regarding furniture placement. For instance, I prefer that my file cabinet be next to my desk so I can reach into the cabinet and get a folder without needing to stand up.

My wife, on the other hand, also has a concern with the overall energy effect in any given room. There is a form of energy flow, on the high context plane, regarding furniture placement that will enhance daily living. I initially observed this to be some sort of superstition but learned there is an entire school of thought on this that relates to architectural design on a macro level. It is an important matter for Chinese.

Consequently, I have learned life works well if I follow her wishes regarding initial furniture placement and then convey my desires regarding anything that can be done to improve my daily functioning. For instance if I want the dish rack on the left hand of the kitchen sink, instead of the right hand side of the sink, to enhance my dishwashing movements (I wash the dishes in our household) then I will let her decide how this change can be made. Thus, the end result is that she gets what she wants and I get what I want but, in reality, we have achieved this end without fully grasping the perspective of the other.

What is true for interpersonal encounters also holds true for group behavior. Context is still key. China is very much a collective society. That is, they tend to function in groups and this group functioning further reinforces their collective nature. The U.S., on the other hand, is much more of an individualistic society. That is, we tend to be more independent of each other and think nothing of going our separate ways if our objectives necessitate a change of direction away from family and friends.

The family unit exemplifies such a group orientation. When my wife became pregnant with our son we were living in a very small two bedroom apartment. We had previously sold our house, moved into the apartment temporarily and were watching for a larger place to move into. Her being pregnant became the primary issue and the search for a new living space moved to being a secondary issue.

As an American, I am somewhat unusual in that I have maintained close ties with my immediate family (my parents and siblings). My house was on the same street where my parents lived, my younger sister lived with me for five years before she married and we have frequent interaction. Even still, although we are fairly close by American standards, we maintain very independent living spaces now that I have married. I have enjoyed being with my parents but, as an adult, have learned that minor conflicts can bubble to the surface after a few hours. Thus, my visits with them have typically been periodic and not for very long duration. This has been a mutual perspective.

My Chinese wife, on the other hand, has no problem being with her parents for extended periods. When she became pregnant she indicated that her parents would be living with us for six months to help with the care of our infant child. As a low-context American I was very skeptical of such an arrangement. Our apartment was so small. How would we all fit? My wife assured me it would be fine and she was correct.

My in-laws came to the U.S. soon before the birth of our son. They stayed in one small bedroom. My wife, son and I stayed in the other room, an even smaller bedroom. I was amazed at how smoothly life proceeded and soon discovered they employed high context perspectives within their relations with one another. It involves a pronounced sensitivity with one another. I am not saying it is a better perspective but I am saying it is a different perspective than a standard American low-context orientation.

Groups are obviously the foundation for organizational composition and, as such, U.S.-Chinese cross-cultural exchange reflects the high-context/low-context distinction on the organizational level. Organizational behavior reflects the behavioral norms of the individuals who comprise it.

One can study behavior in organizations to understand what frames interpersonal communication processes at other levels. Relevant extrapolations can be extended and applied throughout such multiple levels. As such, relevant themes are stressed and recognized.

McDonald’s fast food restaurants are readily accessible in Beijing. They are scattered throughout the city. McDonald’s will seek busy intersections to place their restaurants much as they do in the U.S. The intersection of Chang’an Avenue and Wangfujing Street is much like Broadway in New York City. Chang’an Avenue is a main east-west thoroughfare that runs through the heart of Beijing and Wangfujing Street has been a primary shopping district in downtown Beijing for many years. Thus, their intersection is a busy and fashionable crossroads.

I observed that there was a very large McDonald’s at that intersection and periodically ate there during my many visits to China. Then, during one of my work trips at the U.S. Embassy, I noticed the McDonald’s was gone and there was no other McDonald’s in the immediate area. This struck me strange, that McDonald’s would give up such a prized location, and I asked about it at the U.S. Embassy.

