Red-headed academics, tourists, English teachers, and NGO workers are some of the suspicious figures that Chinese people should beware of befriending, according to a propaganda campaign launched by Chinese authorities.
Posters on the subway in central Beijing alert commuters to some of the danger signs in a campaign to stop people being tricked into spying on their country for a foreign government.
“You can still come back”, the signs say, with photos of a young man and woman, heads bowed. “If you confess with regret, you will not be charged for your wrongs … Your families will never abandon you. Your country will always have your back.” The posters, from Beijing’s national security bureau, include a hotline to call “in dangerous times”.
These kinds of warnings are becoming increasingly common in China. They form part of a national security campaign that critics say is intended to breed mistrust of all things foreign while giving authorities legal cover to tighten their hold on society.
Chinese authorities have always been concerned about “hostile foreign forces.” But in recent years, the country has ramped up a public campaign to recruit citizens to its counter-espionage campaign through hotlines, cash rewards, classes, and an annual “national security awareness” day.
On national security awareness day in April authorities launched a website in English and Chinese for reporting espionage. It released a cartoon warning Chinese citizens to “be on alert for friends who wear masks,” spies who come as tourists, journalists, researchers or diplomats. The cartoon featured a foreign NGO worker teaching a group of Chinese workers about labour unions and encouraging them to protest.
The country’s ministry of education called for national security to be introduced in the school curriculum. Previous campaigns have included a comic depicting a government worker who fell for a red-headed foreign spy pretending to be an academic. A catchy video last year also explained how to report spies to the authorities.
“The campaigns are centred around the idea that ‘everyone is responsible’ for participating in China’s state security. Participation is aimed at preventing, stopping and punishing behaviour that could compromise state security,” said Samantha Hoffman, an analyst focusing on Chinese state security and visiting fellow at the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Germany.
Chinese president Xi Jinping has made national security a core part of his legacy. Under Xi, China has passed a series of national security laws that broaden the government’s already wide remit to investigate and monitor individuals it deems a threat to stability.
Late last year China updated its counter-espionage law to widen definitions of behaviour punishable in the name of security. Foreign individuals or groups can be punished for fabricating, distorting facts, or issuing information that harm China’s national security.
“China has always attached importance to anti-espionage work”, said Wang Hongwei, vice professor at the school of public administration and policy at Renmin University in Beijing. “It will not affect foreigners in China. China is not the only country working on countering espionage. There’s no need to over interpret it,” he said.
Under the new rules, authorities can bar foreigners from entering the country or stop them from leaving China. Chinese media reported in April that an American teacher in Jilin in the north east of the country was deemed a threat to national security and expelled after criticising China’s human rights record.
Human rights groups say China’s state security laws are deliberately vague and allow police to target Chinese citizens and foreigners under “broad provisions” that include everything from working with NGOs to belonging to religious groups.
“These laws target civil society groups as a threat to national security and attempt to create a cloud of suspicion around cooperation between NGOs and individuals inside and outside of China,” said Frances Eve, a researcher for the advocacy group China Human Rights Defenders.
China’s definition of state security is also broad, according to observers. “It is a state security that is not only about internal or external security. It is also about security of the party, both within … and outside where threats lie mostly in the realm of ideas,” said Hoffman.
“The campaigns are a bit like ideological mobilisation that emphasises the responsibility of each person … to uphold the Chinese communist party of China”, she said.
The presence of foreign spies and their recruitment work in China is real. Between 2010 and 2011, at least a dozen CIA sources within China were imprisoned or killed, including one who was shot in front of his colleagues outside of a government building, according to a New York Times report.
Chinese media in 2016 reported that as many as 115,675 foreign spies, mostly from Germany, Japan, and the United States, were operating in China, a figure that continues to circulate but has never been attributed to an official source.
Others say that the campaign against foreign spies is more about distracting from the party’s broad anti-corruption campaign and what many see as the government’s tightening hold over media, academia, and society overall.
“With all that change, [Xi] risks creating a lot of dissatisfaction, so he has to keep people on his side. One surefire way to do that is to make sure you’ve got an ‘other’ as your ‘enemy’ — in this case, foreigners are very handy”, said Merriden Varrall, director of the at the East Asia program at the Lowy Institute in Australia.