Chinese authorities are offering big rewards - as much as $73,000 in some cases - to people who provide information about foreign spies.
Officials are highlighting the seriousness of the situation, with some saying there is a need to protect national secrets. Others are poking fun at the campaign, which state media are promoting on social media and through a playful cartoon video just days ahead of National Security Education Day.
V meets Spy vs. Spy
In the video, “spies, secret agents and bad guys” are depicted as a colorful combination of Western pop-culture characters such as V, from the movie V for Vendetta, with his Guy Fawkes mask, dementors from the Harry Potter series and Mad Magazine’s Spy vs. Spy.
To report spying foreigners or their accomplices, citizens in the capital can call a hotline, write a letter, or visit the Beijing Municipal Security Bureau in person. The definition of spying is broad and includes any “activity that harms the national security of the People’s Republic of China.”
In many ways, the broad scope of the law and definition of spying are strikingly similar to the charge of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” that authorities frequently use to silence dissent.
In promoting the campaign, examples of spying provided by authorities include stealing or buying state secrets, pointing out targets for enemies, and attempting to turn state employees traitor.
“Informers who play a key role in helping prevent or detect major espionage cases can receive awards of 100,000 to 500,000 RMB ($14,700 to $73,500) … As long as the cases are verified and accurate, informers will be rewarded,” the video promotion explains.
How to catch a spy?
On the streets of Beijing, none of the residents VOA interviewed saw a need for the reward offer.
Some said that it was the duty of citizens to report suspicious behavior, while others doubted the ability of ordinary people to discover spying.
One man surnamed Zhao, who works in legal affairs, said that while the reward was quite large, intelligence authorities were better suited for the work.
“We don’t really know the exact circumstances or why spies would come to China, Zhao said. “Everyday citizens really have no idea about such things, such inside stories. That’s the sort of thing that comes through the investigations of national security departments and other relevant agencies.”
An elderly pharmacist surnamed Zhu said spies are not ordinary types.
“If you don’t understand what’s going on behind the scenes, how could you…?” she asked. “But in general, we’ve all never had any contact with this type of people, that kind of international stuff.”
Another man surnamed Zhang, who works in the travel industry, said people need more awareness about national security.
“There are a lot of spies now (in China). China is developing very fast and the West is on the decline, the East is rising, so spying activities are quite normal.”
More pressing issues
Others pointed to more pressing concerns, like the difficulties of buying a home.
“Most people are more concerned about the basic necessities of life,” said a woman surnamed Xie who works in finance. “Transportation, housing prices, salaries, air quality, whether pollution is severe or not, these are the kinds of things everyday common citizens pay attention to.”
Online, such as on Chinese social media, some called for more focus on corrupt officials and used the hashtag "#Report a spy and get a reward" to call attention to investment scams and other social issues.
One comment in response to a Tencent News article about the rewards said, “Be cool if you run into a spy, first confirm his (her) identity as a spy. Second, ask if he (she) would be willing to repay your mortgage; third, if so willing, take the money and leave, if not, then report them directly!”
On Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblogging service, one user wrote, “This trick would work wonders if it was also used for anti-corruption.”
Others online were more suspicious and fearful.
One said, “I love the country, not the party-state.”
Another saw parallels with the political upheavals of China’s past.
“Feels like [we’re] going back to the days of the Cultural Revolution, a time when everybody felt like they were in danger. Those you dislike were all counter-revolutionary or agents of the America or Chiang [Kai-shek],” the post said.
Hostile foreign forces
The measures come against a backdrop of Beijing’s increasingly active campaign against “hostile foreign forces.” It also comes as China prepares to mark its second National Security Education Day on Saturday, April 15.
Last year’s inaugural day saw a campaign warning of the dangers of spies, including cartoons posted in subway stations cautioning young women on dating handsome young foreigners. The campaign was called “Dangerous Love.”
While there may be concerns and certainly increasing suspicion about foreign actors in China, some analysts have suggested that the campaign could offer justification for increased security and the ongoing civil rights crackdown, especially as the Communist Party prepares to host a major leadership meeting later this year.
As for why Beijing was chosen, the popular government backed daily The Beijing News stated that the capital’s status as the country’s political, cultural, tech innovation and international communication center makes it a top location for foreign spies and hostile forces to harm China.