The explanation I received was that McDonald’s had contractually arranged control of the property, good for 30 years, so they could run their restaurant there. However, when a developer proposed more lucrative plans for that location, the government decided they wanted to dissolve the contractual relationship. McDonald’s declined to break the agreement. The government acknowledged that McDonald’s could, in fact, keep the property as stipulated contractually but there was no guarantee that the city of Beijing could provide them with water. That is, they could operate their restaurant at that location but they would need to do so without water. McDonald’s then voluntarily vacated the agreement.

This situation with McDonald’s reflects how understanding of the larger organizational interaction context was essential for McDonald’s to function in Beijing. With the U.S.being a low-context detail oriented culture, the specified details would serve as foundation for the larger main idea regarding what was agreed upon. Whereas in China, a more high-context social order, the specific details were relevant only insofar as their relationship with the larger backdrop and overall meaning that was intended by the Chinese government officials.

Meanings conveyed via the societal communicative channel are more grounded in the collective mindset of the Chinese social order. The role of the individual is clearly subordinate to the larger society. It is just the opposite in the U.S. Consequently, Chinese individual rights are only understood within the larger context of what best addresses the interests of society.

This can be difficult to grasp using the U.S. mindset. First person illustrations can serve as a data for analysis in this regard. As such, one must be careful to differentiate between fact and inference.

I observed an example of this soon after my arrival in Beijing during my first visit in 1987. I was out for a walk and, as I crossed at a busy intersection, I saw some large poster photographs. I first thought they were advertisements but ruled that out because, at that time, free enterprise was practically non-existent in China. I looked closer and saw five unusually gory illustrations, depicting various kinds of accidents, that seemed to be designed to serve as warnings to pedestrians that they needed to exercise caution when crossing the street. China was just starting to get more cars on the road and the public, which until that time typically used bikes or walked, was getting use to vehicular traffic.

As I looked more closely at the photographs I was impressed at how realistic they looked. These gory illustrations depicted children who had been run over by cars and trucks, their bodies smashed and bloodied. I was intrigued with how they could so realistically have models pose in such ways and create such effects. Then, all of a sudden, I realized these were actual photographs of children who had been killed at that intersection. The pictures were so graphically realistic.

Blood, guts, smashed heads and anguished faces. I was horrified. It seemed so cruel to the victims to have these actual images posted this way. And then I thought of the families who probably lived nearby and had to see their loved ones depicted in such a manner. The pictures clearly conveyed the desired message—that being anyone crossing the street needed to exercise due caution or else they run the risk of losing their lives in such a manner.

The next day in class I asked some of my older graduate students about the use of such photographs in relation to the rights of the victims and their families. They acknowledged that such photographs are, indeed, gory and unpleasant to look at but their use was necessary for them to have the desired effect. That is, the benefit to the larger social order (possibly saving lives by encouraging due caution) justified the inconvenience to the victims and families. Thus, the larger cultural context was primary over the rights of the individuals. In the U.S., such photographs would never be utilized in such a manner. It would infringe on individual rights too much—thus the specific low-context details associated with the individual take precedence in the U.S.

Mass communication practices in China differ from mass communication in the U.S. for two main reasons: 1) Chinese mass communication processes are heavily regulated by the central government whereas, in the U.S., mass communication processes occur much more in relation to free enterprise variables; and 2) the contextual themes of both countries (high-context versus low- context) are reflected in the messages conveyed and their subsequent interpretation. The resulting effects are readily observable.

First person observations of Chinese mass media, from the U.S. perspective, reflect such phenomena. Such observations must be done with an awareness of how Chinese mass media differs from U.S. mass media. There are differences and there is common ground to be found.

The spring, 1989 protests and government crackdown in Beijing, and their reporting via Chinese mass media, offer poignant illustration of the role such high-context messaging plays in China. When Chinese leaders appear on television they typically are wearing the western style sport coat and tie. This was the case during the spring, 1989 nationwide protests that were centered in Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

Shortly before the government crackdown in Tiananmen Square, Chinese Premier Li Peng appeared on television and stated that the protestors must leave Tiananmen Square without condition. It was an explicit low-context message. Not much reliance on context with the verbal message. However, the larger high-context message was clearly conveyed to the Chinese population via the clothes that Li Peng was wearing when he appeared on television to make his demand.

