The Soviet-Chinese Spy Wars in the 1970s: What KGB Counterintelligence Knew, Part IV
Filip Kovacevic concludes his series of articles on Soviet counterintelligence against China, drawing on recently published Soviet KGB journals.
Editor’s Note: The following article and analysis is adapted from an earlier posting on The Chekist Monitor, a blog by Dr. Filip Kovacevic providing analyses and translations of Russian-language sources concerning the history of Soviet/Russian state security and intelligence organizations. – Charles Kraus
In concluding my series of postings analyzing Soviet KGB journal articles about counterintelligence against China, I offer one that has a distinct regional focus. The article analyzed here presents a survey of the activities of the Chinese intelligence services in the Kazakh Soviet Republic in the 1970s and the early 1980s.
The article is written by the head of the Second Main Directorate of the KGB (counterintelligence) in the Kazakh Soviet Republic, Colonel Nikitin and his deputy, Lt. Colonel Penkov and has a long title: “On the Unique Features of the Subversive Activities by the Chinese Intelligence Services against the Soviet Union from the Territory of Xinjiang.”Its particular strength is that the authors discuss a number of specific cases from their own operative practice to illustrate the Chinese intelligence sources and methods in Kazakhstan and beyond.
As we have seen in the previous analyses of the KGB counterintelligence articles (see Part I, Part II, and Part III), the proper form of a KGB journal article requires that it begins with a reference to the conclusions of the most recent Soviet Communist Party Congress. For Nikitin and Penkov, the most recent is the 26th Party Congress held in February 1981 during which the Soviet leadership accused China of making an alliance with the Western powers to sabotage the Soviet Union and the unity of the Soviet-controlled Socialist bloc.
Nikitin and Penkov take this statement as a starting point and claim that the aggressive Chinese anti-Soviet plans and geopolitical designs condemned at the Congress are reflected in the increasingly hostile activities of the Chinese intelligence services. As an illustrative case study, they use the Chinese intelligence activities in the Kazakh Soviet Republic where they hold the two top positions in the KGB counterintelligence directorate.
According to Nikitin and Penkov, the rising interest of the Chinese intelligence services in the affairs of the Kazakh Soviet Republic can be observed since the early 1960s. Over the following two decades, the Chinese intelligence focus has expanded to include the information regarding the Soviet Kazakh military and border guard infrastructure, the economic situation and agricultural planning, the domestic and international political issues, the biographical data, sources, and methods of the KGB and MVD (Ministry of Internal Affairs) personnel, and the living conditions, attitudes, and moods of the Chinese diaspora.
Nikitin and Penkov claim that the launching pad for the Chinese intelligence activities in the Kazakh Soviet Republic is the neighboring Chinese region of Xinjiang and set out to discuss these activities in detail and provide concrete examples. They reveal that their sources and methods include the counterintelligence activities against the Chinese intelligence officers operating under diplomatic cover in the Soviet Union, the investigations and interrogations of border violators and defectors, the KGB active measures, and the KGB agent networks in the Chinese diaspora.
Nikitin and Penkov indicate that the favorite method used by the Chinese intelligence services to infiltrate their agents into the Soviet Union involves illegal border crossings. They note that the number of the border violators has steadily increased since the mid-1960s. They put their total number at more than 800 individuals since 1967 and give the exact figures for several years preceding the publication of their article: 69 violators in 1978, 72 violators in 1979, 89 violators in 1980, and more than 120 violators in 1981. They state that the violators come from several ethnic groups, including Han Chinese, Uyghur, and Kazakh, and that those who turned up in the early 1980s were typically better educated and younger than the ones from the previous periods.
Nikitin and Penkov interpret this trend as a potential deceptive tactic by the Chinese intelligence services to facilitate the violators’ recruitment by the KGB and their subsequent return to China on KGB missions. They state that the violators appear to be very familiar with the Soviet legal system which allows them to remain in the country after serving a short prison sentence for illegal crossing. According to Nikitin and Penkov, this legal norm may facilitate the long-term Chinese intelligence operations within the Soviet Union and the deep cover infiltration of their agents into the Soviet state institutions, including the military and intelligence structures.
Nikitin and Penkov assert that the KGB counterintelligence activities in the Kazakh Soviet Republic in the period between 1978 and 1980 led to the exposure of more than 10 agents of the Chinese intelligence services among those who crossed into the Soviet Union illegally.
They also provide several detailed case histories. The first one is the case of an individual codenamed “Nyui” (born in 1960) who was arrested in August 1980. After the KGB investigation, which included the information gathered by an informer placed inside his prison cell, “Nyui” confessed that he was trained by the Chinese Ministry of State Security (MSS) to offer his services to the KGB with the expectation of being sent back to China to work on the KGB behalf, thus comprising its espionage network there.
Another case from the same false defector category was the individual codenamed “Kin” (born in 1957) who was arrested the same year. “Kin” was also trained by the MSS but, in contrast to “Nyui,” was instructed to claim that he was an underground member of the “Eastern Turkestan Revolutionary Party” suppressed by the Chinese regime in 1969. He was to ask the KGB for the material assistance, including both money and weapons, to bring back to his alleged comrades hiding in Xinjiang and getting ready to rise up against the Beijing government.
