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The Soviet-Chinese Spy Wars in the 1970s: What KGB Counterintelligence Knew, Part II

Filip Kovacevic

Filip Kovacevic analyzes the “subversive activities” of the Chinese intelligence services in the 1970s as seen from the eyes of the Soviet KGB.

Some Contemporary Tendencies in the Subversive Activities of the Chinese Intelligence Services Against the USSR
KGB counterintelligence officers Major General A.G. Kovalenko and Colonel B.I. Ponomaryov published "Some Contemporary Tendencies in the Subversive Activities of the Chinese Intelligence Services Against the USSR" in a secret KGB journal in 1980.

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of articles written by Dr. Filip Kovacevic analyzing the “subversive activities” of the Chinese intelligence services in the 1970s. The series is based on materials published in once-secret Soviet KGB journals, and is adapted from postings that originally appeared on Kovacevic’s blog, The Chekist Monitor. You can read Part I in the series here.

An article appearing in a 1980 KGB journal co-authored by high-ranking counterintelligence officers Major General A.G. Kovalenko and Colonel B.I. Ponomaryov offers extensive information regarding Chinese intelligence activities in the Soviet Union. It includes a detailed discussion of two cases of Chinese espionage on Soviet territory in the 1970s, cases not mentioned in another important article by KGB counterintelligence officer Captain N.S. Kuznetsov that I analyzed earlier on Sources & Methods and on The Chekist Monitor.

The article, titled “Some Contemporary Tendencies in the Subversive Activities of the Chinese Intelligence Services Against the USSR,” was published online by the Genocide and Resistance Research Centre of Lithuania (GRRCL), through its KGB Documents portal. A fascinating record, it has never been officially declassified by the Russian government and is analyzed here in English for the first time.[1]

Kovalenko and Ponomaryov begin by claiming that Chinese foreign policy in the 1970s has an explicitly anti-Soviet, expansionist, and aggressive character. They dismiss the significance of the Soviet-Chinese border negotiations which took place in Moscow in September 1979, sarcastically commenting that their only lasting consequence will be the increase of the Chinese intelligence presence at the Chinese Embassy.[2] They claim that during the period of the negotiations, the number of Chinese personnel at the Embassy increased by 25 percent (from 150 to 200), among whom they suspect at least 30 were intelligence officers. In addition to the traditional collection and recruitment activities, they assert that these officers are also interested in looking for ways to subvert the Soviet state from the inside.

Just like Kuznetsov did in his article, Kovalenko and Ponomaryov point to the Chinese Embassy in Moscow as the control post of Chinese espionage in the country. They claim that Embassy personnel engages in the following intelligence activities:

  • the collection of political, economic, military, and scientific-technical information;
  • the collection of rumors and similar information that could be used as “ideological diversion” against the Soviet state in international forums;
  • the coordination of intelligence networks and agents within the country;
  • the monitoring of the Soviet media (they allege that the Chinese acquired special equipment for recording Soviet TV programs from West Germany);
  • the overall recruitment efforts (including those directed at foreign journalists and diplomats in the USSR, especially those from the so-called developing countries);
  • the supplying of equipment and providing support to the Chinese intelligence officers who are operating without the official cover (illegals).

They also emphasize that the Embassy has purchased a vast number of Soviet publications, spending about 4,500 rubles a year on Soviet newspapers and journals and about 160,000 rubles a year on books and specialist publications. (In 1979, 1 ruble was equivalent to $1.52 USD.)

In addition, Kovalenko and Ponomaryov note that since 1971, Chinese diplomats based at the Embassy had resumed conducting intelligence collection trips across the USSR, trips that had been halted during the Cultural Revolution. They report that two Chinese diplomats, one of whom was identified as the assistant to the Chinese military attaché, took a trip to Kishinev, Kiev, and Kharkov in October 1978. The two were observed trying to conduct surveillance of military objects in Moldova and Ukraine. They also questioned local inhabitants (some of whom were KGB informers) about the size of military units and various industries in the region.

Another pair of diplomats took a trip to Baku, Yerevan, Tbilisi, and Sukhumi in January 1979. They were actively collecting political and economic information in their meetings with local officials. According to Kovalenko and Ponomaryov, they also engaged in explicitly anti-Soviet, subversive activities by telling their interlocutors in the Caucasus that they would be better off if they “liberated themselves” from the “pressures” and “Russification” efforts of Moscow.