He was wearing a Mao style uniform, that is reflective of the more hardline mindset of revolutionary China, rather than a western sport coat and tie that he typically wore in public. The high context message was clear. Li Peng, in his role as Chinese Premier, was presenting himself as a political hardliner. Political hardliners have little tolerance for such dissent. It was not long until the tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square.

Cyber-space poses an interesting format for the Chinese high-context perspective to manifest itself. As with other communicative levels, their understanding of the internet is primarily rooted in the contextual domain rather than the details associated with what is communicated. “What” is communicated is subordinate to “how” it is communicated. There will be considerable degrees of confusion when the U.S. and China have disagreements that spill over into the cyber-space arena.

Cyber-space conflicts will probably be difficult to fight for both the U.S. and China because China will not be stressing the same battlefields as the U.S. insofar as what is reflected in their respective strategies. Cyber-space is more of a concept than a place. China will be more focused on the macro-level contextual themes and the U.S. will be more concerned with meanings conveyed via the low-context details associated with such a face-off.

Thus, cyber-space analysis offers unique types of challenges for the intelligence community. It often means operating with a clear vision of what is being sought and how it can best be obtained. Thorough examination of results, to ensure clarity, is essential.

Within the aforementioned, the relevance of Chinese high-context communication processes and U.S. low-context communication practices have been described and illustrated with regard to the interpersonal, group, organizational, societal, mass and cyber-space levels. These types of contextual emphasis resonate throughout both cultures. It is only natural that these contextual themes will be evidenced in the HUMINT practices of each country and that these contextual themes can be recognized as a differentiating variable. This phenomena is developed in the following pages. As such, the reader is encouraged to compare and contrast various types of scenarios.

3. Results

Rigorous academic inquiry can be readily recognized in the following presentation of results. U.S. and Chinese HUMINT (Human Source Collection) operations have significant differences and these differences are reflective of the contextual themes that are stressed in each culture. That is, China is a high-context culture that focuses more on nuance and indirect meanings and the U.S. is a low-context culture that focuses more on direct and explicitly stated meanings. Thus, as will be illustrated in the following pages, Chinese HUMINT operations are less direct and rely heavily on generalized contextual meanings and U.S. HUMINT operations are far more explicit and goal directed. Ultimately, what HUMINT is understood to be differs in each culture and what it means to be human is ultimately called in to question.

Students of the intelligence community will see frequent reference to an illustration that exemplifies a primary unique aspect of Chinese intelligence operations in contrast with other countries such as the U.S. and Russia. It focuses on intelligence gathering in relation to a sandy beach. According to this explanation, Russian forces would arrive in the dead of night via a submarine loaded with a small highly armed contingent of special forces soldiers who would make their way ashore, promptly fill five buckets with sand from the beach and retreat into the darkness from whence they came.

The U.S. would send a Navy Seal unit in, commensurate with the aforementioned Russian approach, and the extraction would be accomplished. Backup would be accomplished via a Marine commando team landing from the air via helicopters and accomplishing a similar type of sand extraction. Planning and execution of this strategy would be enhanced with National Security Agency satellites providing real-time visuals of the beach area.

The Chinese would use a vastly different approach. They would enlist the support of 10,000 beach goers (families with children etc.) with instructions to go to the beach on a given sunny afternoon, engage in standard beach recreation activities and then return to their place of lodging. These Chinese “collectors” would then shake off the sand that had accumulated to their towels, sandals, clothing and body into a small pile and these many piles would be collected into one single pile that would be larger and more diverse than the total of what was collected by the Russian and U.S. efforts (Wise, 2011, p. 11; Stober& Hoffman, 2005, p. 133; and Hoffman, 2008, p. 7).

The point being that the Chinese would use a much more broadly conceived approach that is subtle and far less intrusive. This approach would be vague in conception and practically undetectable in execution. It would draw heavily from the general contextual orientation that is common for such a beachfront. The Cox Committee (U.S. House Select Committee, 2009) develops this type of scope of operations more fully in their report about Chinese intelligence operations.