According to Nikitin and Penkov, just like the MSS, the Chinese military intelligence service also trained false defectors. In this respect, they mention the case of an individual codenamed “Student” (born in 1958). “Student” admitted that he underwent special training in the Xinjiang Military District headquarters from May 1977 until September 1978 in order to become a deep cover agent within the Soviet Union. He was supposed to join the household of his relatives living in the Kazakh Soviet Republic and wait for a contact from China.
In addition, Nikitin and Penkov claim that the Chinese military set up small special forces units in the border areas to kidnap Soviet citizens. They discuss the case of a Kazakh shepherd (Soviet citizen but born in China in 1932) codenamed “Sputnik” who vanished in August 1978 while tending his livestock, only to re-appear two months later. During the interrogation by the KGB counterintelligence, “Sputnik” admitted that he was recruited by the Chinese intelligence services. He revealed that he was subjected to intense psychological pressure and ordered to write personal, anti-Soviet statements until he acquiesced to become a spy.
Nikitin and Penkov comment that such methods of “persuasion” have also been mentioned by other recruited Chinese-born Soviet citizens. They also note that the Chinese intelligence services often use the fact of these individuals having been born in China as the main rationale as to why they should assist them in their subversive activities. Moreover, Nikitin and Penkov state that the number of recruitment attempts rose in the late 1970s with the increase of Chinese citizens from Xinjiang visiting their family members in the Kazakh Soviet Republic and vice versa. However, they do not fail to mention that the Soviet Kazakh KGB counterintelligence keeps a close eye on the visitors from China and, no doubt, also tries to recruit them to serve the Soviet cause.
Lastly, Nikitin and Penkov claim that the Chinese military units from Xinjiang sometimes make incursions into the Soviet territory to test Soviet defenses. They note that several shootouts between the Soviet border guards and the Chinese soldiers occurred during the 1970s, including one in August 1971 when two Chinese soldiers were shot 17 kilometers away from the border. A Russian-Chinese dictionary was found among their belongings, which Nikitin and Penkov interpret as a sign that they planned to collect intelligence by contacting the local population. Nikitin and Penkov also note that the KGB special forces unit found a machine gun cartridge produced in West Germany in the Alaqol border region in June 1978, the indication not only of the presence of a Chinese military unit in that region, but also of the fact that it was armed by the Soviet Western adversaries.
Along the same lines, they state that in 1981 the US government provided China with spying equipment for the surveillance of Soviet missiles and radio communication which was positioned along the border in Xinjiang.
In conclusion, Nikitin and Penkov seem to be particularly wary of the ability of the Chinese intelligence services to recruit many who come into contact with them. They voice a strong suspicion even of some of their own agents who have returned after completing intelligence missions in Xinjiang. For instance, they write of the return of their agent codenamed “Un” in the summer of 1981. “Un” was sent to Xinjiang in 1971 and returned ten years later with three of his relatives. Nikitin and Penkov state that the KGB investigations show that there is a cause for serious concern that both “Un” and one of his relatives have been doubled by the Chinese intelligence.
Thus, in the final analysis, not only are the Chinese intelligence services increasing the number of agents they send into the Soviet Union, but they also seem to be successful in turning some of the KGB’s own. They are, in the words of Nikitin and Penkov, an adversary both “aggressive and insidious” for whom the KGB counterintelligence had yet to find an antidote.
These four articles are not the only articles in the KGB Papers focusing on the activities of the Chinese intelligence services in the Soviet Union. However, they constitute a representative sample because they cover both the findings of the two Main KGB Directorates (for counterintelligence and military counterintelligence) and of the regional KGB unit located in the important geostrategic area of the Soviet Union which shared a long border with China.
The fundamental takeaway is that the KGB considered the Chinese intelligence services in the 1970s as “a very dangerous adversary,” even if the designation used fell short of that of the “main adversary,” which was reserved for the United States.
Interestingly, however, if we compare the main points regarding the foreign operations of the Chinese intelligence services articulated by the KGB and those described by Knüsel in her study of the Chinese espionage in Switzerland during the Cold War, we will find many similarities. Among them, the most prominent ones concern the use of the Chinese Embassy as the main espionage control post and the embassy events as the main locus of recruitment. There is also a similar, very extensive operative focus on the Chinese diaspora and recent immigrants as well as the fact of the large purchases of scientific and other related publications.
There are some differences as well, but they are primarily derived from the existence of a long continental border. Such, for instance, was the use of the Moscow-Beijing railway personnel or the training of agents to cross the border illegally on foot and play a deception game with the KGB as “false defectors.”
However, in the final analysis, the similarities are more numerous than the differences, indicating the existence of a unique Chinese foreign intelligence culture with a universal footprint.
 Начальник 2-го Управления КГБ Казахской СССР, полковник Г. Я. Никитин и зам. начальника отдела 2-го Управления КГБ Казахской СССР, подполковник А. А. Пеньков, “Об особенностях подрывной деятельности китайских спецслужб против СССР с территории Синьцзяна.“ Труды Высшей Школы26 [Papers of the Dzerzhinsky Higher School of the KGB, Volume 26], Moscow, 1982, pages 269-276. Classified as Top Secret.
 The New York Times reported this story in June 1981. See Philip Taubman, “U.S. and Peking Join in Tracking Missiles in Soviet Union,” New York Times, June 18, 1981.
About the Author
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.Read More
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