Friday, August 29, 2008

The Spy Within: Larry Chin and China's Penetration of the CIA

I was still a student when China was in the throes of the Cultural Revolution. I distinctly remember my Social Studies teacher talking about the Bamboo Curtain. He very dramatically announced that no one knew what was really going on in China. He showed grainy photos taken illicitly during the Great Leap Forward in the 50’s and smuggled out of the countryside that showed backyard ore smelters. For many years afterward, that’s what I pictured in my mind any time the subject of China came up either in print or in conversation.

I was on the edge of my seat when Nixon visited China. Finally, we would be able to peer behind the Bamboo Curtain and see what was going on. The backdrop to the visit was the Cold War and Nixon’s policy of triangulation. The Soviets and their spies were an ever-present danger. The likelihood that China might also be spying on us didn’t appear to me to be a viable possibility. The Chinese were too different. Their culture and values were alien to the West. Their people didn’t even look like us. They would seemingly not be able to blend in like Russian agents.

Little did I suspect that it was that dissimilarity in culture and language that made us vulnerable. Who better than a native speaker to translate documents and broadcasts coming out of the PRC? The story of Larry Wu-Tai Chin, born and educated in China who became a translator for the State Department in 1948 and later for the CIA, all the while spying for China until he retired in 1981, is told in this volume.

This is a compelling story that is not done justice by the author, Tod Hoffman. The book’s biggest flaw is its choppy narrative flow. What could have been written like a thriller is instead told from too many points of view with the author occasionally injecting himself into the narrative “imagining” scenes and dialogue where a source is missing. The story jumps around in time, going back and forth between the “now” of whichever source is being used as a viewpoint and the past. In between scenes from the FBI’s investigation and subsequent interrogation of Larry Chin, we are treated to, among other things, a brief history of 20th century China, the author’s vision of how an informant might be recruited and the tale of a French spy who was seduced by a Chinese man posing as a woman. All of which serves as a huge distraction from the unique story of a spy who managed to remain undiscovered for his entire active career.

Mr. Hoffman’s writing is as inconsistent as his storyline. It veers from novelistic to scholarly to what appears to be his research notes merely cut and pasted into the text. He is also prone to slang (“being as…”) which can be jarring in the midst of more scholarly prose.

Larry Chin’s career spanned many decades. As the Freedom of Information Act brings more material to light, additional details of his activities will likely be discovered. It is my hope that in the future another, more able author will pen a new telling of this incredible tale and do it the justice that it deserves.

Review copy courtesy of Steerforth Press

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