China is one of the most difficult espionage targets to crack. However, its long-standing culture of secrecy—modernized and codified under decades of Chinese Communist Party rule—does not mean everything that is hidden by pervasive state secrecy laws is inaccessible. With due care, many open sources can be exploited to gain relatively useful insights.

Language and strategic culture alone create a high wall surrounding China's secrets. American military attaches assigned to the country are taught that “China's first line of strategic defense is the Chinese language.” It takes about a decade to become reasonably proficient in Chinese—all too often an impractical quest—but on top of that, many Chinese will admit that the vocabularies of the military and related sciences approach a separate language, unknown to most.

To make its language more accessible, the country sponsors more than 100 Confucius Institutes worldwide, mainly on university campuses, to provide subsidized language instruction. But the expectation is that their hosts will practice self-censorship regarding sensitive topics, such as Taiwan and Tibet, while the Chinese instructors gain an opportunity to become better acquainted with the students, should they pursue a career in the government or military.

China's development of a strategic culture that nearly worships secrecy and deception, exemplified by the works of Sun Tzu (596-544 BC)—which are venerated in China today much like the writings of the U.S. founding fathers—predates the harsh realist counsel of Niccolo Machiavelli by almost 2,000 years. Historian and translator Ralph Sawyer has noted that for Sun Tzu and his contemporaries, secrecy offered a “force multiplier,” recalling Sun Tzu's often quoted lines: “The pinnacle of military employment approaches the formless . . . . If I determine the enemy's disposition while I have no perceptible form, I can concentrate my forces while the enemy is fragmented.”

Sun Tzu maintained that the ability of a leader to keep and enforce secrecy formed a key aspect of his “virtue,” or his moral strength to rally followers. Secrecy as a virtue pervades former “paramount leader” Deng Xiaoping's 24-character strategy that guided China's 1980s foreign policy: “Observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership.”

China's historic cultivation of secrecy was reinforced by Mao Zedong's victory in 1949 in two distinct ways. First, the Leninist heritage and structure of the Communist Party demanded pervasive secrecy regarding itself, the military, state and economy, while the party secured absolute control over information and the media and started campaigns of indoctrination.

Today, depending on the sector, information transparency in China is controlled, very limited or non-existent. There are no public dates for meetings of the top governing politburo standing committee or top central military commission, much less minutes or transcripts. There has been no demand for them in the state-controlled media, so it is not surprising that it would not occur to most Chinese that the meetings and their proceedings should be public knowledge. Chinese government numbers for gross domestic product or defense budgets are not “real,” but the world accepts them largely out of habit.

Foreign researchers pursuing sensitive topics in China must contend with a phalanx of “barbarian handlers,” or Chinese professionals designated to interact with and manage foreigners and keep them away from truly important Chinese. Foreigners can readily meet academics and even foreign ministry officials intent on controlling U.S. space warfare capabilities, but they likely will never meet the military officials building China's own space weapons.

The handlers provide a near-immediate warning mechanism for government officials, who can then restrict or deny access to researchers or others who prove problematic, a method long applied to encourage self-censorship in foreign academic, business and even government circles. The result is that many foreign researchers are effectively co-opted by China's secrecy culture.

Mao's second contribution to modern Chinese information security was to impose nearly three decades of strict isolation on the Chinese people. Vital military information was difficult to obtain, and major catastrophes, such as the Mao-induced Great Famine of 1959-62 that took more than 40 million lives, were largely unknown beyond the Chinese who were affected. Rare foreign visitors were handpicked friends of China, or (as seen during the late 1960s and early 1970s) great efforts were made to deceive early academic delegations, up to and including the construction of “Potemkin Villages.” Anti-foreign paranoia was pervasive. A former Chinese official, who was part of one of the early Mao-era foreign missions to Europe in the mid-1950s, recounted to this analyst that upon his return, his unauthorized purchase of foreign cigarettes would be used to justify a decade-long sentence to a farm labor camp.

