Chinese General Secretary Xi Jinping’s heavy-handed rule is leading Chinese officials “unhappy with the trajectory” of their country to offer themselves as informants, an Australian spy chief has suggested.

“There's a monoculture that's being enforced,” Australian Secret Intelligence Service Director-General Paul Symon said on Tuesday during an event at the Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based think tank. “We don't yet know exactly how that will play out, but what we're seeing is more and more signs of officials, individuals, interested in a relationship.”


That’s an optimistic signal for U.S. and allied intelligence agencies tasked with scrutinizing the regime after years of Western setbacks and high-profile Chinese Communist espionage successes. China has a reputation as one of the most difficult regimes for Western agencies to penetrate, but Beijing’s emergence as a truculent global heavyweight has put pressure on Australian officials to undertake more “daring” operations.

“The nature of the contest is changing in a way that our political parties, of either persuasion, will see the reality of what's happening,” Symon said. “And I think that the demand signals for ASIS activities and operations will increase, not decrease.”

China gave U.S. and Australian leaders an unpleasant jolt last month when Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare announced the signing of a security agreement that reportedly would allow Beijing to “send police, armed police, military personnel and other law enforcement and armed forces to Solomon Islands to assist in maintaining social order.” That deal has stoked trans-Pacific anxiety that China eventually will acquire a naval base in the country, thereby allowing the Chinese People’s Liberation Army to target supply routes between Australia and the United States.

“You are in a position to interdict lines of communication, transport, etc., from Australia up into Asia and to the Americas,” Japan Forum for Strategic Studies senior research fellow Grant Newsham, a retired U.S. Marine Corps colonel, told the Australian Financial Review. “Plus, it means they have leapfrogged the first island chain, America’s defense line. You establish a permanent naval fleet and gradually build it up and start sailing around the region like the Americans have been doing for years.”

President Joe Biden’s team has launched a China Mission Center at the CIA to prioritize espionage operations against Beijing, almost a decade after a major security breach blew the cover of approximately 20 CIA informants.

"You can't flip a switch and suddenly have a stable of Chinese assets, great penetrations of the inner sanctum of government," the Harvard Belfer Center’s Paul Kolbe, a former CIA officer, told NPR in November. "You have to develop officers who know the language, the culture, and that can establish deep relationships of trust that are required to do agent operations.”

Symon, the Australian spy chief, didn’t miss the opportunity to underscore the amount of effort that his agents put into ensuring the security of their informants — from the “huge amount of training” to equip officers to get in and out of a meeting safely to the planning of the conversations.

“There are so many people involved,” he said. "There's a lot of, I would say, ‘red-teaming’ of those meetings ... checked by others — questions asked about, 'Have you thought about this? Have you thought about that?’ planned in great detail. And all that seeks to achieve the ultimate outcome, which is that a meeting is successful.”

A reputation for skilled and conscientious source management could help Australia, a member of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing network with the U.S., capitalize on widening “disillusionment” with Xi.


“ASIS benefits from espionage opportunities that emerge from the suppressed dissent within authoritarian states,” Symon said in his prepared remarks, which didn’t mention Xi but featured an apparent allusion to the Chinese Communist chief. “When leaders abolish fixed political terms, for example, they become responsible and accountable for everything — including the disillusionment that emerges from within. This provides us an edge.”