As such, the Chinese approaches with intelligence operations are demonstrably different from the U.S. One must keep this in mind when analyzing Chinese practices so as to fully grasp the scope of difference (in contrast with U.S. approaches).

The exceedingly high number of people that can be utilized for Chinese intelligence operations puts the impressive volume of what can be collected, considering size and scope, in an entirely different realm regarding operations that are conceived and strategies that are employed. “It is, however, not the quality but the sheer number of their operatives that enable a portion of them to succeed. The number of clandestine intelligence operations conducted by the PRC (People’s Republic of China) overwhelms Western counterintelligence and law enforcement agencies” (Eftimidades, 2004, pp. 113-114).

Their focus on many concurrent operations, with particular targeting of ethnic Chinese, has benefitted Chinese intelligence objectives. “China’s spying method is enormously inefficient, slow and piecemeal. So, China works the numbers. The approaches are massive in scale, but the primary targets are the people who appear most likely to hear China’s plea for help . . . . primarily ethnic Chinese” (Stober& Hoffman, 2005, p. 132). Although ethnic Chinese tend to be the most successful target, having such a large number of operatives allows China to pursue other constituencies as well.

The following example with an American professor offers such illustration. The Chinese intelligence machine has a record of targeting visiting scholars. Xu Maihong was a PLA (People’s Liberation Army) officer who posed as a university student and sought to report on an American professor. She later reported “Their responsibilities were to learn English and to keep track of the activities of American scholars and students, in preparation for assignment overseas” (Eftimiades, 2004, p. 58). Thus, the concepts of size, scope and patience has served the Chinese intelligence process well.

Thus, over time, it becomes clear the high-context Chinese culture operates a HUMINT operation system that seemingly casts large indirect nets as a strategy for meeting intelligence gathering objectives. Conversely, the low-context U.S. culture operates a HUMINT operation system that focuses more directly on the targeting of fewer domains, sources and topics of interest. That is, the HUMINT operations conducted by both countries parallel their respective styles of communication.

Most Chinese intelligence operations fall under the auspices of the MSS (Ministry of State Security). “There is a twofold purpose: internal security activities against dissidents and foreign intelligence operations” . . . . There are five bureaus within the MSS that focus primarily on HUMINT intelligence operations: “the Second Bureau (intelligence collection abroad), Fourth Bureau (technology development for intelligence gathering and counterintelligence), Sixth Bureau (counter intelligence, primarily Chinese communities overseas), Tenth Bureau (economic, scientific & technical intelligence) and Foreign Affairs Bureau (foreign intelligence liaison)” (Lowenthal, 2012, p. 351).

In addition to the MSS, the Military Intelligence Department (MID) of the People’s Liberation Army also engages in espionage outside of China. As such one can recognize the thinking of Sun Tzu, the Chinese military theorist who authored The Art of War in about 400 B.C. One chapter, titled “Employment of Secret Agents,” describes five categories of spies: agents in place (who are native to the targeted area), double agents, deception agents, expendable agents (who may be sacrificed) and penetration agents. Use of all five types of agents was governed under the central theme of “Know the enemy and know yourself and you can fight a hundred battles with no danger of defeat” (Wise, 2011, pp. 9-10).

One can recognize such thematic dimensions within intelligence gathering practices. It takes time to do so but patterns do become apparent over time. The evolution of such patterns, and findings related to them, can be striking.

China uses a unique approach to intelligence gathering that generally does not involve paying sources. A common scenario is for a foreign target, visiting China, to participate in a long day of sightseeing, followed by a dinner with alcohol consumption and then being bombarded with varied forms of queries designed to draw information of intelligence value from him/her. Rather than cultivate intelligence sources “China develops general relationships with people that may have an intelligence dimension. Instead of recruiting agents, the MSS often relies on informal contacts to collect intelligence . . . . China doesn’t so much try to steal secrets as to try to induce foreign visitors to give them away” via subtle manipulation (Wise, 2011, pp. 12-13).