The desperation of this period provided opportunities for the British and U.S. intelligence communities to score victories through the keyholes of Taiwan and British-controlled Hong Kong. A sometimes hot war between Mao and Taiwan's Nationalist government included energetic espionage campaigns that yielded some results, with Taipei successfully exploiting the poverty of many Chinese and appeals to anger with the Communist Party. A formal Taiwan-U.S. military alliance from 1954 to 1980 involved extensive intelligence cooperation, including electronic and signals intelligence gathering and “Black Cat” overflights by U-2s supplied by the CIA and supported by the U.S. Air Force, but with Taiwanese pilots and insignia. Some intelligence cooperation continues under the quasi-diplomatic U.S.-Taiwan relationship.

Today, however, the tide of incentives is against the West. One former U.S. observer of the U.S.-China intelligence battle tells Aviation Week that China's transformation into an economic superpower has reduced the once-myriad rewards for exploitation. By controlling access to China's phenomenal economic rise, the government has created almost irresistible inducements for Chinese at home and abroad to conform to its desires and appeals rather than cooperate with foreign powers.

As for Taiwan, its titanic struggle with China for the loyalties of overseas Chinese ended by the late 1990s, as it became clearer that Taiwan's economic elite had bet their future on access to business in China. Some sources note that Taiwan's espionage successes have declined. The more frequent headline is the exposure of a senior Taiwanese military officer spying for China, or the use of a Taiwan national or false-flag operation by China to pursue intelligence goals in the U.S. Should Taiwanese increasingly perceive a shift of power to China away from the U.S., the challenge of maintaining loyalties to the government in Taipei (much less to its U.S. defense relationship) will only increase.

Wealth has enabled China to keep pace with new information age requirements to maintain secrecy. In the early 1990s, new startup companies with strong ties to military and intelligence sectors, such as Huawei and ZTE, built a self-contained, national, fiber-optic “Great Wall” network that was inherently secure because it had only a few access points and did not use more accessible legacy transmission systems.

In addition to a multitude of hackers exploiting foreign information networks, China maintains an army of Internet censors, numbering in the tens of thousands, to squash dissent, eliminate sensitive postings and manage information revelations. In late 2010, these censors helped project Chinese power as they allowed distant and indistinct images of the Chengdu J-20 stealth fighter to appear on military web pages, previewing its “official” first flight on the eve of a visit by a U.S. defense secretary.

Such assertiveness, however, also betrays China's gradually rising confidence in its future power, which has made it easier and more productive to exploit open sources to gain insights into the country's current and future capabilities. For example, the expansion in military programs means that more information has to be offered to promote desired foreign sales. It took 14 years from first flight for basic data about the Chengdu J-10 fighter to be revealed at the 2012 Zhuhai air show, whereas similar data for the more modern and capable Shenyang J-31 were revealed two weeks after its Oct. 31 first flight—because Shenyang seriously wants to sell this fighter. Growing confidence, as well as a desire to quell suspicions, has led to increasing Chinese willingness to reveal more about its space program, too.

Long-range nuclear missiles, anti-satellite weapons, military space planes and energy weapons are not being previewed at arms shows, but (with careful reading and correlation of authors and institutes) it is possible to gain insights into these programs from Chinese engineering journals available from huge Chinese electronic databases, such as the China National Knowledge Infrastructure.

Writing for these journals is very popular, as it provides Chinese academics a rare opportunity to profit personally from their research. But these databases also feature a vast collection of U.S. and other foreign academic products that give Chinese researchers insights into weapons programs, whereas strict Chinese censorship ensures their academic products do not identify military programs or weapons.

Knowing that foreign researchers are relying more on open data, China is not beyond poisoning this well to sow confusion. Writing in The Diplomat in August, a former two-term U.S. Army attache to China, Larry Wortzel, suggests that China's recent release of a very sensitive book about its nuclear strategy—that also happened to affirm its “defensive” nuclear strategy in the face of troubling indications otherwise—may be an operation in perception management.

In the long term, a balance of sensitive information flows will require consideration of “reciprocity” in sectors such as education. In 2010, more than 157,000 Chinese studied at U.S. universities, with a majority concentrated in hard sciences, such as aerospace engineering, whereas 14,000 Americans studied at Chinese universities that year, most of them learning the language. Perhaps China's access to key U.S. aerospace centers, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, should be made contingent on increasing U.S. access to China's top aerospace centers, such as the Harbin Institute of Technology.