HONG KONG — The Chinese Communist Party is increasingly wary of a foreign footprint on Chinese soil, and the paranoid PR campaign it’s waging to raise public awareness of nefarious foreign plots has grown truly bizarre.
Last month, a man named Huang Yu faced judgment in a Chengdu courtroom. He was a computer scientist embedded in a research unit that worked for the Chinese government. The unit’s projects are related to national security.
Huang’s charge? Obtaining state secrets and selling them to a foreign intelligence agency. His sentence? Death.
Shortly after the conviction, party media aired a TV special that provided some details about his crimes, the consequences, and his trial. In the program, Huang was described as a man who went from being a “little employee” to a “big spy.”
The saga began in 2002, when, apparently, Huang reached out to “spy agencies” by contacting them online. It wasn’t long before he was being paid $5,000 per month by foreign elements, with occasional bonuses. Over a period of 13 years, Huang met with “foreign intelligence agents” 21 times to leak 150,000 documents, including 90 that contained “confidential state secrets.” His total compensation, according to the televised report, totaled $700,000.
The television program included testimony from Huang’s former colleagues, who suggested that he was never suitable for the job, that he was not dependable, that he was an average worker with a bad attitude. To complete the checklist of elements in current Chinese propaganda videos, Huang himself was placed before a camera to confess his crimes.
After Huang was arrested, 29 employees in his former unit also received varying degrees of punishment. His wife and brother-in-law are serving five-year and three-year prison sentences, respectively.
Huang’s case was aired as part of a media campaign rolled out for China’s first National Security Education Day on April 19 that often—though accidentally—turned comic.
In a video released online to educate the public about China’s Counter-Espionage Law, for instance, a narrator says, “Recently, our security sector has worked hard to arrest a group of strange people who clamored to be our friends, including James Bond, Tom Cruise, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Jason Bourne, and Mr. Bean!”
What? This joke isn’t just lost in translation. It’s perfectly flat in the original as well.
Another episode features Marvel and DC superheroes and villains as it demands that Chinese citizens identify potential foreign spies who may have infiltrated their communities and workplaces.
The medium did not match the message, however, and the intended viewers quickly pointed out the irony: if foreign influence is toxic and hostile, why use movie and comic characters created by Americans and Britons to draw in viewers?
Beijing’s Xicheng district, a financial center that is also home to many foreigners who work in the Chinese capital, saw a different kind of blitz.
A poster comic titled Dangerous Love uses 14 frames to trace the journey of a young, brown-haired civil servant named Xiao Li: She attends a dinner party hosted by an expat, falls in love with him, then, like Huang Yu, leaks confidential documents to him. Once the man of her dreams disappears, Xiao Li is arrested by the police for aiding a foreign spy.
In two final frames, police officers regurgitate paragraphs of legalese relevant to Xiao Li’s circumstances, warning readers of lengthy jail sentences if they provide information to foreign groups.
In fact, last November, Chinese security officials set up a hotline for citizens to report the activities of potential foreign agents. Want to file a report? Dial 12339.
While it is rare for China to announce publicly the arrests of potential spies, a few high-profile cases have been reported during the presidency of Xi Jinping. Last May, China detained two Japanese nationals—one near a military facility close to Shanghai, and another near China’s border with North Korea. A few months before that, a Canadian couple who operated a coffee shop in Dandong, a city along the northeastern border, were also detained on suspicion of stealing state secrets. The couple is affiliated with a Christian group that provides humanitarian aid to North Koreans.
Foreign businesses and non-governmental organizations are having a tougher time in China, too.
On March 10, new rules kicked in to regulate the online content of foreign firms. The language is hazy, and it is unclear how the policy will be enforced as its scope covers only servers located in China, but the rules did state that online media of all forms—text, video, audio, games—must serve the people, promote socialism, and do no harm to Chinese national interests. In particular, the “spreading of rumors,” an accusation often hurled at political dissidents, is banned.
In April, Chinese web censors blocked the iTunes movies and iBooks services offered by Apple Inc.
Later that month, the Chinese government passed a new law to allow security forces control over foreign NGOs operating within mainland China. Again, the law’s language is murky, stating that foreign NGOs are not allowed to engage in political or religious activities, or act in a way that damages Chinese ethnic unity. It will come into effect on the first day of 2017.
The paranoia extends to preparation for armed conflict with an unnamed foe.
This month, the Chinese military released a rap-rock recruitment video that states “war can break out at any time,” and that the armed forces are “waiting for the order to kill, kill, kill.” The CCP’s sole aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, is featured prominently.
The Chinese navy’s latest recruits are fishermen based on Hainan Island. Reuters reports that the fishing fleet is receiving four months of military training, beginning in May. They are being drilled for search and rescue operations, and are developing skills to “safeguard Chinese sovereignty.” They will also receive subsidies for fuel and ice. In return, the fishermen are charged with the task of gathering information on foreign vessels that appear in waters near Chinese shores. Some Chinese fishing vessels carry small arms.
The same report quotes an adviser to the Hainan government: “The maritime militia is expanding because of the country’s need for it, and because of the desire of the fishermen to engage in national service, protecting our country’s interests.”
All of this does not suggest the Chinese public is on the same page as the CCP. Dangerous Love and the cartoons that were produced for Beijing’s National Security Education Day were largely ignored, or even derided. The rap-rock military recruitment video likely won’t lead to increased enlistment, as young Chinese citizens typically have no interest in joining the armed forces. And yet these productions, including Huang Yu’s confession video, reflect how the CCP communicates its self-image: The party thinks it is constantly under attack, and it struggles against foreign infiltration. The implications may be unsettling, as China continues its military buildup in the South China Sea. To paraphrase a famous truism, even paranoids make enemies.