The aforementioned sightseeing/dinner/pressure technique is described in better detail by the FBI. “Surprise them with a hotel room visit or a banquet at the end of a long, tiring day. Put them off balance, flatter them, surround them, press them for information. For some scientists, there was the added emotional pitch: We’re a poor country, struggling to modernize, to catch up. Help us; it won’t hurt America” (Stober& Hoffman, 2005, p. 77). This type of approach obviously rests on wearing the source down and playing off his/her sense of reciprocity and interactive protocol.

The FBI recognized three rules that are common in Chinese intelligence operations: “1) First, China does not, in most cases, offer money in exchange for information; 2) China does not accept typical walk-in cases because of the possibility that such ‘volunteers’ are being dangled as bait by an opposition intelligence service . . . . ; 3) China collects information from good people, people who don’t have financial problems, don’t have emotional problems, who are not motivated by revenge, not unsuccessful in their lives” (Wise, 2011, pp. 15-16).

The concept of “guanxi” is recurrent with Chinese HUMINT strategies and it is a uniquely Chinese phenomena. It refers to relationship networks that are maintained by individuals, groups and organizations. In the U.S. it would be more of a bartering club rather than a network of friends. The guanxinetworks that one maintains is correlated with how well he/she can get things done. Guanxi relationships imply reciprocation of favors and a strong sense of obligation. Thus, in the world of intelligence gathering, guanxi does not mean you are dealing with an intelligence source, rather, it is “a social relationship with an intelligence dimension” (Hoffman, 2008, pp. 34, 107-108).

Given that guanxi is a vividly Chinese concept it is far more effective with ethnic Chinese since they are more familiar with this practice. Many Chinese intelligence operations generally target, and are more effective with, ethnic Chinese populations but are far less effective with later generations that have been born and raised outside of China and don’t speak Chinese. “They are no more likely to commit espionage than any other American” (Wise, 2011, pp. 17-18).

The expression “Kindred Spirit” is commonly heard among those who study the Chinese intelligence gathering system. As such, it implies the importance of relationships and the obligations inherent in relationships. “If you’re from the homeland, these guys will say, ‘we found your grandmother lives on the third floor of the apartment building. We can get her on the first floor,’ producing a profound sense of obligation in the visiting scientist” (Stober& Hoffman, 2005, p. 122). The guanxi variable can be recognized in such scenarios and can specifically encourage reciprocation from ethnic Chinese.

These distinct Chinese characteristics are worth noting in that they can strike a strong chord within the cultural core that most people maintain within their sense of self. People growing up in China are consistently exposed to varied forms of propaganda that can leave strong impressions well into adulthood. The Lei Feng campaigns offer such an example. Lei Feng was a PLA soldier who died while working on a random project in support of Chinese society. He was a random individual, who had a random job and died a random death. Chairman Mao held him up as an example for the Chinese masses to emulate.

The Chinese spy Katrina Leung, who was code named “Parlor Maid,” spoke of Lei Feng in her work as a Chinese agent. “You probably think I am too young to remember Lei but I do and I remember the song that was written about him. She then proceeded to sing a few bars of the lyrics” (Wise, 2011, p. 112). His existence as a Chinese icon underscores a theme that resonates within Chinese society that can be manipulated toward desired ends.

These kinds of themes, while recognizable for ethnic Chinese, can pose problems for U.S. officials seeking to uncover common symptoms that reflect wrong doing. There typically is not a smoking gun that could serve as evidence in a courtroom. “PRC spies tend to deliver science and technology intelligence in China through a conversation with a scientist in the same field . . . spying looks like a social gathering . . . . The social aspect of it puts up a huge smoke screen” (Stober and Hoffman, 2005, p. 132).“The Chinese method of gathering intelligence doesn’t even look like espionage” (Hoffman, 2008, p. 7).

Thus the guanxi concept, with so many subtleties and reciprocation expectations, exemplifies a cultural influence theme that permeates Chinese intelligence gathering activities aimed at ethnic Chinese. Sometimes referred to as “ASKINT,” as opposed to HUMINT or SIGINT (names for standard intelligence approaches), the guanxi theme does indeed build upon the idea of seeking desired information by creating a context that permits asking for it. One layer worth noting in the guanxi process is that one must not necessarily produce the desired information. To have tried can cover the reciprocation debt—at least temporarily. But, at the same time, it implies that a debt to provide desired information is still at large (Stober and Hoffman, 2005, p. 94).

