The ongoing struggle - whether acknowledged or not by our governments - of America with China is the subject of several books, and the cyber attacks and espionage of China against Western targets has gotten a fair amount of coverage. And that subject is even covered in this book's last chapter.
China's more traditional espionage activity has been less well covered and that is the subject of this book which ranges in time from the possible 1960s affair of Richard Nixon with a Chinese agent to 2009 espionage prosecutions. Wise bounces back and forth in time as he covers two major cases of Chinese espionage: a double agent for both the FBI and the MSS - China's organization for gathering foreign intelligence - and a Chinese-American scientist suspected of providing details of America's most sophisticated nuclear weapons to China. Because Chinese espionage operations often seem to overlap somewhere, these two cases, code named Parlor Maid and Tiger Trap respectively, also introduce us to other cases including perhaps the most famous - the matter of the reputedly innocent Wen Ho Lee.
There are several points of interest in Wise's caroming narrative.
First, while Wise cites the often heard metaphor that Chinese intelligence operates by dispatching a horde of agents against a target, each collecting a tiny bit of intelligence, rather than the high tech methods of American intelligence gathering, what is more interesting is the criteria for their agents. They chose not to deal with emotionally damaged people who have sex, drug, and money problems or operate out of a desire for revenge. (Though some recent Chinese spy prosecutions seem to partly contradict this.) They opt for "good people", often Chinese immigrants who want to help their "mother country", or those with an interest in Chinese culture. For their help, they have China's gratitude and help in business dealings.
Second, while the book does not have the space or inclination to confront the notion of possible dual loyalties in first generation Chinese immigrants to America, it does show both sides of the issue. Wen Ho Lee hardly comes across as the innocent that immigrant and civil rights groups would have us believe (though the conditions of his confinement were unnecessarily harsh). In the matter of spies, lack of a criminal conviction for espionage is hardly proof of innocence. On the other hand, engineer Jeffery Wang had his career disrupted and nearly ruined when falsely accused of spying to say nothing of the punishment meted out to an FBI agent who insisted on his innocence. Furthermore, some Chinese spies were actually Taiwanese citizens.
Third is the little known case of Larry Wu-Tai Chin, a mole in the CIA for almost thirty years.
The dramatic core of the book, despite not directly involving nuclear secrets, is the Parlor Maid case. We see two experienced FBI counterintelligence agents become lost, as the inevitable - if beautiful - stock phrase has it , in "the wilderness of mirrors" as they managed Katrina Leung, informant, sometime bed partner of both, and known MSS agent for at least 10 years of their relationship. Despite his research, Wise can't give us a final answer on this disastrous lapse in judgement.
Wise's prose reads fast. His history is well-sourced with notes and an index. My only stylistic complaint is that perhaps more specific dates should have been used rather than phrases like "November of that year" or a flat out timeline should have been presented in a glossary.
Still, it's a worthwhile look at the seldom covered subject of Chinese espionage and the psychological and tactical complexities of running counterintelligence agents.