Kovalenko and Ponomaryov also describe an espionage case linked to the Chinese Embassy in Moscow in the 1970s. They tell a story of the Chinese agent codenamed “Scorpio,” a Chinese national who immigrated to the USSR in 1955 with a wife who was a Soviet citizen. According to Kovalenko and Ponomaryov, “Scorpio” was recruited by the Chinese intelligence officers at the Embassy after more than a decade-long period of testing and meetings. In 1972, he was told to apply for Soviet citizenship by claiming that he was an ethnic Uzbek, and then to buy a house in the south of Ukraine (probably in Crimea) near a major ship-building center on the coast. The Embassy supplied him with the necessary funds and he was told to begin collecting economic, military, and scientific-technical information. He was supposed to maintain the contact with the Embassy through a Chinese citizen who lived in Moscow and frequented the Embassy’s events. He himself was never to visit the Embassy again or to go to China during the next 15 years.

Kovalenko and Ponomaryov do not say how and when “Scorpio” was caught, but what they do reveal shows the high-level of sophistication of the Chinese intelligence efforts. The case illustrates the Chinese intelligence officers’ slow and painstaking work to recruit the agent and then to engage him in a complex and multi-leveled operation with the elements of a genuine spy thriller.

The second espionage case described by Kovalenko and Ponomaryov also resembles an elaborate spy adventure story. It concerns the case of a Chinese intelligence officer codenamed “Tsun.” In 1973, “Tsun” was arrested for illegally crossing the border between the USSR and China. He stated that he wanted to immigrate into the USSR in search of a better life and was released after serving a short prison sentence. Soon afterwards, however, he began to engage in intelligence collection activities both within the Chinese immigrant community and on his own by travelling to Vladivostok and Khabarovsk in a personal vehicle and monitoring military and heavy industry locations. When he felt that the KGB counterintelligence was closing in on him, “Tsun” attempted to flee by stealing a boat on the Amur River but was arrested before being able to cross into China. The information in his possession was found to contain Soviet state and military secrets and he was sentenced to seven years in prison in 1974.

Kovalenko and Ponomaryov use this case to emphasize the seriousness of Chinese intelligence efforts in the border region between the two countries. They also add that these efforts involve air and radio surveillance and that the Chinese border guard and trade delegations’ meetings with the Soviets as a rule include intelligence officers on the lookout for recruiting disgruntled Soviet citizens. (One of such cases was also described by Kuznetsov).

Kovalenko and Ponomaryov also allege that the efforts of the Chinese intelligence services are directed at subverting the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan which, at the time of their writing, was in its initial stages. They state that China is training special forces and undercover officers in Xinjiang in northwest China, with the aim of sending them into Afghanistan to assist the anti-Soviet groups. Moreover, they claim that the Chinese intelligence in Afghanistan has established contacts with the CIA, evidence of the geopolitical “collusion” between the “imperialists” and the Chinese Communists on the international level.

As we can see, Kovalenko and Ponomaryov’s article does not differ from Kuznetsov’s in terms of perceiving the Chinese intelligence activities within the USSR in the 1970s as a serious and complex threat to the Soviet state. They do seem to be more eager to boast of the KGB counterintelligence successes, but this is hardly surprising considering that their military rank is much higher and their leadership stakes greater than Kuznetsov’s.

Still, even they admit that in order to address fully the challenges of the Chinese intelligence activities, the improvements in both Chekist theory and practice are necessary.

My next post will analyze an article from the KGB Papers which presents the Soviet military counterintelligence findings on the Chinese intelligence activities in the Soviet Union.


[1] Генерал-майор А. Г. Коваленко и полковник Б. И. Пономарев, “Некоторые тенденции подрывной деятельности специальных служб КНР против СССР в современных условиях.” Труды Высшей Школы 21 [Papers of the Dzerzhinsky Higher School of the KGB, Volume 21], Moscow, 1980, pages 447-456. Classified as Top Secret.

[2] These talks were broken off after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December of the same year.

About the Author

Filip Kovacevic

Filip Kovacevic

Filip Kovacevic is a researcher of Russian and East European state security and intelligence organizations. He teaches at the University of San Francisco, and runs "The Chekist Monitor," a blog on the operations and personalities of the Soviet and Russian state security and intelligence organizations.

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