China is engaged in a major domestic propaganda program to deter and counter the activities of foreign spies.
Recent reports in official Chinese publications that are reflective of official but secret Beijing policies indicate China is targeting foreign intelligence operations, carried out by both human agents and sophisticated cyber attackers.
The Chinese government long has held that foreign forces are working to subvert the communist system and steal its secrets. Chinese commentators frequently rail against the CIA and the United States for their alleged role in fomenting “color revolutions” in China, and have blamed Hong Kong’s independent pro-democracy movement as one example of the subversion effort.
Beijing’s counterspy program was prompted in part by disclosures of secret documents made public by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. The NSA official revealed extensive US and allied electronic intelligence gathering against China, both from government and state-run corporation networks.
Outspoken Chinese commentator and noted hardline nationalist Dai Xu, an air force colonel and professor at the National Defense University, has called Snowden “one of the greatest international warriors of the 21st Century” for his exposure of the spying activities of what he called the US “evil empire.”
Dai has stated in online postings that Chinese who “lick the US boot” have been left ashamed by revelations of US cyber espionage. The outspoken colonel also has criticized the former director of Google in China as “hacker for the United States.”
A feature of the counterspy program was disclosed on Nov. 1, the one-year anniversary of the imposition of a new PRC counter-espionage law. A tip line was opened that will be used by the Chinese to report foreign spying activity. The reporting channel was set up by the Communist Party’s Jilin Province national security department in a notice posted online.
The notice says all Chinese are required to report to authorities through the telephone tip hotline. The goal: To “assist national security organs in legally and promptly defending against, preventing, and punishing espionage activities.”
Types of activities to be reported provide clues to the spy problems the Chinese are facing. The hotline should be used to report on “espionage organizations,” their agents and affiliated domestic and foreign institutions.
Also, authorities should be notified about people who order, carry out or fund activities threatening China’s security through “stealing, spying, purchasing, or otherwise illegally obtaining state secrets or intelligence.”
The notice also defines spying activities as inciting, luring or bribing state employees to provide secrets “on behalf of enemies.” Also to be reported is anyone providing attack targets to foreign powers.
To spur counterspy reporting, Chinese authorities are offering unspecified “rewards” for those who provide truthful and accurate information. The amount will be based on the importance of the report.
“Strict secrecy will be maintained on behalf of the reporting individual and necessary protective measures will be provided,” the notice says. “For those who maliciously concoct stories, give false reports, or trump up false charges to frame others and thus produce undesirable outcomes, they shall be held legally responsible in accordance with law.”
Days before the Nov. 1 announcement, China’s Global Times newspaper revealed in detail how foreign intelligence agencies recruit agents to provide secrets.
Citing cases of those arrested for spying, the newspaper said intelligence officers use “cash and emotional manipulation” to get Chinese citizens to spy.
“Retired soldiers, college students, teachers, military enthusiasts, and employees of companies and government bodies whose work relates to national defense are all common targets,” the Oct. 28 report said.
Sources for official leaks also include those who are engaged in handling confidential information at their workplaces; scholars and experts at major scientific institutions or those working as consultants to senior decision-making organs.
“Whoever steals, spies on, or unlawfully supplies State secrets or intelligence to overseas agencies may face punishments up to the death penalty, according to China’s criminal law,” the report bluntly stated in a not-so-subtle warning.
Over 70% of leaked information in China is obtained from the Internet, reflecting the large-scale digitization in China where over 600 million “netizens” are online.
A major source of intelligence for the United States and other countries comes from the vibrant military enthusiasts websites revealing secrets ranging from the new J-20 stealth fighter, to the latest Dong Feng-41 multi-warhead intercontinental ballistic missile.
The Global Times suggested that the wealth of data posted online by military websites may include “top secret information gathered from their friends or relatives working in crucial sectors by bragging about their knowledge online.”
Other online military bloggers photograph military facilities and post the photos online as a way to drive Internet traffic to their blogs and websites.
“Foreign espionage agencies often start by asking people to do simple tasks such as taking photos of attractive scenery and collecting information in the public domain, and then escalate the assignments to include passing on confidential materials and increase the cash offered,” the report said.
In addition to offering cash, recruited Chinese spies also are said to be entrapped into spying through blackmail.
Among the cases cited were four workers at a state-owned defense firm who were arrested in Sichuan Province last July for leaking sensitive information. They were paid $512 a month.
The secrets passed included data on factory production levels and technical details of military equipment.
Another spy was identified as a school official named Peng in Hunan Province who was paid for passing hundreds of journals limited to circulation among domestic higher education institutions and for stealing secrets from state-owned companies.
As part of the counter-intelligence program, details of foreign spying targets were disclosed in December in the magazine Global People, part of the People’s Daily newspaper conglomerate, revealing that foreign military spies are targeting research and development institutions, and military bases involved in aircraft carriers, missiles and war planes.
“As China’s real defense strength grows, the weapons and equipment newly equipped to China’s military and its major military activities are coming under the scrutiny of foreign forces that are anxious to obtain intelligence in this area,” the Dec. 6 article states.
Instead of sending spies to blend in and gather secrets, foreign services are paying local people and foreign residents in China to gather and send secrets, the report said.
According to this report, “illegal survey personnel” from the United States and Japan were discovered several times in recent years spying on missile bases in the Qinling-Daba Mountains of Shaanxi Province.
The surveys are used in developing precision-guided weapons.
Another case involved a Chinese man from Heilongjiang Province who obtained strategic missile information through bribes and passed the data to Taiwan until 2005. Both men were reportedly executed.
In August 2014, a graduate student at a university in Harbin who was a specialist in aerospace systems was arrested for spying after he was recruited by an intelligence officer online who posed as a military enthusiast.
“The military forums found online sometimes become traps set for military enthusiasts,” the report said. “Foreign intelligence agencies will scout out potential informants on these sites. First they will entice them with personal gain by pretending to want to buy pictures, and then they will gradually reel them into the net.”
China’s high-profile anti-spying campaign is a sign Beijing is becoming increasingly worried that its tightly controlled system for keeping secrets is breaking down in the Information Age.
Bill Gertz is a journalist and author who has spent decades covering defense and national security affairs. He is the author of six national security books. Contact him on Twitter at @BillGertz
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