China’s ‘Thousand Grains of Sand’ Approach to Intelligence Collection

 By Vaibhav Kullashri

In September 2020, a freelance journalist Rajeev Sharma was arrested by Delhi police under the Official Secret Act (OSA) for spying for the Chinese intelligence agency [1]. The investigation has revealed that they have passed the information on army movement, defense acquisition, and information regarding the Dalai Lama. Also, the journalist Sharma was writing the article on different platforms to shape Chinese opinion. When both India and China were involved in the skirmish at Galwan valley in eastern Ladakh, the arrest of journalists made it imperative to understand the nature and working of the Chinese intelligence agency and their approach to collecting information. Chinese are known to employ their deception technique [2] to achieve strategic gain to delay or render war unnecessarily. Thus, gaining reliable intelligence has become quite essential in employing those deception techniques. The deception is an essential skill in espionage, and even Sun Tzu, in his book, The Art of War, talks about deception as an important means to attain objectives.

Is China’s intelligence agency carrying out intelligence differently? The Chinese intelligence-gathering technique is different from others. It does not believe in the traditional way of employing professional spies [3] but utilizes the Chinese students, academicians studying and working abroad, tourists, and even though companies to help in the intelligence collection. This type of intelligence collection is a time-consuming process, and the data collected is amorphous and is of low quality. This low-quality data is analyzed, stitched together to form a part of more considerable intelligence. The type of intelligence collection is termed as the ‘Thousand grains of sand’ approach by a former China analyst for the FBI, Paul D Moore. He explains this intelligence collection method in the following way.

“If a beach were a target, the Russian would send in a sub, frogmen would steal ashore in the dark of night and collect several buckets of sand and take them back to Moscow. The U.S. would send over satellites and produce reams of data. The Chinese would send in a thousand tourists, each assigned to collect a single grain of sand. When they returned, they would be asked to shake out their towels. And they would end up knowing more about the sand than anyone else” [4].

The Chinese motive of collecting information is just not limited to the security aspect aiming to understand the adversary’s capability and capacity. Chinese are also interested in understanding the social structure and government functioning at the social level. Therefore, China does not employ many professional spies as their objective is more than just understanding the adversary nation’s security parameter. In the 21st century, China has shown exponential growth and emerged as one of the forerunners in communication and 5G technology. Chinese have even devised the strategy to use technology to collect information. Acquiring information from the cyber platforms has two-pronged approaches: first, creating a cyber attack vector on all connected devices worldwide, and second, investing in the companies that can provide vital information of users to Chinese agencies. Alibaba’s investment in technology venture place IQ in October 2016 and in the Magic leap in February 2016 is considered an example of such investment [5]. These companies collect big data [6] and then utilise this data as per their convenience. Since such data is readily available in a free and democratic society, falling prey to such an approach is not a big deal.

The ‘Grains of sand’ works on the principle of the “vacuum cleaner approach” [7], where vast numbers of human and cyber networks are vacuuming information ranging from personal to intellectual. The human network of students, academicians, scientists, and even tourists is well established through a “thousand talent plans” [8]. The aim is to lure the native people working abroad to share information about their workplace and environment. The question arises, Is there anything different about China? The answer is yes, as China has made it mandatory for its citizens to assist intelligence agencies. In 2017, they passed a National Intelligence law [9], which compels all Chinese companies and even individuals (living in and out of the country) to assist government intelligence agencies in gaining information.

Last year in an investigation titled ‘China is watching,’ the renowned newspaper revealed that the communist party of China-backed Zhenhua data information technology Co. monitors over 1000 Indian personalities and organizations[10]. The individuals and organizations are being monitored through different social media platforms. This way of gaining menial information is an example of the ‘grains of sand’ intelligence collection approach. With such an approach, the Chinese have mastered the data and informational hunting skills to enhance their national economic and military capability. So, in the present, it may look that this menial information is of no harm to national security, but in the more significant run, it can be analyzed and compiled from proper intelligence and can be a potential risk to the security of the nation. Thus, the government’s banning of Chinese apps during the Galwan incident was the right step as it developed a consensus to use domestic apps and technology [11].

In the present time, as technology is dominating human life, the nature and parameters of national security are also changing. In such a scenario, keeping national security intact is a challenging task. Acquiring intelligence is now not only limited to employing spies and planting moles. The technology has enhanced the scope of gaining information through various cyber platforms. As an emerging power both in terms of economy and technology, India should understand more about China’s intelligence and its footprint in the region. Intelligence is not only about knowing about others but more about restricting others from knowing about oneself.


[1] Raj Shekhar (2020), “Chinese among 3 arrested for spying”, 20 September 2020, available at,, accessed on 14 February 2021.

The journalist was arrested along with Chinese woman’ Qing Shi and her Nepalese associate, Sher Singh. They all are working for the Chinese person through the two companies, namely MZ pharmacy and MZ malls. These two companies were operated by Chinese nationals in India by their fake name Suraj and Usha.

[2] Col Pradeep Jaidka (Retd) (2020), “Deception, Denial, Distortion and Disinformation (D4) by China”, Vivekananda International Foundation, 17 November 2020. Available on  , accessed on 27 February 2021.

[3] Harsh V Pant and Anant Mann (2020), “China has an intelligence gathering architecture unlike any other”, The Print, 15 September 2020. Available on’s%20authoritarian%20culture%20has%20been,increasingly%20proving%20to%20be%20accurate, accessed on 10 February 2021.

[4] David Wise (2018), “America’s other espionage challenge: China”, The New York Times, 05 March 2018, available on, accessed on 28 February 2021.

[5] Sudhansu Nayak (2021), “Few Grains From ‘Thousand Grains Of Sand’ ”, Observer Research Foundation, available on,till%20a%20clearer%20image%20appears.&text=The%20strategy%20also%20blurs%20the,military%20and%20non%2Dmilitary%20intelligence. , 08 March 2017, accessed on 10 February 2021.

[6] Big data is a combination of structured, semi structured and unstructured data collected by organizations that can be minded for information and used in machine learning projects, predictive modeling and other advanced analytics applications. The big data is often characterized by three Vs: Volume, Variety and Velocity.

[7] Peter Mattis (2011), “China’s misunderstood spies”, The Diplomat, 31 October 2011.Available on , accessed on 11 February 2021.

[8]  Reuters (2020), “China theft of technology is biggest law enforcement threat to US, FBI says”, The Guardian, available on , 6 February 2020, accessed on 16 February 2021.

[9] The national intelligence law of the People’s Republic of China adopted at the 28th meeting of the standing committee of the 20th National People’s Congress on 27th June 2017. Following article need special attention

Article 7 – All organization and citizen shall support, assist and cooperate with national intelligence efforts in accordance with law, and shall protect national intelligence work secrets work they are aware of.

Article 9 – The state gives commendation and awards to individuals and organizations that make major contributions to national intelligence efforts.

[10] P Vaidhyanathan Iyer (2020), “China Watching: President, PM, key opposition, leaders, cabinet, CMs , Chief Justice Of India …The List Goes On”, The Indian Express, 15 September 2020, available on  , accessed on 10 February 2021.

[11] Priyanka Chandani (2020),“Why India’s virtual war on Chinese apps is significant”, Deccan Chronicle, 4 September 2020, available on , accessed on 15 February 2021.