What has been conveyed thus far focuses on intelligence processes. Concrete detection and prosecution present another category of challenge. There are fine lines that exist between what is open source information, which is legally obtained, and protected information. A Chinese saying—“The are no walls which completely block the wind”—comes to mind.

Two Chinese intelligence analysts published a book, Sources and Techniques of Obtaining National Defense Science and Technology Intelligence, that addresses how secret information can be procured in the U.S. “Most intelligence can be collected from open sources, the authors explained, although about 20 percent must be obtained by ‘special means’. . . . But, by mining the vast amount of public materials and accumulating information a drop at a time, often it is possible to basically reveal the outlines of some secret intelligence” (Wise, 2011, p. 242).

This open source searching is much more in the realm of library research rather than James Bond “cloak and dagger” images. Regarding this gathering of this information “The greatest volume by far comes from open publications—newspapers, magazines, TV news, and scientific literature. The Chinese specialize in archiving, then disseminating these to its scientists. A Chinese spying manual reads like a librarian’s dissertation” (Stober& Hoffman, 2005, p. 133). In this situation, what makes us uncomfortable regarding collection may many times be within the letter of the law but outside of the spirit of the law.

In these kinds of cases one should consistently consider the range of legal issues that might be confronted. Such legal issues often frame what is being analyzed and serve to offer foundation for understanding results that are obtained. Perspective is important with development of such understanding.

The case of Wen Ho Lee offers insight regarding how this kind of prosecution can go astray and have very unsatisfactory results that fly in the face of what the U.S. democracy purports to be. Lee was jailed under harsh conditions for 278 days in relation to accusations by the FBI and Department of Justice indicating he had engaged in spying against the U.S. of the worst order. During the court proceedings it became apparent that there was no legitimate grounds for his prosecution.

When he was dismissed from his detention, Federal Judge Parker stated “I believe you were terribly wronged by being held in custody pretrial in the Santa Fe County Detention Center under demeaning, unnecessarily punitive conditions . . . . I was led astray last December by the executive branch of our government though its Department of Justice, by its FBI, and by its U.S. attorney for the district of New Mexico” (Lee, 2011, p. 2). These kinds of travesties of justice make prosecutors and the court system exceedingly cautious about such issues.

“For prosecutive purposes, you are looking at an individual collecting one small part one time, and you don’t have the quality of case that our country will take to prosecute as far as espionage” (Eftimiades, 2004, p. 27). At the same time, this situation exists within the larger backdrop of many Chinese visiting the U.S. as students, on business, varied forms of delegations, diplomats & commercial representatives and in relation to a large ethnic Chinese community. Ohio State University has roughly 50,000 students. Of that number are 6,000 students from China. This is not to imply that the aforementioned should not be in the U.S. It is meant to stress there is a large volume of traffic between the U.S. and China and that this will present challenges for deciding what, if any, monitoring needs to be done and how this task is to be addressed.

4. Discussion

There is much to consider when one reviews the varied means of intelligence collection. Cyber-space represents another relevant area that is evolving and poses unique challenges as well. The potential for cyber-spying allows for spying to occur without having a physical presence involved. The challenge for detection and prosecution is significant and promises to redefine the notion of context, protocol and fair play.

For instance, a destructive program called “Ghost Rat” allows the attacker to take full control of an external computer, download files and operate microphones and web-cam devices. This would allow for eavesdropping. On a larger scale, in 2009 the Wall Street Journal reported cyber-spies could gain access to the power grid in the U.S. Former CIA director James Woolsey explained “Taking down the grid for months comes as close to a nuclear attack with many weapons on the United States as anything could. You’d have mass starvation and death from thirst and all the rest” (Wise, 2011, p. 229).

In a similar vein, the “Cox Committee” congressional report conveyed that cyber-attacks on the U.S. “might even include cyber-attacks on the U.S. homeland that target the U.S. financial, economic, energy and communications infrastructure . . . . if it (China) can acquire niche weapons systems that are relatively inexpensive and that can exploit U.S. vulnerabilities, it stands a chance of deterring or defeating the U.S. in a limited engagement” (U.S. House Select Committee, 2009, p. 8). One can clearly see that the stakes could be incredibly high if the U.S. is victim of a large scale cyber-attack.

