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Autocracies are fragile – however sophisticated they may seem

It’s a tale of two autocracies. Last week we laughed at the apparent primitiveness of the Russian intelligence services and simultaneously trembled at the sophistication of their Chinese counterparts.

Bloomberg Businessweek magazine reported that China’s military has managed to implant a microchip no bigger than a grain of rice in US computer mother boards, as they were being assembled in China, effectively giving Beijing a secret back door into giant American firms including Amazon and Apple.

It was seen as a jaw-dropping technical feat. “Like witnessing a unicorn jumping over a rainbow,” one hardware expert commented.

The Russian security services, meanwhile, were exposed as low-tech bungling amateurs. Western governments revealed that earlier this year Dutch police had apprehended four Russian agents as they attempted to hack into the investigation into the Salisbury novichok poisonings at a chemical weapons watchdog facility in the Netherlands.

They were sitting in the facility’s car park in a rented car with a coat over their equipment. One of the spies even had a taxi receipt on his person, showing that they had been picked up at the Moscow headquarters of the GRU military intelligence service. An examination of the men’s laptops and phones confirmed that they had been involved in a host of other notorious computer hacks on western targets.

And it got worse. Using the personal information on the agents released by the western authorities, the investigative website Bellingcat was seemingly able to produce a database of the names of a further 300 GRU operatives, including their mobile phone numbers.

No unicorns or rainbows there. So why are the Chinese so good at the spying game and the Russians so hopeless? One explanation offered was that the skills of the once formidable Russian intelligence services have degraded since Soviet days.

Alexander Gabuev, of the Carnegie Moscow Centre think tank, suspects they registered their private cars and names with the Russian Traffic Authority, using the GRU address, in order to access special road privileges, such as not being stopped by the police, immunity from drink driving fines and exemption from car tax. Did someone at the notoriously corrupt Russian Traffic Authority sell this list? “[The] root cause of [the] largest intelligence failure in modern Russian history is a combination of wrecked values system in parts of the Russian society, notorious incompetence and, well, banal corruption,” Gabuev concludes.

So how different is China? Less different than this week – and the general tone of western commentating on China – might have led people to believe. For corruption is also an advanced cancer in that society too.

The China scholar Minxin Pei, in his recent book China’s Crony Capitalism describes how “local governments penetrated by these elites unavoidably experience degradation in their capacity for providing public goods” and “corruption networks, consisting of officials, businessmen, and gangsters, seize control of these jurisdictions and turn them into local mafia states”.

In 2015 Ma Jian, a senior official at the Ministry of State Security (MSS), China’s equivalent of the GRU, was arrested in a corruption scandal. Ma was revealed to have put the MSS’s spying capabilities at the service of a real estate tycoon in exchange for bribes. He had six mistresses and two illegitimate children.

Xi Jinping has ostensibly cracked down on corruption by Communist Party officials in recent years. But in the absence of any transition towards government transparency or the rule of law this feels more like the consolidation of political power by Xi, crushing rival factions, than a genuine attempt to clean up China’s rotten public realm.

China’s rapid economic growth of the past decade, a period over which the developed world has struggled, has led to something of a panic in the west, a crisis of confidence not only in our liberal economic model but our liberal democratic institutions.

This was magnificently symbolised when The Times recently carried a piece by David Cameron’s exspeech writer, Clare Foges, imploring us to learn lessons from the world’s new generation of “strongmen”, including China’s Xi Jinping.

But all autocracies are inherently fragile, however slick and impregnable they may look from the outside and from a distance of several thousand miles. For all their surveillance, the information feedback channels, which all governments need to be effective, tend to be calamitously defective. Reform-blocking vested interests are much harder to override in an environment of collusive corruption than they are in democracies with a free media and the rule of law.

As Minxin Pei puts it: “Instead of institutional resilience [China suffers from] pervasive institutional decay – degeneration of norms, disloyalty to the regime and subordination of the regime’s corporate interests to the private interests of members of corruption networks”.

Overestimating the competence of the autocrats of Beijing might be as dangerous as underestimating the thugs of Moscow.

All autocracies are inherently fragile, however slick and impregnable they may look from the outside and from a distance of several thousand miles


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