Spying for The People

Title:                      Spying for The People

Author:                 Michael Schoenhals

Schoenhals, Michael (2013). Spying for The People: Mao’s Secret Agents, 1949-1967. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press

LCCN:    2012013901

JQ1509.5.I6 S36 2013


  • “In this fascinating account, Michael Schoenhals tells the story of the domestic covert operations of Mao’s public security organs through a detailed examination of the cultivation and recruitment of their agents, their training, and their operational activities”– Provided by publisher.
  • “Since the end of the Cold War, the operations of secret police informers have come under the media spotlight, and it is now common knowledge that vast internal networks of spies in the Soviet Union and East Germany were directed by the Communist Party. By contrast, very little historical information has been available on the covert operations of the security services in Mao Zedong’s China. However, as Michael Schoenhals reveals in this intriguing and sometimes sinister account, public security was a top priority for the founders of the People’s Republic, and agents were recruited from all levels of society to provide intelligence and ferret out counter-revolutionaries. On the basis of hitherto classified archival records, the book tells the story of a vast surveillance and control apparatus through a detailed examination of the cultivation and recruitment of agents, their training, and their operational activities across a twenty year period from 1949 to 1967. These revelations add an entirely new dimension to modern China’s troubled social and political history. Although the story may be safely set in the past, the development of human sources to sustain an oppressive domestic order is nothing if not eerily relevant to students of the present”– Provided by publisher.


  • Machine generated contents note: 1. Public security: the institutional framework; 2. Agents by category: informers, enablers, and guardians; 3. The recruitment base: where utility trumps class; 4. Finding the right man for the job: operational profiling; 5. Recruitment; 6. Training and tradecraft: behind the covert front; 7. Agent running: Beijing rules.


Date Posted:      April 27, 2016

Reviewed by Paul W. Blackstock and Frank L. Schaf[1]

Michael Schoenhals is a professor of Chinese studies at Lund University, Sweden. As he was conducting research on Chinese society, it became obvious to him that the “Maoist surveillance state” was a part of everyday life in China. Moreover, he concluded, it was a topic long “underexploited” by historians.

Schoenhals eventually solved the daunting problem of finding sources in ways only possible in post-Mao China. He found materials from “the official CCP’s de-classification regime” and “primary data … once intended exclusively for in-house consumption” in various university libraries throughout the world. Then there were the “chance discoveries in flea markets and backrooms of antiquarian bookshops in urban China of archival material.” One example was a “tattered copy of a 1957 book, Lectures on the Subject of Agent Work.” (pp. vii, 12) The outcome of this research is Spying for the People, a work that adds domestic security intelligence collection by citizen-agent informers to the existing history of China’s Cultural Revolution.

The period of agent activity Schoenhals treats ends in December 1967 (only a little more than a year into the Cultural Revolution) because in that month, Mao ordered the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) to institute an “indefinite suspension of all operational use of agents … as well as the decommissioning of safehouses nationwide … [and persons] who [in the trite-sounding translation of the minister’s words] had ‘done any bad stuff.”‘(p. 1) This extraordinary move applied only to the government’s own domestic agents, who monitored mainly urban Chinese civilians and foreigners in the country. Spying for the People focuses on the purpose of domestic agents—as provocateurs and collectors—as well as the system’s command structure, duties, technical capabilities, and historical context.

Readers will find echoes of Stalin-era methods in the performance of officers of the MPS, whose training included and dealt with ethical issues—“no sex please” (p. 101)—in addition to agent handling, and political circumstances. Schoenhals identifies three types or categories of agents used by the MPS during 1949-67. One type served as spotters or “informers.” The second, called “enablers,” or case agents, might investigate or penetrate targets. The third, “guardians” performed Cl functions primarily, at important institutions. The assignment of agent targets was done by dividing areas into geographic or functional sectors. An example of the latter was the national railroad grid, said to have required “10,000 agents,” though records are not precise. Operations of this magnitude posed significant administrative problems for the MPS and its supervising officers in terms of control-including corruption, payments to sources, debriefings, and “orderly termination” of sources or cases. (p. 231)

In a postscript to Spying for the People, Schoenhals questions the meaning of it all. Beyond dealing with foreign spies, what did the PRC accomplish with its blanket domestic espionage? Even Mao, before the agent program was shut down, expressed a wish to see the public and legal sectors “beaten to a pulp.” (p. 234) In the end, Schoenhals concludes only that he has documented that the system existed legally, and the lessons yet to be learned will be part of Mao’s legacy. This is an extraordinarily fine work of historical scholarship on a topic about which little had been known

[1] Blackstock, Paul W. (1978) and Frank L. Schaf, Jr. Intelligence, Espionage, Counterespionage, And Covert Operations: A Guide to Information Sources. Detroit: Gale Research Co., p. 133

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