But spycraft is changing globally and is far more nuanced than movies ever imagined.
Christine Lee, suspected by MI5 of having “acted covertly” to interfere in British politics, certainly doesn’t look like anybody’s idea of a spy – a middle-aged, smiling, nondescript women.
But in many ways, she appears to be a textbook example of China’s playbook, one where Beijing is patient about long lead times because the payout could be well worth the wait – foreign interests and situations massaged favourably for the world’s second-largest economy.
Beijing has tried to cultivate a sense of unity and patriotism among overseas Chinese, like Ms Lee, many of whom after one or several generations out of China, have managed to grow connections in industry and government.
It’s unclear how successful that campaign has been as a whole. But at least with Ms Lee, it seems to have worked. She has been quoted as saying: “Although I have spent these years in Great Britain, no matter how long the shadow of the tree, the roots forever penetrate the soil…”
Through people like Ms Lee, Beijing can attempt to curry favour in foreign governments and with politicians to get them to "see" their side on controversial issues – for instance, helping to press for backing on projects with Chinese investment, or encouraging silence on hot-button issues such as human rights.
One example is Australian politician Sam Dastyari, who accepted donations from a Chinese billionaire – a development linked to how his take on some China-related issues were at odds with Canberra but in line with Beijing. More suspect details emerged in 2016 and Mr Dastyari resigned a year later.
On top of pure intelligence gathering in the most traditional sense, Beijing is keen to influence what the world thinks about China, to get the public to buy into its version of the story – whether that’s its territorial take on the South China Sea, or its assertion that Xinjiang is at risk of Islamic extremism mandating the need for "re-education" camps.
Fanning the flames of nationalism, even among Chinese abroad, also means that people may choose to act solo, without explicit instructions, in hopes of catching the attention of big wigs in China – executing a favour before being asked.
But all this runs the risk of creating anti-Chinese, or even more broadly anti-Asian, racist sentiments. Last fall, 177 faculty members at Stanford University criticised a US-government campaign to root out espionage activity at US universities for “fuelling biases that, in turn, raise concerns about racial profiling.”
The fact that the coronavirus originated in China has already given way to a spate of racially-motivated violence.
Foreign governments have a tough balancing act in rooting out undue Chinese influence – itself a very real concern – while making sure rhetoric doesn’t become too shrill.
Other nations – the US and Russia, for example – have similarly tried to influence the world before. But Russia is not quite as organised as Beijing, and the US has a political system that’s more palatable to the broader West.
What seems to have foreign governments in a bind now is China’s dogged determination to reshape the global world order – and Beijing has both the human and digital know-how and resources to potentially succeed.