Evidence of Chinese government involvement with cyber-spying against the U.S. surfaced from the 2011 WikiLeaks episode. Among these leaks was a message from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, to Washington D.C., indicating “hacker attacks against Google were directed by the Politburo, the highest level of China’s government. The cable stated: ‘A well-placed contact claims that the Chinese government coordinated the recent intrusions of Google systems’” (Wise, 2011, p. 235). Thus, one can see that suspicions about China’s anti-U.S. cyber-space intentions do have foundation. The obvious question has to do with how extensive such intentions might be and what effects they might have?

The U.S.-China relationship is complex. There are historical trends to be considered. At present, there is a bond in the business realm. China relies on the U.S. to buy its exports as a means to shore up its industries and U.S. businesses are continually seeking to market products in the exceedingly large (and growing) Chinese market. There is reason for optimism in this type of “trading partner” relationship.

However, it is worth considering the overall historical context that provides backdrop for such a relationship. There is considerable depth to appreciate with regard to what has happened in the past, what is going on in the present, what this means for the future and the implications of varied perceptions of all these angles. One can understand the unease that might exist within the Asian-American community toward the U.S. government. “For sixty years, beginning in 1882 and lasting into World War II, Chinese were barred from immigrating to the United States by the Chinese Exclusion Act. In 1917 Congress created an Asiatic Barred Zone, prohibiting immigration from much of East Asia and the Pacific Islands (until 1952). Thousands of Japanese Americans were shunted off to internment camps in paranoia after Pearl Harbor…” (Wise, 2011, p. 238). It is a tainted historical context.

5. Conclusions

Perception is a key factor when studying U.S.-China relations because much of the U.S.-China relationship is a matter of perception. Many of the primary aspects of the relationship are open to interpretation and reinterpretation. These kinds of perceptions are subject to manipulation. “Beijing also engages in a much softer form of irregular warfare through its perception management operations, both in times of tranquil relations and in times of crisis. . . . because the Chinese Communist Party maintains tight political and media controls, Chinese perception management campaigns are more tightly coordinated with diplomacy” (U.S. House Select Committee, 2009, p. 8).

Reality, and perceptions of that reality, seem to be equally important when seeking to define and understand the U.S.-China relationship. A fairly fundamental and revealing depiction can be recognized in global maps that are produced in each country. “Maps sold in the U.S. depict North America at the center, with Europe to the east and Asia to the west. Those sold in China have Eurasia to the fore, North America on the periphery” (Hoffman, 2008, p. 9).

This is a subtle difference but it does represent a distinct difference between one that sees the U.S. as being the center of the world and one that sees China as being the center of the world. Such a disparity provides explanation for the respective expectations that other countries should fall in line with the lead of the central country. When such adherence does not happen it opens the door for distrust, perceived justification for espionage, preparation for armed conflict, further efforts to destabilize the other and ultimately seeking control of the other.

A larger issue to consider is how the nature of espionage and HUMINT efforts will be going through redefinition due to ripple effects in relation to the new communication technologies. Such innovations are stimulating linkages and exposures that we have never had before. Forms of electronic collection, that do not even involve classified information, have the potential to become more prevalent. That is the collection and computerized analysis of open source information, on a macro scale, has the potential to make standard intelligence collection less relevant. This shift will not happen over night but the incremental changes will add up over time.

6. Recommendations

The U.S. intelligence community should consider the following recommendations in relation to context being a differentiating variable between U.S. and Chinese HUMINT operations:

a)Develop a cadre of intelligence analysts who can be used as Chinese Subject Matter Experts (SMEs).

b) Utilize the aforementioned Chinese Subject Matter Experts (SMEs), as a matter of standard operating procedure, to assess U.S. understanding of Chinese HUMINT operations.

c) Engage in an annual review of how Chinese high-context HUMINT operations can be better understood and protected against.


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